Paul Jennis enjoys creating a “fine art baseball card.” Judging from his previous work, he has created quite a few.
The New Jersey-based artist is back for a second year to partner with Topps for its “Game Within The Game” promotion, and the company rolled out the first of its 16 on-demand cards on Friday. A painted card featuring Ronald Acuna was Jennis’ first effort of 2021, and Topps will be unveiling more every three weeks on Topps.com.
The cards sell for $7.99. There is also a 10-inch by 14-inch fine art print numbered to 99 that sells for $24.99 and a 1/1 version that lists for $299.99.
The cards again measure 2½ inches by 3½ inches. They are printed on 16-point glossy stock, and unlike last year, the card will be borderless. Like last year, a large headshot will dominate the front with a smaller action shot painted in the lower half.
“It does feature the art nicely,” Jennis said. “I was nervous sharing it. I hope (people) like the one (of Acuna) with the smile.”
Jennis, 60, said the next Topps card will feature Babe Ruth and has a Feb. 12 release date. Other cards this year will showcase Juan Soto, Roberto Clemente, Mookie Betts, Don Mattingly, Kyle Lewis, Derek Jeter, Christian Yelich, Tom Seaver, Jackie Robinson, Wade Boggs and Ernie Banks. Three other players will be named at a later date.
His last card of 2020 featured Mike Trout and sold 6,661 copies. The archive of past releases can be found here. Last year’s Game Within The Game cards are no longer available through Topps but can be found on eBay.
Jennis has had an eclectic career as an artist. He has produced paintings from “Gone With the Wind” for The Bradford Exchange’s plate collections, provided illustrations for a golf “how-to” book written by Greg Norman (“instructional stuff”), and did artwork for a “Wizard of Oz” children’s singalong book. He did portraits of former New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey and Marie Garibaldi, the first woman to sit on the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Jennis does not consider what he does work. In fact, he relishes the chance to paint.
“The deadlines do cause some stress, but it’s almost a privilege,” Jennis said. “The artwork gets viewed and collected, and well, it’s a big deal.”
Jennis grew up a sports fan in New Jersey, rooting for the New York Yankees, although “most of my family are Mets fans.” However, his favorite players did not live near the Big Apple: Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Juan Marichal caught his eye. A card collector as a youth, Jennis confessed he did not pay much attention to the Topps cards he owned.
“I wish I knew how valuable they were,” Jennis said of the Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and other stars in his collection. “I wasn’t that great at the cards. I’d lose at flipping all the time.”
But while Jennis played shortstop and pitched on his youth baseball teams, painting was his passion. He created his first work when he was 7 years old. His teacher, impressed by Jennis’ work, sent home a note and told his parents that the boy had promise and that they should “explore it.”
“My first painting was on a piece of wood,” Jennis said. “It was a fancy piece; you’d think it would be crazy to do it in oil.”
At Christmas and Hanukkah, Jennis would receive art-themed presents. After graduating from Westfield High School in 1977, Jennis continued his art career, attending the Rhode Island School of Design in 1977-78. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University in 1983.
Jennis also studied art in Italy for six weeks through a program sponsored by Villanova University.
“Siena was the home base, but we went to Rome and Venice,” Jennis said. “There was a lot of street art to see. That was fun.”
Jennis also spent a week in Paris, and later was commissioned by a church to do a painting that mirrored Jean Restout’s “Pentecost,” which is housed at the Louvre. He also did a painting of the Mona Lisa, adding more color to the background.
Jennis enjoys that kind of work, where he can add his own interpretation.
“There are people who go to museums and they sit at an easel and do a copy of the master’s pieces,” Jennis said. “That is really not that hard.
“The hardest part is getting into the strokes, the flow of the brush, the empathy the artist was trying to convey. I try to get into the artist’s head.”
Like most artists who visit Paris, Jennis sat near the banks of the Seine and would sketch. Sitting across from the famed Notre Dame cathedral, Jennis would attract onlookers.
“You would draw a crowd,” Jennis said, admitting he preferred to do his artwork without an audience.
Jennis really began to draw attention when he spent three years painting collectible plates for The Bradford Exchange. He confessed that he had never seen “Gone With the Wind” before he began painting, but learned quickly that when going on tour, artists had to be knowledgeable about their subject matter.
“I’d comb through all the movie references and show them to clients,” Jennis said. “The illustration world is how I learned about the business world. (Having) the talent is great but if you don’t have the business acumen (you can’t succeed).”
Jennis was helped in part when he toured with famed artist Thomas Kinkade, who specialized in idyllic and pastoral subjects.
“We used to go on promotional tours,” Jennis said of Kinkade, who died in 2012. “He was an interesting character.
“I did learn a bit of marketing from him.”
The collectible plates work led Jennis to create the artwork for the Oz children’s books. The company that commissioned the work knew about Jennis’ work and hired him.
“They were very particular,” Jennis said. “They needed to make sure you’re someone who can deliver.
“I do pride myself that I can draw or paint anything,” Jennis said. “The only thing I can’t do is comic books.”
As a longtime resident in Hunterdon County in New Jersey, Jennis’ artwork dots the area communities. He created three murals for the county’s tricentennial celebration in 2014.
“You know what that area is famous for? ‘The Trial of the Century,’” Jennis said, referring to the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Accused in the kidnapping and death of the infant son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, Hauptmann’s trial took place in Flemington. Hauptmann, convicted on circumstantial evidence was put to death in the electric chair in April 1936.
Jennis had a long relationship with Golf magazine and eventually did an instruction book with Norman, although he never met the Great White Shark. He did, however, visit Norman’s New York estate, which overlooked the Hudson River, and illustrated 80 topics for the book.
“It was a real fun experience,” Jennis said.
Painting baseball players is a fun task.
Topps had seen portraits Jennis did of Odell Beckham Jr. and was intrigued.
“I showed my work to Topps,” Jennis said. “Since I loved to do portraits and action, it was something I wanted to do.
“They wanted to do a little more.”
That’s when the partnership between Jennis and Topps began. Jennis is constantly looking for nuance, trying to capture a player’s personality and style.
“I think to myself, ‘What is it about the player I want to portray?’” he said. “My goal is to get into the essence of each individual.”
There are still some players Jennis would like to draw, including Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. That is why he is happy with his arrangement with Topps.
“I’m going to stick around in this arena,” Jennis said. “I enjoy it.”