BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
While Ken Karl can’t specifically point to his grandmother as the reason he’s an artist today, there’s no denying the summers he spent with her as a child in the suburbs of St. Louis certainly pushed him toward the path he currently travels.
Karl, 52, is one of the hottest up and coming sports artists in the field, combining mixed media, markers, colored pencils, watercolors, and digital painting to create specialty original sports cards that are among the most sought after in the business. His 1-of-1 originals sell for as much as $650, and his backlog of commission work will keep him busy for months to come.
“I always liked to draw and I always liked comics,” said Karl, who lives just outside St. Louis with his “Missy,” his wife of 28 years, and their three kids, Hannah, Hayden, and Holden. “I collected comics and cards and I’d go to my grandmother’s house every summer for two weeks. She would always take me to this little drug store and buy me comics. I would always try to redraw the characters. After that, I started collecting cards hot and heavy in middle school and through my early teen years. Then I started seeing Beckett Magazine and dreamed of doing art someday.”
That dream became a reality about a half dozen years ago when Karl, who is a graduate of Missouri State University, walked away from his full-time job as a screen print artist and took a chance on becoming a full-time sports artist. The gamble paid off.
“I enjoyed my time there [at work] and I have no ill will toward my previous job,” Karl said. “For lack of a better term, my future wasn’t going anywhere and I always wanted to do sports art for a living. To make a long story short, I was looking through social media one night and saw that a guy had posted a couple sketch cards.
“I had already drawn some for Beckett Market Place and thought, I can do that. So, I drew up a few and posted them. Within an hour I had 40 commissions. Then I got 30 or 40 more and my wife said if you’re ever going to quit, do it now because you have some momentum – and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Karl has produced nearly 750 cards and full-size pieces [16X20] over the last five years with 60 percent of his work focusing on baseball. He has also created images for Stan Musial, Inc., Terrell Owens, The Boys of Summer from the movie Sandlot, The Missouri Athletic Club, Beckett Media, and Topps. His artwork has been featured in Beckett Magazine’s Artist Spotlight issue while his cards have been the focus of nearly a dozen podcasts and YouTube presentations.
His 20X24 depiction of Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and Albert Pujols walking off the field together for the last time, together with the other Cardinals, is one of his bigger and more exquisite pieces.
“The Waino, Pujols, Molina is one of those pieces that was commissioned by a collector,” Karl said. “I’m a huge Albert Pujols fan. He left for 10 years but then he came back and had an unbelievable run last year. Those are three Cardinal legends and it was an iconic moment when the manager took all three of them out at once. You knew that when they all left the field together it was a big deal for Cardinal Nation. I got home after that game and drew that one up for me – but I knew I would have some buyers.
“I was always a huge Cardinals fan. My parents grew up Cardinal fans and my dad was a huge Stan Musial fan. Getting to do work for his foundation was one of the highlights of my life because I got to do something for someone that my dad loved. Everything I ever heard about Stan was that he was a great player and an even better human being.”
Karl’s entry-level cards start at $350 and can run as high as $650, though specialty cards will cost a bit more. His full-size pieces begin at $1,000 and go as high as $3,000 depending on size and complexity. He essentially draws each card twice, first laying down the initial outline with Copic Markers and then going back to “fine tune” it with pencils and pen liners to “cover any mistakes I made with the markers.” It takes Karl an average of between five and seven hours to create a card.
“Some are faster, some take longer because I offer different styles,” he said. “Some days I can knock them out pretty fast and other days I struggle and I’ll fight that sucker right to the end. You never know, player to player, post to post. It’s a matter of working out the card. I offer a lot of different cards; it depends on what style of card someone wants.
“After I collect a deposit, I book it; and that’s about six or seven months out [right now]. As I get closer [to creating a specific piece], I’ll reach out to the client to talk to them about the image I’ll use or what kind of pose they want. Usually, 99 percent of the time I’ll lay out several images for them to choose from. I know what I draw best and what I can make a good card from – but I also make sure I draw a pose they like. I want my piece to be the favorite piece in their collection. I have great pride in what I do.”
While Karl’s second career is essentially still in its infancy, he has created pieces depicting the likes of Don Mattingly, who was a childhood favorite, that he has had signed by the player. One player that he has yet to draw but wants to is the late Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant.
“I want to be at my very best when I do that one, but I’m not there yet,” Karl said. “I want to do that as a big piece but I am not as good as I want to be yet to do it. I wasn’t a big fan of his when he played and then he passed away.
“There was a commercial with him though and the message was about being better; and that resonated with me and still resonates with me every day. So, I work every day to be a better dad, a better husband, a better artist. When I catch myself being lazy I think, ‘I have to be better.’ That commercial caught my attention and I never forgot it.”
Karl’s work is beginning to catch the attention of many, including renowned artist James Fiorentino, who speaks glowingly of Karl and his work. Other artists feel the same way – and judging by his client list and the reception his pieces have gotten in the collecting community, there is little standing in the way of Karl becoming one of the biggest names in the industry.
Karl is clearly on a path and, with an assist from his grandmother, has covered a great deal of distance down that road already. Where tomorrow takes him is anyone’s guess; but he continues to show that he is up for the challenge.