The Playing Arts people

I'm no artist, but I just love looking at art. I'm fortunate that some of my family members are accomplished artists, some even professionally, so from time to time I get opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the results of their artistic talents and craft.

Certainly there are a lot of decks of playing cards that are artistic, but what happens if we combine them with true art, with commissioned pieces from actual artworks? That's the concept of the Playing Arts series, which has now produced five decks of playing cards. Playing Arts was organized by the same people behind Digital Abstracts, which is an online web design and digital art blog based in Spain. It specializes in news, interviews, trends, and features about creativity and innovation in the world of art and design.

The Playing Arts project

The concept began with the idea of collaborating with other artists, with the goal of creating a deck of cards featuring different artists from around the world, with each commissioned to design a single playing card. Yes, every single card - not just the court cards - is a separate and complete work of art, and was created by a different artist! If you've ever wondered why only the court cards got to have great artwork, and that the number cards have long suffered a lack of exposure to great art, then this is a deck for you!

Thus the Playing Arts project was set into motion. The project itself is self-described as follows: "Playing Arts is a collective art project that gathers designers and illustrators from all over the world with an idea to express their vision of an ordinary playing card using personal styles, techniques and imagination."

Most of their decks of playing cards were produced through Kickstarter, with more than 1000 supporters on board to help fund the first edition, known officially as "Edition One", and produced in 2014. Edition Two was produced in 2015, while 2016 saw the production of two decks: Edition Three and Special Edition, the latter being the result of a design competition in which any artists from around the world could participate, with the winning entries being featured in the deck.

Each deck thus is created with the same basic formula: individual designs from 55 different artists are combined into a single deck. Here's how the Playing Arts team explains the concept in their own words: "We have always been inspired by the outstanding works of illustrators and designers featured on our resource, so we came up with an idea to mix their differences in a single project. The idea of the project is to create a unique deck of poker playing cards where each card is individually designed by a different international artist. From the two of clubs to the ace of diamonds, each of 55 participants has illustrated a single card in their own individual style and technique. The project is called Playing Arts and each year we invite 55 designers and illustrators from all over the world to collaborate with us. Their particular styles and techniques convert a simple deck of cards in eclectic pocket-sized art gallery that can be shuffled and played."

The Playing Arts praise

It's obvious from the results that the project has been an enormous success. When artwork for the project was first published online, it received was received very positively worldwide. The project was featured by numerous design blogs and magazines, and quickly was enjoying an overwhelming amount of success and support on social media as well. The official website for the project has a lengthy list of positive reviews and enthusiastic endorsements from pleased customers. I'll reproduce a few here, to give some sense of what people are saying about these decks; positive comments like these should encourage you to check out the rest of this feature review!

"These are the most beautiful and eclectic, yet minimalistic collection of cards in my collection." - Tamera Robinson
"The deck was very creative and artistic. I have been waiting for a deck like this for a long time." - Peter Marotta
"Perfect present for anyone who plays cards or into art overall. Feels unique!" - Mikhail Saparov
"The quality of the card stock, the printing and the artwork itself were all spectacular." - Kimberly Hanrahan-Havern
"Bold yet intricate details. Great colors and fun to show off to friends." - Michel Pham
"A magnificent collection of cards to be considered treasured and cherished. This deck is pure art in every sense of its existence. Such a masterpiece." - Robert Prueter
"Bold and striking, understated elegance in a nutshell. Made for a pleasing conversation over cribbage." - William Lawson
"Art is beautiful and varied across every card, truly a joy to look at and use." - Dan Griffin
"There are few 'perfect for anyone' gifts out there, but these are definitely one!" - Amanda Hollingworth
"Really impressed - a great gift to my art teacher friend." - Elaine Keane
"These cards are the most freaking delicious thing my eyes ever'd seen." - Marco Schiebel
"Playing Arts is sophisticated, funny, rich and just plain gorgeous. I’ve collected artist decks for decades, and this is a stunner!" - Tim Johnson
"High quality, Extremely well designed. Would recommend for any card collectors or art buffs." - Tin Le
"Absolutely excellent project." - Greig Henning
“If you’d like to add an artistic touch to your next Poker game, you’ll absolutely love these playing cards by Digital Abstracts.” — Holy Cool

So let's run through the decks that have been produced as a result of this project, by involvements of artists like those pictured below, and show you some of the stunning cards!


It wasn't the first time that the Digital Abstracts team had tried a project like this. Prior to the Kickstarter project that crowdfunded the "Edition One" deck, they had engaged 54 artists to create a deck called "Creative Cards".

This received a lot of positive feedback, and prompted them to attempt this on a bigger scale. Now dubbed Edition Zero, the original deck is completely sold out, although a limited edition of this deck was re-released as an add-on when the initial Kickstarter was funded.

