When Topps releases its Series I, II, Update and Gallery baseball sets each year, Todd Aaron Smith feels like a kid at Christmas.
He’ll rip through pack after pack, but he isn’t searching for cards of his favorite players or team like what young collectors do. The 51-year-old is looking for cards with his name on it. The longtime artist does sketches for Topps and is one of the company’s featured drawers for four of its main baseball products.
Smith loves knowing kids are also tearing through packs and seeing his artwork.
“It’s really amazing to know those things are out there,” Smith said. “People are opening packs and finding my stuff. When I work on a set, I go out and buy a bunch of (packs) myself and sorting through the packs and trying to find them. I feel like I’m 8 years old again myself.
“I buy way more than I should.”
It’s a dream come true for Smith to take his passion for art and mix it with baseball to draw players for a living for the king of the card industry.
Smith has always been an avid baseball fan. Growing up in northeastern Ohio, Smith would frequently head to Municipal Stadium to catch a Cleveland Indians game. He draws a lot of his inspiration these days from his early childhood experiences at the ball park.
“I feel so fortunate to be able to do the stuff that I do,” said Smith, who now resides in Kansas City. “For me, baseball came along and to me that’s as good as it gets. I can’t think of anything I’d rather (draw) than baseball, as far as trading cards, anyway. Getting to do that is pure magic for me.”
Smith has taken an interesting path to becoming a trading card sketch artist. In the mid-1990s, he was an animator and worked on “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Spider-Man” for the Fox Kids Network, and designed storyboards for the first season of “Family Guy.”
“I kind of retired from that; it’s a pretty unstable business,” Smith said. “I just couldn’t have a family and do that both.”
Looking for his next great gig, Smith reached out to Topps in 2011 about working on drawings. He submitted some sketch cards and attracted the interest of the company. Smith was told his work was great and Topps wanted to start him off on a trial basis with the Star Wars Galactic Files set. The next year, Smith worked on Series II.
Smith enjoyed working on sketches for such legendary characters as C-3PO, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
“At that time, it was kind of an honor because when I was a kid I went and saw the original ‘Star Wars’ movies in the theater,” Smith said. “I was 8 years old when the first ‘Star Wars’ movie came out, I’m 51 now. It was kind of an honor to get to work on those cards. I kept working on them and kept working on the them, and I did 14 sample Star Wars sets.”
Catching a Break in Baseball
Toward the end of 2017, Smith caught a break and got the opportunity to work on baseball cards for Topps. Drawing for baseball is right in Smith’s wheelhouse.
“I’m better at doing human faces and it works really well with me doing baseball because obviously all of them are human faces,” Smith said. “I try to make it look as much like that person as I possibly can.”
The first baseball set Smith worked on was Series I in 2018. Ever since that initial set, he’s been a staple for Topps with its baseball products.
Topps sports editor Ryan Hickey has worked closely with Smith over the past year, assigning him cards to draw in the products. Hickey has been extremely impressed by Smith’s artistic style, especially recently when Smith contributed to the Topps Gallery set.
“The biggest thing we look at is how best are these pieces of art going to represent the player,” Hickey said. “Player likeness is obviously the biggest thing we look for when we’re trying to find artists for the base set and insert sets. I thought he did a fantastic job with the shadowing, with the colors and his ability to provide high-quality, detailed artwork that showcases player likenesses, player expressions, player personalities, too. Some of the images that I’ll send different artists, we will try and work together to try and find something that is going to best represent the player as well as best represent the artist’s style of work.”
Topps utilizes two different types of artwork in its sets: sketch cards and base cards. The base cards are printed and reproduced many hundreds of thousands of times. The sketch cards are 1/1 original artwork by the artists, which is always a sketch on blank cards that when finished are randomly inserted into packs. Those 1/1 cards are signed on the back by Smith.
“I’ve done so many of those I can hardly count them,” Smith said. “I’ve literally done more than 2,000 of them.”
Smith, who gets paid per card he draws, is given quite a bit of leeway when he’s assigned work by Topps. He’s usually advised to draw the stars of each MLB team, so Smith will pull up the rosters from the most recent All-Star Game and sketch those players. Smith will also get assigned certain players to draw depending on which set he’s working on.
“I’m allowed to draw any player that I want who is a current player with only one exception: Madison Bumgarner,” Smith said. “For whatever reason, Madison Bumgarner does not want his image reproduced and he will not give his permission to anybody to reproduce it.”
Every card on the market of Bumgarner is a photograph, not a sketch.
Smith is able to draw Hall of Famers and retired players, but Topps has to receive permission from the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) to see if they have a license to use certain players.
Smith loves drawing the old-school greats such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Satchel Paige. When he’s able, Smith always includes a Cobb drawing in every set. Babe Ruth is also one of artist’s favorites.
“Holy cow, a Babe Ruth baseball card. An official Topps baseball card that has Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, and I got to do it,” Smith said. “That to me is a huge thrill because there’s no bigger name in sports than Babe Ruth.”
