FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Russian designer Natalia Silva
The beautiful women from Russia that secret service agent James Bond encounters are invariably spies - at least during the Cold War era.
Fortunately, we now live in more congenial and peaceful times. Women from Russia can still be beautiful, but the one that we're going to meet today is an artist. Meet graphic designer Natalia Silva!
Natalia's credentials are impressive. Her resume includes a Bachelor in Finance (BA) from the International University in Moscow, and also a subsequent Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Advertising/Art Direction from San Francisco's Academy of Art University. For nearly ten years, she's been working as a freelance art director and graphic designer. She has a very impressive portfolio which you can see here, that includes design work for companies like Pennzoil and John Walker, celebrities like Guns N Roses, and products like Nurofen.
And playing cards. Yes, Natalia, now you really have my attention! Natalia has created numerous decks of playing cards with the help of Kickstarter, the first being her Russian Folk Art deck. This was followed two beautiful decks inspired by love ("Love is..." and "Love U"); her stylish Tuxedo deck; a unique deck entitled "The Other Kingdom"; a custom deck of Royal Playing Cards inspired by 14th-16th century royals, and more recently, some decks inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration ("Calaveras de Azucar" and "Muertos Playing Cards"). And I haven't even mentioned some of her delightful newer versions of the Russian Folk Art deck. As I said, she's produced a solid volume of beautiful material!
In this review I'll introduce you to just a selection of her work, namely the three versions of her Russian Folk Art deck, and the two decks about the Day of the Dead festival, including her project that is currently up for funding on Kickstarter, Muertos Playing Cards.
RUSSIAN FOLK ART DECKS
Together with Natalia we begin our journey into her world by heading straight to her homeland Russia, to explore some traditional folk art designs, ones with roots in a very long and rich artistic tradition.
Welcome to the first edition of her Russian Folk Art Playing Cards, which was first created in 2015, and printed by USPCC. Natalia has created a number of other artistic decks, but the Russian Folk Art deck is certainly one of her most artistic, most popular, and best, and she's produced several versions of it.
For this deck, which features strong colours of red and green often associated today with Christmas, Natalia took her inspiration from her Russian heritage and culture. In her own words "Traditional folk art has always played an intrinsic part of domestic culture across Russia and represents the rooted artistic perceptions, traditions and practices of the citizens." In making these cards, she created 54 original designs. That's right: every single card in the deck has a different design, including the number cards!
The circular floral design on the card-backs immediately creates an artistic impression of a careful design within the context of strict patterns and structures, and is reminiscent of the Tally Ho Circle Back design. A similar style emerges with the over-sized Aces, which have ornate decorations inside and around them, like the Ace of Hearts here.
Every other number in the deck features a single image with variations according to each suit. For example, the 10s all feature the Russian Orthodox Church, while the 2s seen below all feature the Kremlin, which is the heart of Russian political life, and the centre of its culture and history.
The 9s all picture a Russian Samovar, a device traditionally used to heat and boil water for tea, and in Russian tradition considered to have a soul.
Russian folk art often features nature themes, like the 3s, which have different design elements symbolic of protection against evil and sources of good things. The 5s feature the famous Russian Nesting Doll (Matryoshka), invented over 100 years ago, and today widely recognized as a symbol of Russian culture.
Traditionally, the style of Russian folk art involved many decorative elements, like ornaments and floral designs (e.g. flowers, leaves, buds). Wild flowers and berries are common motifs. The bird is often used as a symbol of the promise of harvest and wealth, and is understood to embody concepts like love, marriage, and motherhood.
This uncut sheet gives a good overview of the entire deck, and a sense of the intricate details and artistic variety.
It will come as no surprise that the court cards are all inspired by the Russian Nesting Doll! Notice again the strong emphasis on nature and floral motifs.
In 2016, Natalia returned to her Folk Art deck, to make a new Special Edition.
This deck was a similar style to the original, but features completely new artwork on all the cards. Each illustration is unique, and took Natalia hours or days to create.
