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Thinking about Index-Card-a-Day / ICAD 2021

Amy Daily Drawing | Featured | ICAD , , , , , , , , , ,

Stack of ICAD 2019

Note: This is an update of a similar 2020 post as ICAD approached last year. This post contains thoughts on the upcoming Index-Card-a-Day Challenge 2021 and a look back at prior years. The “look back” portion is unchanged other than the addition of some samples from 2020. This is, in its own way, a growing repository of summer index card art challenges via ICAD.

Index-Card-a-Day 2021 / Summer Art on Index Cards

The 2021 Index-Card-a-Day Challenge is coming up (June 1-July 31). Hosted by Tammy at Daisy Yellow, this is an annual creative challenge and a good one! I have talked about ICAD many times through the years, but each year, I reach a point mid-May and realize that I need to figure out a plan for the year. ICAD doesn’t require a plan. But I do. (I seem to require some kind of very loose plan for most challenges I do. I often roll into the actual start of the challenge, so much so that it sometimes seems like I didn’t even decide on the plan, but I tend to do some pre-thinking to see where I’m at and what my options might be. This is partly because I tend to work in series. That, too, is not required for ICAD.)

A History of ICAD and the ICAD Community

The challenge started in 2011, so this is the 11th year of ICAD as a public art challenge. Each week during June and July, Tammy posts a set of daily prompts and weekly themes. These are all optional and can be used together or separately. Some people love the challenge of creating something that uses each daily prompt. Some prefer to focus on the weekly themes. And some people just focus on creating art on index cards and don’t use any of the prompts. That, too, is okay.

Late in May, a special ICAD Facebook group opens up (for a fee), and many, many people share their daily cards there. The community around ICAD at Facebook is very active, supportive, and inspiring. Many people make lasting art friendships through ICAD, and many people return each year to reconnect with ICAD friends. (Note: Many people also share and “do” ICAD via Instagram.)

The Quest for Creative Balance (or Fitting ICAD In)

ICAD has become a standard part of my summer, my summer art, and my summer creative life. When I think of my creative calendar each year, there are several set challenges I know I will do. Like Inktober (or my own version – Inktoportraits) in October, ICAD is one of the challenges I try to fit in.

Even so, I’m not always sure how to balance the shift to index cards (or the addition of at least something each day on index card) with my regular creative work. This year, I am especially concerned with juggling ICAD and splitting my focus because I have been doing #illustrateyourweek for the last year. Maintaining my weekly illustrated journal is a primary focus for me. It also tends to be the “only” creative thing I manage each day since I work full-time and only make art at night. (Note:  in simple math and hours, there are a number of hours at night; available energy at that point is harder to quantify and yet equally important! As it is, I often spend a few of my night hours working on art and maintaining my daily creative habit.)

I just completed #the100DayProject, and the fact that I built my focus on circles and dip pen into my illustrated journal is probably why the project was a success for me this year. ICAD forces me to split my focus because I have to pull out of the sketchbook and onto 4×6 (or 3×5) index cards. This year, I am not sure how to manage both, which means I need to sort out where my head is at with ICAD and what I might do. I might not do a large or complicated series this year. (My brain has to keep saying it because I’m having trouble accepting that this might be the reality and also that I might not do something that will meet what others expect from me for ICAD.) (I am listing some of my pre-ICAD thinking in a separate post that will be available soon.)

Why Use Index Cards?

So why ICAD? Why index cards? Why commit to a 2-month, 61-day challenge?

ICAD has a magic all of its own. I’ve used index cards since well before ICAD started. I always kept them stashed in my bag, and my kids always filled index cards when we sat at restaurant tables. A friend of mine also always carried index cards, and she had a wonderful habit of having any kids who dined with her draw the salt shakers. (I imagine that turned into quite a special collection over the years! I know my kids contributed a few shakers to the mix.)

Index cards are simple. They are imperfect. They are easy. They are basic. They are not fancy. They don’t pretend to be something they are not.

That isn’t to say that people don’t try and turn them into something else. I do prefer the thicker cards. I’ve used one or other kind of thick card from the beginning, and I have no misgivings about that. But, index cards do have limitations. Some inks bleed. Wet mediums may buckle. The tooth of the card may cause feathering for ink users. There are lots of things that are imperfect about index cards for serious art.

