First Look: John's New Bird Deck of Cards, "Popinjay"

Dear Artiphans,

John is working on a new project: a deck of bird-inspired playing cards which is scheduled to be completed and available for our customers in the spring. Today, we’re sharing a behind-the-scenes story about this work-in-progress, from inspiration to execution.

The idea for John’s new deck has been brewing for sometime, and finally became a fully fledged endeavor late last year, when a little birdie whispered in John’s ear (or rather, inbox) that there were bird-lovers out there who’d be mighty interested in a pack dedicated to their flighty friends, and would gobble it up if it was made. So, the intrepid artist set to work...and quickly realized the task was not as simple as he had imagined.

“It’s a steeper challenge than the other decks I’ve done,” John explains. “The front facing attitude of dogs and cats is much more like a human face than a bird’s is, so it's bit tricky.” By choosing to feature birds that are intrinsically full of personality, however, John's been able to circumnavigate this snag. The owl, a bird that is often bestowed with human-like characteristics or extra-human intelligence in literature and film, is the current resident of the club cards. From their branches, the owls gaze out through club-shaped peepers and into our very soul. On the bright and busy cards of the heart suit, meanwhile, hummingbirds flitter back and forth, their wings blurred and their beaks deep in the nectar of two-petalled blooms.

John has chosen birds, in other words, that, bird lover or not, people will recognize and connect with. The birds of our everyday lives. “I want to include common backyard birds because they’re already familiar to me and my audience,” John explains. Barn owls and Steller’s jays, two of the artist’s personal favorites, will also feature.

After choosing his cast of characters, John had to find a way to make these animals speak to anyone who picked up a deck. For a pack of Artiphany cards to be a success, each card has to be able to stand alone, as a miniature work of art. But also as something more, something that will keep the card players flipping card after card just for fun: “I always keep in mind that every card should tell a story because that's what makes these decks memorable.”

So, John went back to the basics. Why are birds so fascinating to humans? Why are they fun to observe and listen to and keep as pets? “I ran through various avian activities in my mind like navigation, bathing, singing, and nesting to inform how I might depict these humanized versions of birds,” he says. “I have a songbird performing on the stage of a music hall in front of a rapt audience of cats which I think will make a great card. A bird singing in the bathwater of a bird bath should make a good one as well.”


This project has brought up more technical challenges for John as well. “Since birds come in all colors (brilliant yellow, cobalt blue, red) it also means that I have to depart from the usual color scheme of black/red/grey/white I've been using for the other decks,” he says. While this may break the mold of John’s current playing card collection—with exception, perhaps of Mermaid Queen—and while it may require the artist to spend more time and effort with each card, the result is quite spectacular. The colors bring a movement and warmth to the images and life to their subjects.

When he first set down the path of this project, John found that he was in need of some visual guidance—and found what he was looking for in the timeless works of John Audubon and Katsushika Hokusai. “John Audubon took the scientist's approach to his compendium of bird pictures,” John says about these two sources of inspiration. “Hokusai seems much more a poet than a scientist. It turns out they were alive at the same time but in two different worlds, the U.S. and Japan at the end of the 18th century.”

a sketch by Hokusai 

a painting by John James Audubon

What John says hits the nail on the head. Audubon’s work, while brilliant in both color and detail, seems much more official, much more sterile than the raucous, sensual depictions of flight and feathers in Hokusai’s prints. For this new deck, John knew that he had to bring together these dichotomous approaches. The images needed to be recognizable, not lost in the generic depiction of “bird,” but also humanized, relatable, and full of movement.

As his project progresses, John will doubtless run into new road-blocks….around every turn. It comes with the territory of creating something, from nothing. But this is the place in which he thrives: translating the lives of creatures into visual stories, fables, and jokes. “It's always a challenge to tell a ten picture story within the Ace to 10 sequence which has a beginning middle and end,” John says, “but I think I have that part solved.”

The working title for John’s new deck is Popinjay, a useful word that blends the animal world with that most human of characteristics, vanity. The deck is scheduled to hit Artiphany's virtual shelves this spring. Stay tuned for more updates on John’s progress, and more peaks from inside the deck itself.

Now get off your computers and tablets and phones and out to the dog park! All of you! Don't make me bark at you!

Love and dog bones,


Man’s Best Friend & Chief Communications Officer                                                                       (Personal Motto: Live Life Off Leash)