Like the original deck, this follow-up also draws extensively upon motifs that are important in the history of Russian art, such as flowers, leaves, people, musical instruments, geometric shapes with stylized depictions of birds and animals, and mythological creatures. For example, the Aces all feature mythological creatures like the Siren, which in Russian legend is a creature with a woman's face and chest, and a bird's wings and feathered tail.
Music has always played an important role in Russian culture, and the 2s feature the guitar-like balalaika, a stringed instrument.
And along with music comes dance - we have probably all seen examples of the distinctive high-stepping Russian style.
One noticeable difference from the first edition deck is that some of the cards in the Special Edition, like the ones pictured above, are a one-way image taking full advantage of the canvas of the cards, rather than a two-way mirrored design.
The classic Russian nesting dolls also serve as the inspiration for the court card characters once again.
Many other beautiful examples could be given from this charming deck, but I'll just whet your appetite with a whiff of Russian vodka, and a glimpse of some beautiful local wild flowers.
But perhaps the most beautiful version of all Natalia's Russian Folk Art decks is the Limited Edition produced in early 2017.
How does it differ from the others? The main difference is that it features a strikingly different colour scheme, starting with the tuck box, which is black.
The cards themselves are now also black instead of white. Khokhloma or Khokhloma painting is the name of a Russian wood painting handicraft style and national ornament, known for its vivid flower patterns, and the primary use of red and gold colours over a black background. It is this distinctive colour scheme that the Limited Edition uses - the white borders on the black card-backs being the only exception.
You'll notice something unusual about the Ace shown above. That's because Natalia has decided to use the Cyrillic alphabet on the court cards, to enhance the Russian flavour: T = Tooz (Ace), K = Karol (King), Д = Dama (Queen), B = Valyet (Jack).
For example, shown here are the Jack and the Queen of Hearts.
And pictured here are the Queen and the King of Clubs, with their nesting doll inspired design.
The artwork in this deck is a selection of the best artwork from both prior decks - the original edition and the special edition.
The combination of colours looks absolutely stunning, as you can see from this uncut sheet.
Exquisite inside and out, this deck is probably my favourite in the series.
MEXICAN HOLIDAY DECKS
After her successful Russian Folk Art designs, Natalia wanted to explore another culture and tradition. She first came across the Mexican tradition to celebrate Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, while staying with a Mexican family while on a trip to the USA many years ago.
This holiday is celebrated annually at the start of November, and features an unusual juxtaposition between the festive and the macabre. Typical motifs include skulls decorated with bright and vibrant colours, and this unusual combination has led to it being used by several designers as a theme for custom playing cards.
Now Natalia has also turned to this material as her inspiration for a couple of different decks, the colourful sugar skull associated with this holiday and the vibrancy of Mexican culture being a good fit for her style.
Calaveras de Azucar (Black)
The first deck is called Calaveras de Azucar, and was produced in a black deck as well as blue. It is named after the tasty confectionery available just for the holiday: sugar skulls, called calaveras de azúcar.
The overall colour scheme of the cards in the black Calaveras de Azucar deck is reminiscent of the limited edition Folk Art deck, which also relied on a black background with red and gold colours dominating. Like that Folk Art deck, the card backs here also have berries and leaves, but are now black bordered instead of white bordered, which arguably works even better to match the entirely black canvas of the card faces.
Despite the macabre subject material, the effect of the vibrant colours and lively designs is remarkable. Natalia explains as follows: "The word “Calavera” means skull in Spanish. “Calavera De Azúcar” is a skull made out of sugar, which is used to decorate Day of the Dead altars. These sugar skulls are very colorful and whimsical, not scary at all. I absolutely love the Sugar Skull style used for the Day of the Dead. In terms of meaning, the skull symbolizes death but in a positive manner. In Mexico it is believed that death is not the final stage in one’s life but rather a step forward into a higher level of conscience."
The style of the court cards is reminiscent of the Russian nesting doll inspired courts from the folk art deck, and here they are filled with rich symbols and motifs from top to bottom.