But that’s the catch. The index card isn’t trying to be a beautiful 18×24 inch canvas. It isn’t a premium, imported watercolor pad that you need to extract pages from with a knife.

It’s an index card. Simple. Flexible.



ICAD and the Creative Habit

The ICAD challenge affects each creative person differently, but for many people, the challenge is really important in helping affirm creative goals and helping build creative routines and practices. If you are brand new to art and wanting to establish a creative practice, ICAD is an excellent 61-day challenge to help with this.

For people who already make art “daily” throughout the year or engage in multiple creative challenges each year, the index card challenge may feel a bit different. You already have an established practice. You may make your share of what you secretely consider  “serious” art (even if you say that isn’t what you are doing). Given that, the forced focus on an index card as the substrate can be a real challenge. If you stick with it though and just enjoy the act of creating daily art, it can be a lot of fun. You might even find that you develop work you love just as much as the work you’ve created on fancy paper.

What Am I Doing for ICAD 2021?

So, here it is, mid-May. I’ve talked with Tammy about this year’s ICAD, and yet, even so, another week has passed, and I don’t have a clue. Actually, I’ve had lots of clues. But I don’t know where I will land. I think I wake up each day with a new idea for how I can build a series I will find meaningful (or beautiful).

A few of my ICAD series have been so important to my work that I always sort of want to do something similar. It almost never works to try this, but there is always a yearning when I look back and see how a series unfolded. In the strangest way, some of my most interesting work may have been on index cards. Some of my most colorful work, too, has been on index card. Just glancing at pictures from prior years makes me really think that all of my ideas for this year are just silly. I’ll probably end up heading right back to portrait and COPIC land. And, maybe that’s what ICAD holds for me…. I’ve been thinking of different approaches, and all of them would be good for a series and a good way to continue to grow my skills. But none of them would have the same appeal as the colorful portraitwork I did in recent years.

I didn’t know I was going to reach that conclusion until I saw the images in this post. I still will be documenting some of the things I’ve been thinking about as options. I often “acid test” things I’m thinking about by trying a few of them in advance. Would I hate doing that every day for 61? Will it look good or interesting? Is it complex enough to sustain my interest for the full time?

(Note: talking about working in series is a can of worms of its own. This post isn’t the place for that, but I do want to note that even if you start with a series idea, it is okay if you shift gears at any point. Never feel that you are locked into a series.)

Podcast Episodes

There are countless episodes of the CMP that talk about ICAD and challenges “like” ICAD that involve daily art, commitment, routine, self-discipline, and a certain creative mindset (which I find to be incredibly powerful, balancing, mindful, and meaningful). To get started, you might try Episode 314 (from 2018).

The Retrospective

In 2019, I spent time trying to sort out how many years I have participated in ICAD. Because of the podcast, I have known Tammy since before there was an ICAD (and before there was a Daisy Yellow), but it seems like I must not have participated in ICAD in its earliest years. When trying to track my own participation and date myself, I found boxes holding some of my cards and took a look at each year, reflecting on what I did in that year, what my line looked like, and how I approached the challenge.

Most years, I have approached ICAD with some form of loose plan, whether it involves subject matter (like chairs or portraits with sunglasses), or medium (like ballpoint), or a combination of elements (like incorporating canceled stamps or bits of fabric or quotes or song lyrics or combining black and white with Copic marker).  Sometimes I don’t really understand my plan until Day 1. Sometimes I have a general idea that gives me a construct as I begin. I often start with a plan and then shift as the days unfold. There are prompts that can be used for ICAD, too, and some days I nod to the prompt, and some days I don’t.

Note: Early on, I was one of the very few people who “drew” for ICAD. I always felt a bit out of place in the ICAD community because my work was so different. As the years have passed, more and more people who do ICAD draw. And more and more people who do ICAD also now do portraits. Times change!