The unusual design of the card-backs was created by young Georgian illustrator and graphic designer Giga Kobidze, while the Ace of Clubs shown here was work of David Delin, a self-taught French artist from Nantes.

Some of the cards, like both of the Hearts shown here, are semi-transformational designs, that incorporate the shape of the pips as part of the artwork.

Others feature the pips in other striking ways as elements of the artwork.

And yes, there are certainly colourful cards included as well, like these somewhat psychodelic diamonds.


Edition One was produced in 2014 with the help of crowdfunding on Kickstarter.

The back design of this deck is by Russian Evgeny Kiselev, whose aim was to create something striking and eye-catching.

With the Ace of Hearts, artist Mr Kone offers a reinterpretation of love that includes death, as he explains "we love all things and passionately believe that love is a feeling so passionate that we could even die for that reason."

Swedish artist Mattias Adolfsson feels that low cards like the Two of Spades typically don't get much love and care, so he has created a traditional look that nonetheless shows a tender treatment.

Meanwhile Brazilian artist Fernando Chamarelli has experiences with cartoons, street art, and tattoo; all influences which show up in his depiction for the Three of Clubs.

The Three of Hearts depicts a good friend of freelance illustrator Mercedes deBellard of Spain.

Fab Ciraolo has also used a portrait for the Five of Diamonds.

The deck is populated with colourful characters, like Ecuador's Yema Yama's playful take on the Two of Diamonds.

Sebastien Feraut's Vengeance character for the Jack of Spades also has a playful and creative character.

Here's an uncut sheet showing all the cards from this deck:


Edition Two was produced in 2015.

Danny Ivan from Portugal is responsible for the back design, which he explains as follows: "The idea was create a vibrant, colourful, energetic abstract artwork which represents the connections of the card game, I tried to represent the interaction between the players and the cards with swirls, lines and some geometry."

The Ace of Diamonds reflects American designer Joshua Davis' abstract style, and his fixation on codes and triangulation.

Here are a couple of the court cards, starting with Sara Blake's Queen of Spades, which features what appears to be some kind of queen bee in a spade-shaped.

Raphael Vincenzi's Queen of Clubs is intended to depict a woman like a timeless queen in a forgotten city.

Zutto of Russia has combined the infinity symbol with a hillside road in a futuristic landscape to create a metaphor of an endless journey on the Eight of Clubs.

Meanwhile Rubens Scarelli of Brazil specializes in characters and comics, and offers a playful character for his card, the Eight of Spades.

Here's an example of some symbolism, with the design studio FOREAL capturing the idea of overcoming of self in the Four of Diamonds. Individuals must overcome their egos and work together, and when reflecting on each other's ideas we become complete, which is symbolized by the reflections creating a diamond shape. Now that's profound!

For the Nine of Diamonds, Russian Viktor Miller-Gausa has created a complex college of different images into a single unit.

Other artists featured in this deck include Jonathan Calugi, Maria Gronlund, Anton Repponen, Sakiroo, Zutto, Marcelo Schultz, Stavros Damos, YoAz, STUDIO BLUP, and many more.


Edition Three was produced in 2016, again with the help of a Kickstarter project.

For the back design of Edition Three, Juan Diaz-Faes wanted to incorporate elements of his Spanish drawing style, fused with the reality that this is a French deck.

The Ace of Clubs is by Omaraqil from Pakistan, who wanted to combine elements from Native American culture, and convey something of their cultural shapes and vibrant colours.

Juan Diaz-Faes (creator of the back design) also created the playful Joker depicted below.

The exuberantly coloured King of Diamonds is a Mexican creation by illustrator Raul Urias from Skinpop Studio.

As we've seen previously already, several of the number cards use the suit or the number as a central motif around which the rest of the picture is created. In making the Five of Clubs, Justin Poulter discovered that this card symbolizes someone with a keen sense of inquiry, who has a constant need to discover new things and to travel; his aim was to convey something of the negative aspects of this (e.g. jealousy) as well as its positive aspects.

The team from the UK's Inkration Studio took the concept of a guardian of the Four of Spades to create their image.

Bram Vanhaeren aims to reward those with careful observation by masterfully combining both a number and a woman in his Five of Hearts.

I really love the technique that Greek visual designer Charis Tsevis has used to create the stunning image used for the Six of Spades.

Other invited artists that participated with the creation of this deck included Joshua Davis, Justin Maller, Mike Perry, Alessandro Pautasso, Bradley GMUNK Munkowitz and Jonny Wan.


