Playing Cards of the World

Artwork by Aaron Trotter

Aaron Trotter working

Playing Cards of the World

Aaron Trotter wants to follow in his grandparents’ footsteps. His grandmother was French, his grandfather was a Washington, DC architect. They met on vacation in Mallorca. After wooing each other in letters, Aaron’s grandfather proposed by telegram. Their 1937 honeymoon was a year-long, round-the-world trip by boat. The Portland artist known for his illustrated playing cards tries to capture a bit of that lost romance in his travels. “They are totally my inspiration for my cards and my life,” he says. 

Then again, maybe his parents are to blame for his wanderlust. They took him on an epic seven-thousand mile road trip when he was only two years old. “I don’t really remember it but seeing the road go by made an impression.”

Nowadays, you might run across Aaron sketching landmarks in Moscow, Stockholm, Tokyo, or at home in Portland. He has a spacious studio on NE Alberta and sells his cards in shops, online, at Saturday Market and sometimes at UAN’s First Thursday Street Gallery. But it took him a few years to attain this degree of art success.

Aaron Trotter working

Early Days

Aaron comes from an artistic family that encouraged his creativity. He went to an arts magnet school in Beaverton. “There were no sports there. It was for the freaky arty people,” he says. Eventually he landed at Evergreen State College, where his liberal arts education included philosophy, physics, art history and world religions. He developed a passion for classic Greek, Roman and Mayan archeology, and Southeast Asian cultures. He did a three-month independent study in Central America, and a seven-month odyssey

across Asia, Australia and New Zealand. “It was a profound adventure for me, the best education I could have gotten.”

Aaron wanted to be an abstract painter. But he also wanted to eat. So he supplemented his meager art sales with taxi driving, dishwashing and cooking. “I worked in many kitchens with other people who have their master’s degrees and they’re slinging burgers,” he remembers. He also had some jobs he enjoyed, such as working on a trail crew and an archeology survey in Alaska.

“Throughout all my travels I was always drawing to kill the time. And people were like, ‘This is really good.’ And I was like, ‘You can’t be an artist in this world. I just do it because I love it.’”

The Card Idea

Trotter playing cards

Then he moved back to Portland. “I started drawing famous Portland places that everyone knows and loves.” He got some sketches printed as postcards and a few shops took them on. “Within a few months I had like 200 drawings of scenes all over Portland. I had this late night idea to make the cards. And I’ve been on the ride ever since.”

How did he hone his sales skills? “Just intuition, really. And desperation. I was really hungry.” When he started making the cards he had a part-time breakfast cook job and a back injury – not a good combination. 

To make his early sales, he dressed up in a painted suit and asked store clerks to give samples of his cards to the buyer. “I looked like a clown. A lot of people just said no to me, or, ‘Is this a joke?’ I kept coming back.” Then the Portland Art Museum decided to stock his cards. He sent out press releases and did a Kickstarter campaign.

Aaron’s Process

Aaron likes to draw on site, which isn’t always convenient. For example, in a bustling Japanese fish market. He does his preliminary drawings in a sketch book and makes color notes about how to finish them. “Then I’ll go back in with pen and watercolor, marker, whatever.”

For certain drawings, he gets out his aunt’s pen. “I use that pen because it has special nostalgia. But it is an antique so I try to be nice to it.”

Once his drawings are done, he sends them to a local Portland printer who prints them out on a big sheet. He gets the boxes die cut, folds them himself, and signs and numbers each one. “I like to do it,” he says. “It keeps cost down. I like to touch them and put my mojo in them.”

His Decks

Aaron Trotter workspace

Some of the decks are inspired by places Aaron especially wants to go. Others are commissioned. Lisbon, Paris, Venice and New Orleans were some of Aaron’s favorite places to draw. Philadelphia and Bend both commissioned him to do decks. Locally, he’s done decks of Alberta Street and Mississippi Street.

One of Aaron’s most challenging decks celebrates the OSU football team. He sketched campus scenes, landmarks, the stadium and football players. For the non-sports fan, “It was really hard but it was fun.” He’s also done decks for weddings.

Aaron’s Portland cards are his bestselling, especially his brewery and black and white decks. “People love beer and they love the map and checklist that’s included.” He recently released a coloring book and has another Portland deck coming out soon. The Old Portland deck will feature 52 100-year old buildings. “I’m sad that most of them are endangered,” he says.

Aaron’s favorite card games are speed and solitaire. And his favorite deck of cards? “The one I haven’t made yet.”

Visit Aaron at Saturday Market, spot 814, next to the Skidmore Fountain, or online at

By Teresa Bergen,