What I Use (or Have Used)

  • Smead 4×6 cards: These tabbed cards are nice and thick and were my pick for many years of ICAD; I’ve also used the 3×5 ones.
  • Thick white index cards: This is what I used in 2019 + 2020 and will be using in 2021. [300 | 100]
  • Plastic clipboard with storage: As silly as it sounds, this is one of my most treasured parts of ICAD! The exterior provides a great surface for drawing, and it opens up to allow you to store index cards and assorted papers and even pens/pencils inside. For portable art-making, this is perfect. Note: I have two of these. Both are sized for regular paper (so slightly larger than printer paper). Some of these are sturdier than others. One of mine (which I repurposed from my mom’s shelves) is super hard and durable; the other was a gift another year and is softer plastic and less durable for drawing. These also come in lots of colors. Check out this yellow! This one is an even bigger, deluxe model with interior compartments! And this one is legal size.
  • Plastic index card box: I have index cards in several of these. (After a bit, my cards have all landed in a shoebox, which I had on hand for free, but these plastic card holders are really handy and perfect for carrying around your blank cards and cards in progress during an ICAD season.) Other options: 4×6 plastic box, 3×5 plastic box, 3×5 plastic box (clear), clear acrylic 4×6 box
  • Copic markers: I used Copics (alcohol markers) for ICAD in 2018 and 2019. There are all kinds of packs available. Copic Ciao markers hold less ink, but they are cheaper and can be a good way to buy these alcohol markers in a range of colors. I never bought the skin tones, but if you decide to invest in Copic for portraits, you should consider a range of skin tone options to give yourself some flexibility.
    • Note – Copic markers are incredibly expensive. If you are only going to be using them for index cards, you might explore other alcohol markers that are less expensive. After all, index cards aren’t a great medium to begin with. I don’t have experience with other brands, but there are tons of options. For example, see skin tone options like: these, these, these, and these. Multi-color (non-Copic) alcohol marker sets to check included: these, these, these, and these. You’ll want to pay attention to the kinds of tips offered. I only use the “brush” tip, but many versions come with the chisel tip instead.
    • Copic marker packs: Skin tones (sketch), skin tones (Ciao), Yellow (Sketch trio), Red-Violet (Sketch trio), Violet (Sketch trio 1), Blue (Sketch trio), Orange (Sketch trio), Floral, Earth Essentials, Sea and Sky, Perfect Primaries, Pale Pastels, and on and on and on.
    • Old podcast episode: Considering Copic (2017)
  • Ballpoint (2017)
  • Black ink: For fountain pen — I used the Sailor black ink for years. This year, I have used Platinum Carbon Black for most of my drawing and love it.
  • Fountain pens: Lamy LX Safari with an EF black nib has often been my drawing pen of choice. A Preppy can also be a great way to try fountain pen. In addition to the 03 Preppy (fine), there is an 02 Preppy (extra fine), which I love. You can use Carbon ink cartridge refills, refill the cartridge with your own inks, or use a Platinum converter. You can also convert this pen to an eyedropper-filled pen using o-rings and some silicone grease.) [Day-to-day, I use a number of fountain pens and a wide range of inks, and what I like for drawing is often different than what I use for writing or for lettering or even for filling space and mindful doodling. If you use fountain pen, you should experiment with ink!]
  • Fountain pens: If you are just starting out exploring fountain pens for drawing, look for extra fine (EF) nib options. Some inexpensive choices to try include: 02 Preppy, Kakuno EF, Lamy Safari (EF) or Lamy Joy (look for an EF). You might also experiment with a Pilot Metropolitan (in F), but it’s a heavier pen. I prefer lightweight pens for drawing. (One of my favorite fountain pens is a TWSBI, but I don’t tend to draw with them.)
  • Other fine liner pens: (especially when working with Copic, finding pens that don’t smear or bleed is important — this requires testing with your pens, markers, and paper. Some of the pens I use in various situations: Pitt pen S, Uni Pin, Micron)

My History with ICAD

Here is a quick look at my experience with ICAD through the years.


2013 may have been my first ICAD. In pulling out these cards, it is immediately obvious that there is a difference in the type of cards I used and a difference in approach, but seeing these pen and ink pieces brought back the days so clearly. Many in the set from 2013 are graphic novel or “panel” in style, but there are assorted drawings intermixed in the series.

