I’ve been working a lot lately but really wanted to participate in this month’s Character Design Challenge: Tarot.
A few months ago I felt bogged down by how many awesome Character artists are on Instagram ( and tumblr too for that matter :P). I turned to my boyfriend and said: “There are Sooo many people who draw beautiful characters.”
He looked at me and said: “Then draw ugly ones”…
So I chose “The Hermit” for my Character, and I have to say: I had a blast with this old Crone. :P
The Language Of Tarot: How to Determine A Theme For Your Deck
What does it mean for tarot to have a language?
The “language” of tarot in this exercise refers to the way that the tarot communicates with the reader to highlight its message. If you own a deck, you may have noticed that amongst the traditional meanings there is often a deck-centric motif that ties the entire deck together.
The most basic traditional symbols come from the Rider Waite’s traditional meanings of each card (we’ll cover this regarding the major arcana during the actual challenge). Additionally, the four elements of the minor arcana are often incorporated into the major arcana (Cups, Pentacles, Wands, Swords - for the prime example, check out The Magician in many decks). The original RWS imagery is pastoral and reflects common human scenarios while still having enough mysticism to convey an otherworldly feel. It connects with the reader while still feeling as if it brims with great power.
That said, many modern decks have worked with additional language to further enhance the reading. whether this is a very defined mapped concept to each card, (a tarot deck using famous goddesses to represent each card, a dragon tarot, a fandom tarot), and/or a stylistic theme (a deck stylized around victorian gothic illustration, the housewives tarot, a strongly geometric and abstract tarot) This adds an extra layer of interpretation to the basic Rider-Waite style meanings and an extra oomph of personality.
Even Rider Waite clones thrive due to a theme - this is what makes them coherent. The Tarot Illuminati relies heavily on the RWS visual cues, but interprets them as larger than life, epic figures with extra texture and color - different cultural motifs are also used to represent each minor arcana suit (warm, flowing Arabic influence for the wands, severe, cold Elizabethan for the Swords) to further cue the readings even into the Majors. I’ve described reading with the Tarot Illuminati before as reading with a bunch of fantasy metal album covers - it achieves an epic, grandiose, over the top and severe feel even on top of the original pastoral imagery.
This is what makes a good tarot deck so powerful - that sense of coherency and those symbolic handholds for grasping information. The original decks draw on pastoral scenes, human interaction, almost religious-esque imagery and common emotions to depict each card - these are things that can tap into intuition and the human psyche. Further variations on the cards in more modern decks play with these existing themes and symbols to add nuance and personality to the readings.
This sounds stressful!
This isn’t stressful or hard to achieve - in fact, beginning with a concept is going to give you the cornerstone of your new deck. If you start with a theme or concept to use in conjunction to the traditional RWS deck, you will find the pieces fall into place a lot easier. This is a lot like giving yourself a prompt - giving yourself a limited frame of reference can stop you from getting lost or overwhelmed.
Now, you don’t have to use this method to create a deck by any means! If you have a vision in mind, if you prefer to work intuitively with the pre-determined theme really just being whatever your style is, or if you are just concerned that you’re going to get too locked into a framework, you can just go by feel or think about what you’d like to have. But if you’re stuck, here’s a place to start.
What should my concept be?
Let me ask you another question - what do you care about?
Your deck is going to be successful if you make it about something you can relate to and have passion towards. Put aside having any sort of commercial appeal or a need for deep mysticism or meaning for now. What do you care about? What do you connect with in your spiritual practice? What do you just connect with in life? What do you like?
The answer to these questions will be something that you as a creator and a reader will be able to connect with and find extra power in when you make and read from your deck. Even if you don’t think your theme is particularly “profound”, it will be relatable to you, and your readings will be that much more personalized for it.
What should my deck be like?
Try answering these questions if you want a different kind of start:
Do you like clean pictures or complex images?
Do you like big spreads or do you want to get a lot from one card?
Do you want to mirror the rider waite, or do you want to reinvent many of your own interpretations?
Do you have a particular passion, interest or hobby that would go well with a tarot deck?