Edition Three wasn't the only deck produced in 2016, because the project had developed enough interest worldwide at this point, that it became feasible to run a design contest, in which artists from around the world could participate, with the winning entries being included in the final deck of this Special Edition. A total of 537 artists from 67 countries joined in, each being asked to create an artwork for one particular card in their own distinct style and technique.

Once again they have opted to go with a rather psychedelic choice for the back design, by Sebastian Onufszak from Germany.

The Ace of Hearts depicts a space-style landscape, complete with a rocket passing through.

I love how the cards shown here incorporate pip shapes into the design, with a tiny pips hanging down the face of the Queen of Hearts.

Similarly the diamond shape is very prominent throughout the design of the King of Diamonds.

I just love the portrait used on this next cards, the Ten of Spades, which cleverly works ten spades into the hairstyle.

If you look carefully, you'll see that the Queen of Clubs is actually a plant with a club style shape, and rose petal hairstyle.

Among my favourite cards from this deck is the beautifully detailed Two of Clubs by Hong Kong artist Bonnie Pang.

I also love Elia S. Martin's flamingo inspired Two of Spades.

As for these next two cards, their symbolism is both intriguing and puzzling. First of all there's the Two of Diamonds which has a swan imprisoned between some paint-covered fingers in a V-shape.

The Five of Spades has two pigs on a balance beam leaping for donuts. I love this picture but have no clue what it means. Any ideas about what these artists are trying to convey?

The non-winning entries (usually there were around ten entries for each card) were still published on the project's web-page, and can be seen by scrolling down to the bottom of the Special Edition web-page, and clicking on the individual card.

For example, here are all the entries for the Nine of Clubs:

It's hard to pick a favourite, but if I had to pick just one deck, perhaps it would be this one, the Special Edition.


The Playing Arts project isn't over, and there is even opportunity to participate in future editions. It will be exciting to see what great contributions will be part of the next edition of this wonderful project.

Are you an artist, and do you want to participate? To be considered to take part in the next version of this deck, you'll need to submit your profile, including a link to a portfolio of your work, which you can do from this page:


Eclectic choices: If I had a criticism about these decks, it would be that they don't have a unified theme. It does feel like a very eclectic mix of artwork, without anything specific that binds all the separate artworks together except for the fact that they have a common home in the same deck. But I don't think this matters too much, because this is also part of the appeal of the deck as well. It helps ensure that the deck has a broad appeal; otherwise there's always a risk that a deck will only appeal to a certain group of people. The broad mix means that even if you don't like some cards, there's certain to be others that you do. Furthermore there is a unity in terms of the overall graphic design, with indices that have a unified style, and this keeps the entire deck feeling like a complete unity, despite the eclectic choices, and this proved to be less of an issue than I first thought.

Creative designs: The more you look at the individual artworks, the more you start to notice. In most cases the artists have put a tremendous amount of thought into their designs, and you'll be rewarded with more insights the more you study them. For example, one of the Ace of Spades has a pirate theme, but only when looking carefully did I notice that the Ace itself was inspired by a skull-and-crossbones design. It's details like these that you can't help but appreciate. And because there's a wide range of different styles of artwork, there's also a very wide range of designs, which exhibit creativity in different ways. It really is an absolute pleasure to look through and study all the cards carefully! More than once I've seen groups of people just looking at the cards, and sharing insights and ideas about the artwork, and enjoying them together.

Semi-transformational: I'm a big fan of transformational decks, which is where the pips of a card are somehow incorporated into the design of the overall picture. These decks don't classify as transformational or semi-transformational decks, since the majority of the cards don't use this feature. But I do like the fact that it is present in quite a number of the cards, and that the artists have in some clever way tried to work with either the shape of the suit, or the number of pips, and have incorporated that into the artwork itself.

Functional: Although the art is very varied, the cards themselves are very functional. The indices are clearly marked so that they are very readable, where necessary with white space added to the corner for this purpose, and yet a minimalist font ensures that they don't detract too much from the artwork either. As a result, when fanning the cards in your hand, you can still easily and quickly see the value and suit of the cards you're holding. Even though it is effectively a miniature art gallery, you can still definitely use this to play games without trouble. I've seen many other creative custom decks that are beautiful, but simply not playable, for example if the suits aren't clearly distinguished, or if the indices are more artistic than usable. That's not the case here, and it is a very playable deck. We've used these decks to play some variations of whist, and had a great time, being able to play, and yet enjoy the artwork at the same time.