ICAD 2013 Pen and Ink
ICAD 2013
ICAD 2013 3


2014 was a year marked by a plan to have every card tick off several boxes, including the use of fabric and song lyrics. I sometimes am away from home for several weeks during ICAD, and so my plan doesn’t always end up easy to fulfill while away. I loved the challenge of incorporating the elements along with a drawing — and meeting the prompt on some days as well.

ICAD 2014 Samples


I found only a few cards for 2015, which may mean they are somewhere else, or it may mean something else. (I am not sure which.) I include one here to mark the year.

ICAD 2015


2016 was a favorite year. This was also the year I “came back” to my podcast. My enthusiasm was really high, and I started out with a plan to do “stuffed things” (Episode 185: Tracking Teddy). Mid-way through the challenge, I morphed into series both with chairs and with windows. At the end of the challenge, I started doing cards that combined collage and pen and ink and continued working on index cards on for another month or more.

ICAD 2016 bears
ICAD 2016 Samples 2


2017 was an important year for me and ICAD. I had started drawing portraits (for the first time in any real way) in the Fall of 2016 (shortly after ICAD 2016 ended, in fact). By summer 2017, I was entrenched in (and entranced by) the portrait drawing process and practice. I was drawing portraits daily and maintaining a daily drawing habit. In response to “life,” I latched onto the idea of a “simple pen” (a remnant found on a shelf from a stay at a hotel), and I started experimenting with ballpoint drawing. In the process of this exploration, I discovered the world of ballpoint pen artists, which is incredible. (There are amazing ballpoint artists all around the world!) There are all kinds of ways to use ballpoint (which is important to remember). Because I have an affinity for hatching, I was using ballpoint in a specific way and building up multiple layers of very light lines and always trying to find ways to get even more even tone. Because the approach I used took a great deal of time to build up tone, these drawings ended up being very time-intensive but calming and meditative in ways that taught me something new about what I need and look for in my daily practice. My skill with portraits wasn’t all that great in the summer of 2017, but I still enjoyed the exploration of “blue” and ballpoint. I loved seeing each portrait come into being in blue ballpoint each day. For 2017 ICAD, I also played with the surface of the index card, layering random paper on top of the card to create a varied substrate. I loved this part of the project and how the tone of the ink would shift over the different papers.

(Note: I had forgotten until looking at this post later and seeing card 1, the first one shown, which I drew on an airplane during a redeye flight, that part of my goal for this series was to also read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and incorporate a line from my reading each day. I still love the idea of that, but I wasn’t able to keep up with it.)

ICAD 2017 Day 1Week 6 Roundup - ICAD 2017Week 7 Roundup ICAD
ICAD Week 8


In 2018, I explored Copic (alcohol) markers. I am, at heart, a black-and-white artist. I love pen and ink. I love the refined feel of an extra-fine nib and very precise hatching. Markers are completely the opposite for me. Inspired by the work of artists at Sktchy, I became enamored with the idea of Copic markers in 2017, right around the time I committed to the ballpoint series. At the time, I wanted to explore Copic, but in almost a reaction to the overwhelm of the high price point (per marker) and the zillion colors available (how to choose), I went with the humble ballpoint (and splurged on a pack of Bic pens). As I geared up for ICAD 2018, I was still experimenting with graphic novel style (which is part of a project I always keep in process). In my portrait work, I had been experimenting with more color (various ballpoint pens and/or colored fountain pen ink) and combining my black and white approach with color. I was thinking about how to use color and how to really push myself to go all in with color. I decided to try some really comic-style pieces modeled, first, after Lichtenstein. I had been given a couple of Copic markers (but I had no skin tones), and as ICAD got started, I decided to work in color for the summer. It wasn’t the easiest fit for me, and at the same time, there was something addictive about the process and the vivid feel to the pieces. Summer 2018 ICAD turned into a “sunglasses” series. Many of the pieces include reflections in the lenses, and some of those reflections (not all) nodded at the daily ICAD prompts. In terms of technical skill, this series doesn’t match up to work with pen and ink. The lack of control with the markers and the feeling of the clunky nib was very hard for me. I had to just “go” with it. I was still using pen and ink with the Copic, so the feel of my line is embedded throughout. I love this series for many reasons. (And I just printed postcards from this series to help support the podcast.)

