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Mastering the Art of Gum Stick Baseball Card Portraits

When I originally brainstormed my gum stick artwork, I was thrilled by the new concept. As a kid growing up in the 80's, the last card inside a pack would often get stuck to, or stained by, the piece of gum inside. I was an 8-year-ol expert on this topic: I spent the summer of '85 opening wax packs and chewing hard sticks of bubble gum on a daily basis.

My plan was to recreate these fond memories of my childhood by reversing this effect. Instead of the gum sticking to the card, and leaving a stained imprint... I would imprint the card on the gum. In reality, the imprint left on the gum should be inversed, but that could make the artwork hard to decipher. So, I would paint them in their normal orientation.

On eBay, I found a listing for a few old Topps wax packs from '87... so I ordered them to study the gum inside. I wanted to measure the exact size of the gum stick to create the proper composition of how the card would be imprinted onto its cropped shape. I also needed to examine its texture, in order to develop a paint technique to replicate it. 

1986 Topps Traded Barry Bonds Gum Stick painting by baseball card artist Matthew Lee Rosen

My intent was to focus on the backs of the cards. I've always enjoyed the print designs of the stats, with their simple 2 or 3-color compositions. Plus, often enough... the gum would get stuck to the back (depending on how the cards were packed).

I planned to use the symbolism of the gum stain to represent the tarnished careers of steroid users like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco.

The gum I measured varied slightly in size from the manufacturing process, but I determined it to be .75" x 2.25"... a 1-to-3 size ratio. I then purchased some 12" x 36" pieces of plywood and an edge router. The hard plywood provides an ideal surface for my stencil process, and I wanted to bevel the edges to create a more realistic gum stick shape. Plus, creating on wood is a nod to the game's bats that I've been carrying throughout my artwork.

My first piece was the back of Barry Bonds' 1986 Topps Traded rookie card. The front of that card pictures a young, skinny, pre-steroid Barry in a Pirates jersey. The back details his early career stats along with his height (6'1") and weight (185 lbs).

However, with my love for the iconic card design elements from the junk wax era, I couldn't stop myself from moving on to the front side of the cards. I made some of my favorites, including the hockey-stick like stripes on the '82 Topps design and my beloved All-Star Rookie cup.

Mark McGwire 1988 Topps All-Star Rookie - Baseball card art by Matthew Lee Rosen

After sharing many of my gum stick creations, an Instagram pal of mine, fellow artist Peter Chen, suggested that I do player portraits of the cards.

At first, I sort of scoffed at the idea. Portraiture wasn't really my thing. All of my artwork has been inspired by the design elements of the cards to celebrate their pop culture. That was my focus and my wheelhouse. Plus, there's already a number of baseball artists who do portraits in various styles like Peter himself, who makes Jumbotron art. I'd also been connecting on social media with Graig Kreindler and Sean Kane, who are both fantastic, photo-realistic painters. 

Art gallery wall of giant gum stick baseball card artwork by Matthew Lee Rosen

But, as I gave it more thought, instead of just dismissing it... I viewed Peter's suggestion as a good challenge to expand my work. Within a day or two, I began to conceptualize some designs. If I was going to do a card portrait, I thought I'd start with:

    1. A favorite card design element: the bold and colorful Napoli Serial font on the top of the 1986 Topps set.
    2. An iconic player photo: Bo Jackson's Topps Traded rookie card image, which highlights his Greek god-like physique by showing off his incredibly-thick neck.

For my first attempt at portraiture, I was quite pleased with the result. The stencil shape that I created in Adobe Illustrator had imperfect, jagged edges... which worked very nicely to imprint onto the powdery gum texture. I thought it created a realistic effect of how the print image could get transferred or stuck onto the gum.

It was however, my first and only portrait. I knew that if I wanted to improve... I'd have to make more. Plus, I couldn't just have one portrait on the gallery wall by itself! It needed to be in a grouping with others for a great display.

Art gallery wall of giant gum stick baseball card art by Matthew Lee Rosen

For my second attempt, I chose Gary Sheffield's 1989 Topps Future Star.

I had always wanted to do something with the Future Star logo, and I was most fond of the version Topps created for the '89 set. The font was much more pleasing than its predecessors from '87-88, and the gradient would be a new challenge to create.

Using the same technique, Sheffield turned out nicely with a bit more contrast than Bo. Overall, I was very pleased with my process. So, it was time to create one more. I had a Reggie Jackson concept on file for a while, and thought it was about time to bring Mr. October to life. 

1977 Topps Reggie Jackson gum stick baseball card artwork by Matthew Lee Rosen

The results for my 1977 Topps Reggie Jackson raised the bar.

Topps had used a photo of Reggie with the Orioles in '76 to make the '77 card. His image needed to be airbrushed (in the days before Photoshop and Traded sets) to picture him in his new uniform with the Yankees. Keeping in mind the story behind the card, I wanted to capture the airbrushing in my portrait. It resulted in, somewhat accidentally, of parts of my stencil shape being faded into the gum texture. It was a happy accident!

Admiring my results, I realized that unlike the first two portraits, which had sharp lines and contrast... Reggie's looked more like an imperfect ink transfer. It was by far a better piece of artwork than my previous attempts.

Gum stick baseball card portraits by Matthew Lee Rosen

Hanging them on the wall together left me no choice. I had to go back and re-apply Reggie's results to Bo and Gary. 

I took the brush techniques that made Reggie look so good, and re-applied them to enhance Bo and Gary. After now completing 3 portraits, I've experimented... learned... and created a technique that I'm very satisfied with. As always, my work will continue to evolve, but this is an excellent standard for baseball card gum stick portraits.

Thank you for reading an original thought by baseball card artist Matthew Lee Rosen. The photograph featured for this blog post is a detailed image of my Reggie Jackson '77 Topps Gum Stick. You can also like it on my Instagram. Learn more about me by visiting my other sites: fortheartofit. & Matthew Lee Rosen.

 

 


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