The number cards are fully custom and ornately decorated, and even the Jokers contribute positively to a sense of liveliness and energy. As Natalia points out: "Most depictions of the skull are either creepy or morbid, but sugar skulls are happy and cheerful ones. The reason for this is because they want to capture the joy and spirit of their deceased loved ones. The symbolism of a sugar skull is rooted in the decoration around the eyes. Flowers are meant to symbolize life, while cobwebs symbolize death. The skulls are designed to be bright and cheerful, being a celebration of the life that once was."
All all rather unusual, to be sure, but it really does come together beautifully!
Once again an uncut sheet does the best job of showing the cumulative effect of the images and colours.
Calaveras de Azucar (Blue)
The blue Calaveras deck features a slightly altered colour scheme, with the strong presence of flowers instead of skulls as a watermarked background.
The blue and gold colours make for a beautiful combination, especially with the court cards.
The number cards also look lush, colourful, and ornate - although with the blue deck the spades and clubs rely just on the shape of the pips, and don't appear in full yellow.
Who would ever imagine that so much life and colour could accompany a grinning spectre?
Muertos Playing Cards
The next deck relying on the Mexican Day of the Dead as theme is the Natalia's current project, Muertos Playing Cards, which has just a few days remaining for Kickstarter funding.
The main deck from this project features a rich purple colour as a central unifying element. As with the Calaveras de Azucar decks, the card backs rely on bringing the image of a skull together with lively colours and positive images like flowers. The addition of a Mexican sombrero and entirely different colour scheme results in a whole new look.
Here's a look at some of the court cards, which have quite a different feel from the Calaveras de Azucar deck; the sugar skulls are no longer grinning, and the use of purples and pinks give a slightly more icy feel, while still avoiding a true sense of that which is dark or macabre.
The number cards feature intricate borders and an elegant circular background, as well as custom pips. Small skulls in the corners are a small reminder of what this deck is about.
The project is set to conclude on Saturday 22 July, but has already surpassed its funding goal, so if you do miss the Kickstarter project, these decks will be printed, and should eventually be available directly from Natalia and the usual retail channels (like Rare Playing Cards) that stock quality custom playing cards.
Russian culture: I've seen a lot of different decks of playing cards, and there are certain themes that have been explored in a variety of ways already. In contrast the theme of Russian folk art provides new and interesting material that is welcome and fresh. Natalia has a beautiful style that does a wonderful job of capturing the motifs that are important to Russian folk art, in a vibrant way. I love the fact that each card has unique artwork that conveys a different aspect of Russian life, in a beautiful and positive manner.
Mexican culture: It's nice to see that Natalia is willing to stretch herself by taking on the challenge of depicting elements from a different culture as well. The Mexican the Day of the Dead holiday tradition is fertile soil that has provided artists with a lot of material to work with, and in her decks Natalia Silva takes on this tradition with her own unique style in a very effective way. It's something entirely different from the Russian culture, and yet is a perfect fit for Natalia's style.
Consistent style: Travelling from Russia to Mexico seems to be a journey that involves making a big leap, but Natalia has made this jump with surprising ease. If you look closely at the limited edition of the Folk Art deck and the black edition of the Calaveras de Azucar deck, there are very definite similarities. For example, both have black cards, and the card backs feature designs with similar colours, with prominent use of red berries and green leaves. Despite the obvious differences, Natalia's style suits both cultures well, and there's a consistent style that is recognizable across all her decks.
Christmas colours: The red and green colours of the Russian Folk Art's first edition and special edition will make an instant connection with almost everyone. While this colour combination may have special significance to the traditions of Russian folk art, they are universally familiar, and this gives it immediate appeal. Natalia has chosen to use just two colours only in these decks, and while ordinarily such a limitation would be very restrictive, it works very well due to the elaborate nature of the folk art images. In that respect the first two folk art decks actually have a charm and elegance that the later limited edition loses as a result of the addition of more colours.