Vibrant: There are other decks available which have artwork by different artists on each card, the Ultimate Deck from Dan & Dave probably being the most well-known example. While I do really love the Ultimate Deck, it is somewhat more sinister and dark in tone, and the majority of the cards have sepia colours or backgrounds, and there's a lot of black-and-white images, and at times even dark themes, with numerous skulls and bones featuring throughout the deck. While there are a few cards like that in the Playing Arts decks, the majority of the cards feature a fresh white canvas as the backdrop, and that already ensures some consistency, and a more bright feeling. In addition, by far the majority of the art has bright and vibrant colours, evoking a more exuberant feeling, where energy and life is just bursting from the cards. These are very happy and positive cards for the most part.

Cardistry: The striking patterns on the back of these decks make them ideal for cardistry. Fans and spreads look amazing, and if you do have the dexterity to do flips and twirls, these decks look terrific to play with for that purpose. When I first saw the card-backs first-hand, I thought some of them looked a little garish, but they have grown on me when using them, and the bright colours and patterns makes them really look nice when spreading and fanning them in different directions. Someone I know performs cardistry on a regular basis, and just loved these decks, especially the circular design on the back of Edition One, which was particularly well-suited for cardistry.

Card quality: All the decks are printed by the US Playing Card Company, on Bicycle paper stock, so the quality matches that of any other deck you'd expect from USPCC. They fan nicely (and the design on the card backs means that a fan or spread looks great!), and they handle and shuffle beautifully.

Website: The Playing Arts team has an amazing website, and I can't say enough positive things about it. They have clear images of every single card in every single deck. You read that right. Every single deck ... every single card! So this means that you can just head to their website, and check out exactly what all the cards in a deck will look like. You can see in advance exactly what you'll get, and you know exactly what you are ordering.

Artist insights: One thing I really appreciate about this project is that the individual artists were given opportunity to explain the thinking behind the creative process that produced their particular artwork. This was originally published on a daily basis, as the decks were slowly revealed, and progress shared with backers. But all of this material is still available online at the Playing Arts website to read for all the cards of each deck. This really enhances appreciation of the art, and helps understand the different elements that contribute to the final image.

Series: I also like the fact that this is a series, and that the team behind this project have given all the decks a similar style and approach. It ensures that all the decks look somewhat the same. Even the tuck-boxes have a similar design, and this also means that they look great together on the shelf. The only downside of this is that it's hard to just pick one or two - you'll want to get them all!

Consistent: It would be hard to pick which is my favourite deck, and there's good variety between them. I gave all of the four available decks to two artists, and asked which one they liked best. One liked Edition One and Edition Three the best, while the other liked the Special Edition best, and also favoured Edition Two. So this means that it's actually very difficult to say which of these decks is best - they are all good, and none is objectively weaker than any other. If you have to make a choice, you might want to decide on which card-backs you like best. But each of them is a solid collection, and comparable in quality to the others.

Great gifts: I got several of these decks to give away as gifts for some family members who are artists. They just loved them, and each had their own favourites! Given their personal interest in the world of art, they had a heightened appreciation of all the individual contributions, and really enjoyed looking through the separate cards. Even if they never use them to play games, it was a great and unique gift. But having said that, more than a few of the non-artist people who saw them receive these gifts looked on rather enviously, and said that they'd love a copy of their own for playing cards, and to enjoy while doing traditional card games. So they definitely have a very broad appeal, and make good gifts.

Where do you get them?

If you're interested in picking up some of these playing cards for yourself, or as gifts for your friends and family, head to the official website for the Collective Arts Project. They cost just over $16 each, although Playing Arts does offer a substantial discount if you buy a whole set, consisting of all four decks that are currently available; the entire set goes for around $50. Uncut sheets are also available, and if ever there was a deck for which an uncut sheet was a good option, it's something like this one!


Are the decks from the Playing Arts project for you? These decks have added a lot of colour and interest to our games of traditional cards in recent times, and they have also generated a lot of interesting discussion following our games. They're fantastic to just enjoy as works of art, or as an interesting change-up from a regular deck of cards in a game. And they've certainly been well-received by friends and family as gifts. I look forward to seeing the next edition in this series, and especially if you enjoy art, definitely you'll want to take a closer look to see if these are a good choice for you!

Want to learn more? Collective Art Project:

Direct links for the decks featured in this review:
Edition Zero:
Edition One:
Edition Two:
Edition Three:
Special Edition:

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Amy (Other Amy)
United States
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Wow! Will be keeping an eye out for the next Kickstarter.
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amyotheramy wrote:
Wow! Will be keeping an eye out for the next Kickstarter.

I'm happy to report that the latest Kickstarter is up, and it's for a reprint of the Edition Zero deck.

But this time they've added a remarkable feature: the ability to animate the cards with the help of an augmented reality app!

See full details and information here:

Kickstarter: Playing Arts ZERO - Playing cards illustrated and animated in Augmented Reality

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