Josh Trout needs to draw with a goal in mind. His creativity and ability to depict athletes has allowed him to become one of the most sought-after sketchcard baseball artists in the country. He admits, however, that there has to be a reason for him to create.
“I was never the type of artist to sit around and just sketch or have unfinished paintings laying around,” said Trout, 42, who is a lifelong Omaha, Nebraska resident. “I had to have a purpose.”
It took a bit of time, he was well into his 30s, until Trout found that purpose. Now, nearly a decade after his initial foray into the world of baseball art, he is a licensed sports artist for The Topps Company, creating original artwork reproduced for the brand’s specialty sets, inserts or sketchcards, which are hand drawn directly to a blank trading card supplied by the company. Trout has contributed to the Topps Museum Collection and Topps Gallery for the last four years in addition to the commission work that he does for private collectors.
While he has produced several hundred cards, including artists proofs, since he began working for Topps, Trout has recently started working with Fanatics, painting baseballs, which are officially licensed by MLB and the MLBPA and are exclusive to the company. Aside from contractual obligations with companies, his unlicensed sports art goes further than baseballs, painting depictions of players on footballs and bats as well.
Trout has also incorporated his love of modern street maps with his artistic ability to create limited-edition prints which he calls his City Map Series.
“I collected as a kid so working with Topps and having cards out there as part of a baseball set is surreal.”
“I love modern street maps and I always thought it would be cool to do artwork of a player from that city,” Trout said. “I’ve seen a few other map artists who do colored pencils over a print of a map but I knew I wanted to take a different approach. Having a background in graphic design and working for large format printing companies since 2003, I knew I wanted to control the substrate that I would be working on. Taking an illustration board and flatbed printing a digital map file enables me to have that control. The rest is just doing the mixed-media artwork over the top.
“The first few I did were George Brett and two Michael Jordans. I started doing very limited 11X14 or 16X20 of those, between 25 and 50; sign and number them with a certificate of authenticity.”
Though Trout’s art career has only taken off in the last decade, the ability to display his artistic talent goes back much further. His mom took notice of his affinity for drawing when he wasn’t much older than 3 and began to enroll him in minor art classes. His passion for art became greater when he reached junior high school. That’s when he began drawing comic book characters and athletes.
“I was a huge Bo Jackson fan,” said Trout, who played soccer and track and cross country while growing up. “I followed [the] Kansas City [Royals] a bit and when he went to the White Sox that’s when I started following them and still do. My other sports teams were the 49ers and the Bulls so I was all over the place as far as my teams were concerned.”
Trout’s interest in art during his teenage years helped cement what has been a life-long love affair with creativity. It is not a relationship, however, that has consumed Trout. He has a day job working in the marketing department for a life insurance company, one which he says “pays the bills” while his artwork receives all his creative passion.
He attended the Creative Center in Omaha and studied graphic design and illustration for two years after high school. While that school no longer exists, Trout was able to take what he learned there and head off into the business world. He went right into doing graphic design, working for different desktop publishing and sign shops. He didn’t, however, do any traditional art for 15 years.
“I kind of had this hole in my soul I guess,” said Trout, who has also done work for the Viceroy Trading Card Company. “I told myself I have a talent and I am wasting it. I wasn’t using it at all so in 2015 I decided I want to get back into it but really didn’t know where to start.
“A friend of mine who went to the All-Star game sent me a picture there of an artist airbrushing on a baseball. He said, ‘You think you could do something like this?’. That was my jumpstart. I looked around online and only saw a couple of artists doing baseballs so I did my first one and it wound up selling. I took requests for others and started painting on footballs and in 2017 I did a bat. I joined Instagram in 2018 and my focus was just about getting exposure. When I joined Instagram I started seeing other sketchcard artists. Not knowing anything about these trading card size works of art; I started private messaging them with all kinds of questions.”
Trout, who has been married to his wife Micheala for 9 years, said that just about all the artists to whom he reached out were gracious and helpful. They were encouraging and he took that encouragement and created his first two sketch cards – a Mike Trout, for obvious reasons, and a Luke Skywalker because he’s a huge Star Wars fan. He posted them online to see what kind of response he would get and messages began flooding in. He sold the Skywalker but kept the Trout.
His creations got noticed quickly and was invited to work with the Viceroy Card Company doing an historical space and then Topps shortly thereafter. The 2019 Topps Museum Collection was the first set on which he works and Trout said it “just snowballed from there”. It led to his work on the Topps Gallery Collection. While he has been invited to work on more sets he limits himself to only two per year because of his growing waiting list on commissions.
“The Museum Collection is a high-end hobby product while Topps Gallery is a Walmart retail product,” Trout said. “I think they are looking for artists that meet their criteria and I am fortunate to have been invited to work on two of the better products.”
Trout had filled out an application online for Topps Artist but doesn’t know if that’s how they took notice of him.
“Maybe they saw some of my work in the sketchcard groups I post to,” Trout said. “I know they scout some groups to see if anything catches their eye. The first three years I did 40 cards for the Museum Collection set, all hand-drawn originals. Those go to Topps and go into the product as a one-of-one hit. For participating on a set, you get so many artist proofs based on how many you do. These can be kept or sold on the secondary market at the discretion of the artist.”
The Museum Collection also includes an insert set for the submitted sketchcards, a 50-card reproduction set called Canvas Reprints. Topps selects 50 originals from all sketchcard submissions to be then also reproduced and represented in the insert set.
Aside from selling his artists proofs to collectors, Trout said the reprints became his focus. Being efficient with drawing players and producing an extremely high-quality masterpiece were his goals so that they would get chosen. If a card is reproduced, the artist gets 25 copies of that card to do what they want with it. Trout has turned that into a unique opportunity for collectors, creating limited number artist-signed versions with different color signatures. Collectors have responded by supporting his work, particularly appreciating his attention to detail.
Trout said he and the other artists licensed by Topps can choose whatever current player they want to draw for the Museum Collection. If the player is retired, though, they must check with Topps to see if the company has the rights to that player. The company assigns the Topps Gallery Collection.
The 2022 Museum Collection was released in September and Trout only had time for 25 original sketchcards. He said that the quality of his work has improved, though, since he began working for Topps adding that he’d like to get more done but he simply doesn’t have the time.
“I have a couple of collectors who search out my stuff on eBay,” Trout said. “I collected as a kid so working with Topps and having cards out there as part of a baseball set is surreal. Having people collect them and wanting to showcase them, that’s what makes it worth it to me.”
His prices for a commissioned original artist proof have gone up as well due to the bar he has set for himself in terms of quality.
“In supporting me work and purchasing an artist proof directly through me, the collector is not only getting a One of One but a hand-drawn original piece of artwork that is also on a licensed Topps trading card,” Trout said. “And it’s all about the connection you have with the artist who is working on something you love. You’re not just buying a card. I just want to put my best foot forward. I’m always trying to better the process and get something that people want to have in their collections.”
It’s easy to see that Trout has a goal in mind and that sense of purpose is a part of what sets him apart from many of his contemporaries.