Khokhloma colours: The transition to an entirely different colour palette inspired by Russian wood painting known as Khokhloma works amazingly well. The primary use of red and gold on a black background is very striking, and visually beautiful - I just love it! It gives the Russian folk art an entirely different look, and also works very well when taking on the Mexican Day of the Dead theme. The blue Calaveras de Azucar deck looks slightly anemic in comparison to the black one as a result, but it has its own appeal due to the strong use of yellow and gold which works well against the blue background. But it's really the Khokhloma colour scheme that I find wonderfully endearing, unique, and captivating, especially in the limited edition Russian folk art deck, and the black Calaveras deck.
Vibrant and positive: I'm not normally a fan of decks that use skull motifs, due to the dark connotations these usually have in art. But I have to admit that I found myself quite charmed with the Calveras de Azucar decks. This is in part due to a number of factors, including that the skulls aren't depicted in the usual macabre fashion, but in a smiling and simpler circular design, which immediately gives a very different feel to the images typically associated with skulls. Add vibrant colours, and lots of positive images like colourful flowers, birds, berries, and gems, and the result is something beautiful and even cheerful, despite the apparently dark theme. This positivity carries over from her Russian Folk Art decks, which also have beautiful colours, and cheerful images.
For both collectors and players: Are decks like these designed just to be sitting on someone's shelf? Certainly collectors will find custom playing cards like these very attractive, particularly because it's not just the court cards that are customized, but the decks are thoroughly custom from start to finish, including all the number cards, which typically feature a unique image on each - at least in the case of the Russian folk art decks. But even with the Mexican Day of the Dead decks, the number cards have beautiful and ornate artwork and stylish features that sets them far apart from your standard deck. At the same time, all the decks have very clear and usable indices, and very recognizable and familiar looking pips. As such, they are definitely functional, and can find a home on the table of a gamer just as much as on a collector's shelf.
Quality cards: Quality artwork like Natalia Silva's truly deserves to be matched with quality printed materials. Fortunately this beautiful artwork has found a welcome home on a quality product, because all of these decks have been produced by United States Playing Card Company, maker of the quality Bicycle decks of cards, in their standard air cushion style finish. This means that they handle and shuffle beautifully, and are a quality product that should go the distance. In addition to the USPCC produced decks, Natalia often produces some other limited editions of her decks in very small numbers (e.g. as low as 110 copies), which are printed by MPC - these are purely for collectors, and have value due to their scarcity, despite a lower printing quality required to produce them in such low volume. But the standard decks are all USPCC produced, and hold up beautifully.
Where to get them: All of Natalia's decks, including many that I haven't included in the above review, can be found over at her website here. To support the creation of the Muertos Playing Cards, you'll find her Kickstarter here.
I absolutely love Natalia Silva's distinctive, vibrant, colourful, and cheerful style. She's done a fantastic job of bringing Russian folk art to playing cards, and also successfully taking the elements of a Mexican holiday to the playing card canvas. It's truly delightful to see a talented Russian artist bringing her abilities to the world of playing cards, and sharing her vibrant contribution for us to enjoy.
From Russia, With Love? Surely, after seeing cards like these, we love Russia too. "To Russia, With Love. Thank you Natalia Silva!"
Want to learn more?
Natalia Silva: www.nataliasilva.net
Muertos Kickstarter: www.kickstarter.com/projects/393497409/muertos-playing-cards...
Direct links for the decks featured in this review:
- Russian Folk Art (Original Edition)
- Russian Folk Art (Special Edition)
- Russian Folk Art (Limited Edition)
- Calaveras de Azucar (Black)
- Calaveras de Azucar (Blue)
- Muertos Playing Cards
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- Jeff ClarkeUnited States
- I had seen those Russian Folk Art decks in the past. They are really nice, and I just noticed they are selling on Amazon as well.
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elclarkey wrote:I had seen those Russian Folk Art decks in the past. They are really nice, and I just noticed they are selling on Amazon as well.Online retailers like Rare Playing Cards, which are dedicated to selling custom playing cards, typically carry some of Natalia's decks as well.
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