Once you answer these questions, you’ll have an idea of what kind of deck you’d like to have, and you can consider a practical theme accordingly.
How do I apply my theme and establish my language?
We will do this more in the challenge itself, but if you want to plan ahead, start by listing out all of the major arcana. Look through your own favorite decks online or in person to see what has been done with each card. Write down the impressions you get from each card. What aspect of your theme can you relate to what you’ve written down? What symbols in the card and concepts map to part of your own interests?
Take notes for yourself. What feels like it could be wands - or what wands mean - to you?
I am drowning in my theme. I feel stuck and uninspired!
Then drop it, my friend. Sometimes the best way to create is to get out of your own way. Was it working great right up until The Hanged Man? Do you feel like your Hermit is being forced? Do not feel married to your theme - if you get another idea, roll with it. Accept some cards might work better than others and you can always, always redo something later!
Remember - this is a framework, and you can always, always break out of the frame.
Can I get some general theme inspiration?
Sure the heck you can, sonny.
Are you thinking of using your deck as part of a religious/spiritual practice? Honor your religious beliefs by theming your deck around your religion. Make each card a reference to a story or figure from a religious text, make a deck of deities from your pantheon, design a deck with a different spiritual quote for each card.
Even if you aren’t religious, taking inspiration from fairytales, folktale and mythology characters and archetypes can be an awesome way to theme each Major Arcana card.
Even your favorite storytelling devices have archetypes and tropes that could spark cards in a majors deck (think of the common tropes of things like western comics, film noir, anime, horror flicks, musicals - what cards do those make you think of?)
And while we’re on it, go ahead and give in to the Pop Culture call and make a fandom deck - these are incredibly fun to make and share. Assign a concept or character from your favorite thing to each card, and drop in plenty of goofy, nerdy references.
A simple idea: Try to make a deck where you use a different color per card. No repeats. This is great if you like color magic.
One of my favorite things about the Shadowscapes tarot is that in the Major Arcana, there is a reoccurring red ribbon that is shown in different interactions with each card (the hermit hangs his lantern off of it, the fool lets it flutter in the wind, the devil ties his victims to himself with it). What would happen if you made a major arcana with just a series of reoccurring characters or a reoccurring item being treated in different ways?
What’s your favorite place in the world? Set your deck there.
If you are a type snob, this idea is either your dream or your nightmare - make a digital deck with different fonts for each card.
Select imagery entirely from the same aesthetic. Moody and broody, bright and kawaii, southern gothic, high fantasy, modern solarpunk - think of a setting and work with the visual tropes from it.
What’s your biggest takeaway advice for this post?
Be aware of language, but don’t try to master your language. Your tarot language has not yet been invented, and hence you don’t need to speak it for the deck before it even exists. Don’t worry and follow your instincts as you are planning and creating.
If you’ve ever sat through a lit or art class and had to look at ~the masterworks~, you’ve had to deal with a teacher telling you about all the rich symbolism in a piece of writing or a painting that was fully intentional. You’ve probably had That Kid in your class go “but how do we know it was done on purpose?” You might feel incredibly overwhelmed as an artist by these masterworks, especially at the insistence of the teacher that the great master knew what they were doing. This might be what this feels like.
It is a daunting thing to look at decks with great concepts and go, how did they think of that so far ahead of time?
I’ll give you a spoiler - they didn’t. The symbolism was both intentional and unintentional, in all of the above: the writings, the paintings and those tarot decks. In those fabled masterworks, the artist most likely started going by instinct or had one idea and throughout the process, more clever ideas clicked for them. They reread their work and saw an awesome chance for a larger metaphor that they then carved out in the rewrite. They smeared paint somewhere, created a happy accident, and developed a groundbreaking new technique. It is the human condition to unearth something larger of what already exists (just go ask all of religious mythos), and you can exploit that to create a rich, brilliant deck, rather than grow too focused on creating too much symbolism and theming off the bat.
In your deck, you will find lots of amazing details and patterns you didn’t even intend, and you can enhance those and play with them in later cards or reworks of earlier cards. So go ahead, relax, keep a concept in mind just enough to start, be willing to go where your mind takes you, and make sure you have fun!