ICAD 2018ICAD 2018


I wasn’t sure how 2019 would unfold. I used Copic markers, as I did in 2018, but the series became a thing of its own. (That is so very important when doing a similar series.) The 2019 cards blended black and white portraits with full-color and, in some cases, patterned backgrounds. There were small sub-sets along the way, but a series near the end that all include rainbow bands of some form are definitely a favorite. I also switched index cards in 2019. The Smead tabbed cards I had used before wasn’t available, so I ordered a thick white card from a seller on Amazon. They were very white, and they worked well. (They’re available in multiple size packs. Last year I got the 100-card pack. The 300-card pack is a good deal.) I haven’t ordered anything yet, but I think I’ll be ordering these again. I liked the shift from the cream-toned manilla cards to the bright white. I’ve also toyed with the idea of just scrounging things up in the house rather than ordering anything. If I really get a series underway though, I know me…. I’d rather have the art on a nice thick card!


Cards from 2019

Cards from ICAD 2019

Stack of ICAD 2019


ICAD 2020 Amy Cowen All Rights Reserved

ICAD 2020 Amy Cowen All Rights Reserved

Overall, 2020 wasn’t my best ICAD year. It was the start of the pandemic, so things were weird. I don’t think that explains it, but it was definitely a different year. Looking through my cards now, I really feel the first half, but it feels like I lost something along the way. In preparing for the 2020 ICAD season, I think the pressure of sorting out a new avenue for something similar-but-different was a challenge. I didn’t want to simply repeat the year before, and I was still trying to reach a certain feel within portraits (and a certain blend of line). I went into the challenge with several threads: 1) I was embedding something in hair (both line and sometimes text) and I was working with a crown motif. I see those throughlines in some of the cards in the images above, and those are things I still like when I look back.

I did the 2020 challenge. I completed all 61 cards. But the second half of the work overall feels flatter. Here is an excerpt from my notes leading into 2020: “I haven’t decided what I will do this year for ICAD. Because I am really invested in my 50 Before 50 project (and the journal that goes along with it) and because I have been very much enjoying a really loose form of drawing and #drawithme inspiration in the Creativity Matters Podcast Facebook Group during the COVID-19 pandemic, I debated about participating in ICAD this year at all. What will I do for ICAD 2020? I am not sure. Most of the things that come to mind are too simple somehow to really work for the long stretch of it. I think, personally, it has to be a bit meaty and a bit symbolic for me to invest in it with my time and energy. I have had a number of things running around in my head. Most of them do intersect with portraits. The pandemic is playing a bit into my thoughts at this point, too. I look at the series as a very personal series….. that won’t change this year. Having used color and Copics the last two years, that is definitely something I am considering again. It’s like a siren’s call, use Copics again, use Copics again. So we’ll see. I think, as is most often the case, I’ll just roll into something on the first day or in the days right before it starts. There are so many options!”


Every year, I realize that looking back through ICAD from years past (even in images like the ones above) is a good process. It lets me see, all at once, how my work has changed and evolved, but even in the earliest cards, I see “me.”

I hope you always love what you do. I consider it a series well done when I look at it even a few years later and still really like elements of it. (It doesn’t mean you have to like every single card. There will always be cards you don’t like as much as others. That’s normal!)

It’s like a siren’s call, use Copics again, use Copics again.


More about ICAD

To see what I’ve been thinking about for 2021 and a list of 50 ideas for working in a series, see this post: 50 Ideas for ICAD Series + Planning for Index-Card-a-Day / ICAD 2021

I talk about ICAD every year because I support this challenge and most of my community is involved in it. There are many shows from prior years about ICAD and about working in series (which is super important for me).

This post contains some links to prior posts and pages:

ICAD 2020 (pre-challenge)

ICAD 20919 Retrospective

ICAD 2018 (pre-challenge thoughts)

I encourage you to do ICAD and to make it a part of your summer, too!


ICAD2020 Amy Cowen

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