The Topps Game Within the Game project began in 2020 and runs through 2022. The first run was 12 unique drawing cards sold on demand for $7.99 each month on the Topps website. The amount of each card sold determines circulations. Also available are 10-by-14-inch specialty prints numbered to 99 and a print hand-numbered to 1 of each painting. Paul Janis is the artist who brings the players to life.
Janice captures a small action pose against a large portrait image to capture the essence of each player. One of his goals is to depict something that has never been on a baseball card, such as the image of Jackie Robinson shaking Branch Rickey’s hand after signing his historic contract with the Dodgers. The action pose for Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 piece shows him throwing and hitting. Randy Johnson’s intensity shows on his card as he looks down at you over his glove in the background while he fires a fastball with his recognizable growl in the foreground.
So far, the 2022 series Wader Franco card has the largest print run of more than 24,000 copies. Second place isn’t even close. That would be 2022 Julio Rodriguez with 11,046. Third is 2021 Ohtani with 7,572.
New for 2022 are the special foil cards, limited to 99 copies. They are sent randomly.
We spoke to Janice about his background in creating the paintings and the popularity of cards in the hobby. He shared his creative process and described how the artwork has evolved since the 2020 series. He also runs a Facebook group for kit fans and collectors, posting announcements, contests and photos of his work.
Beckett Media: What has your experience been as an artist, seeing your work turned into trading cards?
Paul Janis: “It was interesting to come into this collectible sports market. As much as I knew about the sport and baseball in general, I wasn’t that familiar with some of the current players and some of the rookie cards and who was important. So I started more on my own. As for the visual presentation, we kept the little player with the action shot, and then the big portrait, which allowed me to focus on the likeness — the kind of power, the swing, the pitch, whatever it was — remained the focus for the little player.”
BM: How has the artwork evolved since the 2020 debut?
P.J.: “In terms of style development, the first year was little more than Leroy Nieman explosive smear all over the place. The second year became more of a soft-focus background, making the player pop out a bit more three-dimensional. And this year it’s even more three-dimensional. We choose images with higher contrast. I tried to make them pop off the page.
“I still keep the color elements I started from freshman year in the soft-focus background. In the beginning it was more what was behind the player. This year I use these circles to help me compose and feel the player’s energy. I tried to use those colors that are in the player’s uniforms and skin and really compose the art around that. I want the image to pop off the page. I want to keep adding new elements and evolving, but I want it to be a natural progression.”
BM: Can you walk us through the process of selecting the images and creating the paintings?
PJ: “When we finally decide on the names, I go through all the photos, which is usually 100 pages of photos. There are two things I’m looking for. I’m looking for one that captures a certain look of the player, whether it’s intensity or a smile. Also, things that aren’t bad imperfections – ones that don’t have ugly shadows on them. It must be a clean photo. There is no such thing as a perfect photo.
“After I’ve picked, say, 30 photos, I take them into Photoshop and go through them again, I narrow it down to maybe five or six. From there, if there’s one I particularly like, I make sure it doesn’t have any bad imperfections. This year I’m looking for high contrast. Then I’ll make some adjustments of my own if it’s a bad shade or something just isn’t right.
“Sometimes I’ll run it through Tony [Bianchini] and my creative director, I get their feedback. But at the end of the day, I’m the one who actually makes the final decision. Because I know from a drawing point of view, visually, which one will work best anyway. Then I compose it in Photoshop. I find a small figure that will work in this composition. This year you’ll notice that the smaller player has been scaled up more and has no flash action. So you get a bit more of a better likeness of the smaller player because the head is bigger so I can get the details.
“I’m composing this, along with some background elements. Once I have that, it’s a photo sketch that I usually compose in Photoshop and send to my creative director. Once he gives me the green light, then do the painting, but there’s a lot of preliminary work that’s done right before that. The drawing part isn’t easy, it’s hard, but the hardest part is making sure I get the right choice, the composition, something interesting, maybe something a little different. All this is done in the preliminary work. This drawing is not automatic. I would say that the preliminary work is just as important as the finish of the painting itself.”
BM: The first cards in the 2020 series had a white border, but the 2021 and 2022 cards are full-size images. What was the thinking behind this?
PJ: “I will definitely give full credit to Tony for that. This was one of the first things he mentioned as it looks like such a fine piece of art that the quality of the colors and the work itself would look so much better if it was done on a glossy full print card. It looks like a small picture they were getting. We tried to see if we could do it on the art print, but it wasn’t possible for that. But I think it’s beautiful. It just makes the color come alive. I’m really happy about that.”