Smith’s favorite modern-day player is Francisco Lindor since Smith is an Indians fan. Smith loves to make Lindor’s extremely expressive emotions come to life in his artwork.
“His nickname is ‘Mr. Smile,’ so he’s always got this big smile on his face,” Smith said about Lindor. “He gets along with everybody and there’s nobody who doesn’t like him. There happen to be a lot of photos out there where he’s doing things that are very expressive; he always has expressive poses. Even just to catch a ground ball, he’ll give you a good pose and you can make a really good drawing from that.”
When Smith gets his assignment of which cards to draw, he conjures up ideas by looking at photographs online of players. He’ll search Getty Images by the name of a player and thousands of imagines will pop up.
“I’ll just kind of go through and pick out the ones that are the most interesting,” Smith said. “I’ll pick out those and try to make them as interesting as I can and make my cards unique from anybody else I can.”
Once Smith sits down to work, he’s focused on making the best image possible.
“There are sometimes I draw them in black and white and there are sometimes that I draw them in color – color usually takes longer, of course,” said Smith, who does most of his drawings with colored pencil. “But I can do a card in three or four hours, those are for sketch cards. When I do base card artwork, that’s going to be reproduced many, many times – sketch cards are drawn literally on a trading card, so it’s 2½ inches by 3½ inches, it’s a very small trading card size. But when I do a base card that I know is going to be reproduced many hundreds of thousands of times, it’s approximately 5x7, so it’s quite a bit bigger.”
Smith will mail the original base cards to Topps where the company will scan the images in high-resolution and then shrink them down to trading card size and print them.
The Topps art directors look through all the cards, and since Topps has an official license with MLB and MLBPA, those groups inspect the cards to make sure they depict the players accurately.
“You can tell he takes great pride in his work,” Hickey said.
When Smith works on base cards with a bigger canvas, it can take him about 10 hours to finish each card.
“I have drawn base cards in a single day,” Smith said. “But for the most part, I work on it, look at it again the next day with fresh eyes, then work on it some more.”
For the Topps Gallery baseball set that was released in November, Smith had 31 player drawings. At 10 hours a card, Smith spent in excess of 300 hours on the product.
Topps needed 330 unique pieces of art for Gallery and used nine artists.
“Todd did some really great work,” Hickey said. “The Nick Castellanos image that he did, there’s kind of some shadowing on his helmet and it reflects kind of the stadium lights. He was able to capture that within the artwork, which I thought was really unique.”
Smith believes he has an artistic style and look that is quite distinctive.
“It’s a little bit hard to describe, though,” Smith said. “What I try to do is realistic drawing that also has a little bit of a feeling of Renaissance drawing. I love looking at Renaissance artwork, like the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and just all the Renaissance artists. I’ve studied their drawings over and over and over, and they had a certain way of doing cross hatching to make shadows in their drawings. So, I’ll try to make my drawing as realistic as I can, but I also put a little bit of action lines on my drawings – they’re very subtle, but they are there. I think it gives it a little bit of an edge. I think it makes it nice. It makes me happy to do it, and evidently Topps likes it, too.”
Topps sure does like Smith’s work. Hickey said the company will be keeping Smith plenty busy with upcoming products.
“We’ll keep using him for sketch cards throughout different products,” Hickey said. “I know Series I, Series II and Update will all feature sketch cards, and I’m sure we’ll have Todd working on that. Once we get started for Gallery 2020, we’ll certainly add him back, if he wants to participate.”
The Call from the Hall
When Smith was a kid, he was able to make one visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He was captivated by everything he saw in the sacred building.
Smith was working on Topps Museum Collection cards in 2018 when he ventured onto the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum website. He found contact info and sent over a message saying who he was and that he was an artist for Topps. A short time later, Smith received an email back from Hall of Fame director of collections Sue MacKay.
“She said, ‘Hey, Todd. We know who you are. We have every baseball card that’s ever been made, and we know who you are. We’re putting together a display right now and it’s all about baseball cards,’” Smith said.
The exhibition “Shoebox Treasure” was opening in May 2019, and the Hall of Fame wanted some more pieces for display.
“If the Baseball Hall of Fame asks you something like that, the answer is absolutely, ‘Yes,’” Smith said. “Whether or not I have something to send to them, the instant answer is, ‘Oh, yes.’”
Smith gave it some thought and ended up sending an original sketch of Hall of Famer Jim Thome, along with an illustration based on that Thome sketch and a baseball card based on both those pieces of art.
Smith mailed the three works and got a message from MacKay saying the Hall of Fame acquisitions committee was meeting soon and needed to OK the artwork for it to go into the Hall of Fame. Smith anxiously awaited word on a daily basis. He finally received a message back.
“We met and talked about your pieces and they voted to make your pieces a part of the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” Smith said. “When I read those words, I just about fell out of my chair. Just about came unglued, to tell you the truth. That is the single-greatest honor of my entire artistic career, and I can’t even imagine a greater honor than that.”