This is a beginner’s guide to altering cards. I will go over supplies, processes, and tricks that I have learned about over the years. Hopefully it will serve as a guide to those who are looking to pick this craft up as a hobby.
- PAINT: Golden Fluid Acrylics are the best paints for altering cards. They are already thin enough out of the bottle to use straight onto the card. You can usually find them at your local craft store. Here is an Amazon link for a great starter set. I would also pick up Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue, Cadmium Red Medium Hue, Titan Buff, and Jenkins Green.
- You can use other paints like Vellejo and other WarGaming paints. These usually need to be thinned down
- You can use traditional acrylics, they need to be thinned before using for altering.
- Try to stay away from craft acrylics (Apple Barrel, Folk Art, ect). The pigments are not made for mixing and become muddied quickly.
- BRUSHES: I use whatever brushes catch my eye while I’m at the store. There isn’t a specific brush that you need to use, because everyone ends up painting a little differently. Here are the brushes that I tend to gravitate to.
- Princeton Select Petite series, they fit in my hand real nice and are super detailed. They are also a synthetic brush, which I find to be easiest to use because the bristles don’t fall out as often like natural bristle brushes.
- Simply Simmons value brushes, are usually on sale or come in nice packs so I don’t have to buy brushes individually.
- Again, the quality of the brush is lower on the list of important things. You can go buy a pack of generic brand brushes and do just fine
- PAPER TOWELS: Kinda obvious, nicer quality works better. This is to dry your brushes after cleaning them.
- TOOTHPICKS: These are more important than nice brushes!
- SOMETHING THAT HOLDS WATER: You’ll need to clean your brushes.
- GENERIC PLAYMAT(not one that has an image): This will be for your working area.
- WET PALETTE: This will keep you paint workable for long periods of time. I bought mine, but you can easily DIY it.
Great, I have all this Crap… What now?
- Prime where you want to paint.
A few thin layers of a medium grey will give you a base color to work off of. If you just start painting on the card without a neutral color base the colors can change depending on what was underneath them. The biggest culprits here are the black edges and anything under whites and yellows… When I talk about thin layers, I mean thin.
This Azusa is going to be an original art alter, so I’ll have to cover the complete card. This is what my first layer of grey paint looks like. As you can see it isn’t opaque, you can still clearly see the card underneath. You may also be able to pick up finger prints in the paint. I use my fingertips often while painting. Smushing the paint while it’s still wet helps keep it thin and flat, while blending it at the same time.
Don’t worry about going over the areas that you want to keep clear while priming. That’s what the toothpicks are for!
2. Start working.
I’m sure that it can be frustrating to see ‘just do it’ as a step in a how to article. Painting and creative processes is something that is hard to explain in steps. Everyone can do things a little differently and end up with the same result. Learning how the paint you’re using works and how the bristles of the brush will move isn’t something that can be told, it’s something that you have to feel. So practice, practice practice! Galaxy alters are one of my most popular commissions, but I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case with my first one…
When I work on cards, or paintings in general, I work from the background to the foreground. It’s almost impossible to add background details in-between the ‘main image’. This also usually means that I work from the top of the card to the bottom.
This article explains color mixing and theory better than I ever could. I highly recommend just taking an afternoon to play with your paints. Grab some cards grey out some areas next to a color that you want to try to match and practice! I have also found that if your having trouble with figuring out a color your computer can help. Open a picture of the card you are working on in a photo editing software. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to have the eye dropper tool. They will show you the CMYK of that color. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black; you can make any color with those four base colors. Basing you color mix off of that ratio, or just clicking colors and noting the different CMKYs they have may be helpful.
Mixing colors is something that you can only really master with practice. For example the blues in the video have a tiny bit of Magenta in them. Who would have guess at first glance they aren’t just blue with a little bit of white to lighten it up!
Watching the Island video you may notice that I use my fingertips a lot. While I working I use my fingers to smudge the paint while it’s still wet. This keeps the paint thin and helps blend it with the areas around. If you brush a line of paint onto a surface, then dab your finger on it while it’s still wet what happens? Parts of the paint will stick to your finger while the rest of the paint will smush out to the sides, spreading out from under your touch. The areas that are the farthest away from the center of paint will be the thinnest. The thinness of the paint as it goes to the side is what creates a gradient.
Okay… but now my card looks a mess
3. Clean and Detail
Yeah, it probably does. Once your done with the extension there is probably paint in the textbox and other places that you don’t want it to be. That’s okay, that’s what the toothpicks are for! Simply take the toothpick and gently scrap the excess paint away. Having the tip the the toothpick slightly wet helps, I normally use my mouth to wet it… similar to using your mouth to keep the tips of your brushes together. Start with a little bit at a time, because it can be hard to judge how much is going to come off. This can take some time and a steady hand, but having clean edges makes a world of difference in alter quality.
I find it easier to watch and learn than read and learn. If that’s the case with you as well you can see sped up process videos on my YouTube Channel. I also live stream alters on Twitch! Feel free to watch, hang out, and ask questions.
How do I just Not Fade to Black on the Bottom?
Let’s face it, it’s just easier to fade to black at the bottom of cards. But that’s taking the easy way out.
Here a some quick sketches that I’ve used in previous feedback articles. Simple things like gravel, grass, and continuing paths are good starts for art extensions. If you find it difficult to come up with something while you are working on a card do some quick thumbnails first. If you were starting a canvas painting, normally you wouldn’t just start painting with no idea in mind. Treat alters the same way. Make sure that you have a plan before you put paint on the card.
That being said, some cards you can’t get away from a fade to black at the bottom. That’s okay. Just try not to make it a habit.
Do you Put a Sealant on the cards when you are Finished?
Typically no, I do not use anything to seal my alters. There are some print runs where the cards are glossier than normal, this makes the paint more susceptible to chip, I seal those. I will also seal the cards at the request of the client. I use Golden’s Satin Archival Spray Varnish when I do.
How do you keep paint from getting on the backs of cards, or is that even a concern?
I simply work on a playmat. For some reason, I have found that paint does not get on the back of the card when I work on a plain playmat. This is about as much paint as I’ll usually get on the back of a card. Simply clean it off with a toothpick!
If I do plan on stripping the card before starting, what is the best product to use.
I’ve seen people use different products to take the ink off of the card before starting to alter it. I personally don’t think the risk of damaging the card by trying to remove the ink is worth it. There isn’t going to be a noticeable difference in thickness in just adding a base grey to where you are going to paint.
Acetone – will remove the ink from a card. It is quick to evaporate so you would have to use a lot at once to water damage the card. I’ve seen someone on Reddit successfully use this as their main technique.
Eraser – takes a lot of elbow grease. Runs a high risk of creasing the card because you can catch the edges while working.
Sandpaper – I don’t know how to use this personally, but I’ve seen great results. I would assume that a fine grit paper is needed. This is great for those who aren’t confident in painting and want to alter with colored pencils and markers.
How do you deal with extensive customer requests while keeping cards tournament legal?
If a customer requests a commission that doesn’t meet all of the guidelines of MTR 3.3 I let them know. If they’re goal is to have the highest chance of using their alters in tournament play, we come to a middle ground. Usually though, when someone wants a original art alter it’s for Commander or Cube. Casual formats are a great home for unique alters, because it makes those decks more personal for the owners!
Hopefully this is helpful for you! If you have questions that weren’t answered in the article feel free to ask them below in the comments. As always, I will continue to post feedback articles with more tips. Good luck and keep painting!