A holiday tradition artist Judi Betts started with a few hand-designed cards more than 50 years ago is now what she calls a "kiss on the cheek" for 2,500 lucky recipients.

It all started when Betts, now 80, moved to Baton Rouge from Chicago in 1959. To keep in touch with old friends, she started sending holiday cards she designed herself. The early cards were original line drawings, but in the late 1960s, Betts chose watercolor as an emphasis in her art and in her holiday cards as well.

From the beginning, the cards have been professionally printed. The first cards were done in a traditional fold, like cards you buy in a store.

"Then I became fascinated with pop-up art, and I started doing irregular folds," she said.

Her printer, Vivid Ink Graphics, uses four-color offset for the cards that are cut in nontraditional ways with special dies designed for each year's card. The front of the card is a copy of a varying number of paintings Betts did during the year. The back complements the front and usually contains the message.

"Choosing colors for the back is not something you do in five minutes," she said. "It's like choosing colors for a house."

This year's card is based on 25 paintings Betts did for a show, "Passionate About Palms," at the Baton Rouge Gallery in June. She used three of the paintings for the front with two three-dimensional palm trees between the paintings. The back, with the message "Warm Wishes," is done in colors that complement the paintings on the front. The card is uniquely folded to have five facets that open out to a full 17 inches. 

"I want these cards to feel big," Betts said. "When they are opened, I want the feeling of excitement, a burst of joy, something they haven't seen before."

Even the envelopes are designed with the same theme as the cards. "Envelopes are like the introduction. I don't want the envelope to look like a bill," she said.

Betts plans her cards all year.

"My mind is creating 365 days a year," she said.

She gives her idea to the printer by the end of September and sees a proof by the middle of October. "I try to make each year very different," she said.

She has a longtime computer assistant, who prints out labels from a list she developed over decades. She stuffs each envelope with a card and a schedule of her upcoming workshops. She attaches, with great care for neatness, the labels and stamps and signs each card. She sends her holiday cards to former students, old friends, collectors of her artwork and interesting people she has met over the years. 

Nationally recognized as a watercolor artist, Betts has been interested in art since she was a child. "I never put my crayons away," she said.

She has an undergraduate degree in art from Indiana University and a master's from LSU. She started her career teaching fifth grade in Ascension Parish, and in 1966 was the first art teacher hired in Ascension, where she taught for 25 years. She has taught in every state except South Dakota and Delaware and in most provinces of Canada. She is the recipient of hundreds of awards and recently did a demonstration for the American Watercolor Society in New York. She is the author of two books on watercolor.

Betts was married for 53 years to Tom Betts, who was in the towboat and barge business. He died in 2011. The new man in her life is Dale Nyman, a vocalist and musician. "I see a great relationship between music and art," she said.

Although her paintings are for sale, the cards never are.

"They are a gift," she said.