Creating your own tarot deck A surprising number of people dream of creating their own tarot deck, but few actually make it through to card 78. That’s hardly surprising; it is a major commitment of time and creative energy. However, making your own cards leads to a depth of understanding and knowledge of the Tarot that you simply will not get by using a published deck. The cards become your own unique statement: a reflection of yourself which, if you allow it, can transform your life. Making something, the product of mind, body, and soul, is a truly amazing experience, and is not confined to those individuals we call artists. We all have our own unique form of self-expression Every human is naturally creative. Unfortunately, we are often criticised or discouraged from using our natural gifts and, over the years, lose touch with the intuitive spontaneity of childhood. But the well-spring is still there. Your dream of creating a tarot deck could well be the call to reconnect with it. Certainly, you do not have to be an artist to produce your own deck. Most tarot packs have been produced by passionate amateurs, and range from handwritten cards to accomplished watercolours. Books such as The New Tarot by Rachel Pollack, and the three-volume set of Encyclopedia of Tarot by Stuart Kaplan, show an abundance of wonderfully creative decks: each is part of the vast range of human experience. So if all you can manage are stick people or words, rough shapes or abstract designs, it will be as valid as the most accomplished artist’s pack. In fact, only a handful of tarot decks have been produced by world-renowned artists – more than four centuries lie between Bonifacio Bembo’s Visconti-Sforza deck of c.1430, and Salvador Dali’s of 1984. A common question is how long you should study the tarot before attempting to produce your own pack. The answer is simple: start when you have the urge to do so. You will learn on the way. If you wait too long, the energy will dissipate. I often feel that the more we learn, the less fresh our approach; we become burdened by the weight of all those experts who know so much more than we do. So act on that first surge of energy, get it outside of you to manifest in the world. Begin anywhere – whichever card appeals most – and see where it takes you. Use any medium: paint, collage, pencil, crayons, pen and ink; carved wood, papier maché, stone, plasticine... If you feel happiest with a plan of action, draw up a list of cards you’d like to begin with, research their meanings, look at other packs, and then rough out some ideas until you produce something that has the right ‘feel’. Even then, it doesn’t have to be perfect; you will find that your ideas refine as you progress. The process and the benefits You may well produce a few cards and then stop. In that case, creating those images has fulfilled your creative need; you will almost certainly have learnt something valuable about yourself, and have something unique to show for it. If, however, you stopped because you’re overawed by the thought of seventy-seven (or so) more cards, remember the famous journey of a thousand miles. We begin by taking one step, and then another. We continue, because the journey takes us to places we could never have imagined: through into the mythic worlds, the dreamtime, the well-spring of existence – whatever you choose to call the deep source of inspiration and creativity. There are other profound benefits to creating your own pack. As you work, you’ll gain a deep insight into each card you produce. Normally if you meditate on a card, it’ll be in blocks of – say – 20 minutes. If you set out to design that card, you’ll probably research it, check out other packs, rough out some ideas and finally produce it. Now we’re talking hours at a time, all focused on this card and everything it means, symbolically, spiritually, archetypally. This creates a permanent bridge to your intuition and subconscious wisdom: communicating not only with the tarot, but with your deepest Self. The cards – particularly the Major Arcana – portray a journey of initiation. With every image you produce, your personal experience of its spiritual path grows. You could well find yourself moving from the early stages of creativity to feelings of achievement, balance, despair, endurance, on to hope, awareness and finally, completion and fulfilment. It is an almost alchemic process of transmutation. The Rider-Waite Tarot and the Thoth deck We can sense this process in the two most famous decks today. Interestingly, both were designed by women: Pamela Colman Smith painted the ‘Rider-Waite’ pack in 1909 under A.E. Waite’s guidance; and Lady Frieda Harris produced Aleistair Crowley’s Thoth Tarot between 1930 and 1935. Pamela (Pixie) Colman Smith spent her childhood in the UK although the family’s roots were in the US; the Colmans were followers of the philosopher Swedenborg and Pamela‘s work depicts a complex and vivid dream world full of mysticism, ritual, and fantasy. Both Arthur Waite and Pamela were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and she followed him when he seceded from Y.B. Yeats’ Lodge. Waite commissioned her to paint a ‘corrected’ version of the tarot including pictorial images in the pip cards, which closely follow the designs on the Sola-Busca deck of late 15th Century, the earliest extant pack with illustrated Minor Arcana. The resulting pack is quite cool and slightly flowery, but lingers in the mind – witness the number of packs nowadays based on her images. In contrast, the cards Lady Frieda Harris painted for Crowley are full of passion and movement. The deck may owe its particular sexual energy to the love she purportedly felt for Crowley, or it may be her particular essence. There is surprisingly little information on Frieda’s life. She was married to Sir Percy Harris, a minor baronet, staying with him until his death in 1952. She then moved to Srinagar Kashmir to live on a houseboat. This was a woman with a highly original mind, who managed to marry artistic technique with the deepest mysticism, transforming her Art Deco style into something immensely powerful. Underpinning her work were the concepts of projective geometry, an offshoot of Euclidean geometry studied by disciples of Steiner in the 1930s. The basic tenet was that time and space are not separate: a central point and infinite space can occupy the same position. We see this concept made visible in the Thoth cards, which Frieda would work and rework to satisfy Crowley who (unusually) praised her work highly. She visited him shortly before his death in December 1947 and still remembered him fondly in a letter in 1958. She died in 1962. My own journey I created my tarot cards between 1973 and 1981, working in the evenings. By the time the pack was complete they were an integral part of my psyche and spiritual awareness. I have worked with them, read them, meditated on them, and grown through them for over thirty years. Now they are actually published [The Intuitive Tarot, Connections Publishing (UK) and St Martin’s Press (New York)]. It has been an incredible experience. However, it was by no means an easy journey. Brought up in Zimbabwe, I wanted to be an artist as far back as I can remember. Lack of obvious talent meant only grudging family support and when, at senior school, I was faced with a choice of science or art, my father decreed I should take science. In the end I took neither and, my dream of doing a fine art degree in tatters, I ended up at a technical college in South Africa, studying commercial art. I spent most of my time trying to catch up with the other students artistically and emotionally, failing miserably when my first love affair ended in feelings of terror and disintegration. When I transferred to fine art in my second year, my father withdrew his financial support (fine art, he felt, was tantamount to starvation in a garret). I finally flunked out, spent a couple of very painful years at home and finally, as a sort of rite of passage, came over to Britain in 1971. London in the early 1970s was a revelation: I loved its contrasts and off-beat humour. I stayed and married in 1972. I had too little self-confidence to look for work as an artist, so found myself the first of many 9-5 office jobs and tried, tentatively, to paint at night. I discovered the Tarot through a television programme in 1972 but wasn’t impressed; the images seemed crude and ugly. However, a few months later in one of those odd compulsions that can change a life, I suddenly decided I had to have a pack. At the time there were very few available, so I began painting my own – a rather uninspiring set of cards based on medieval tapestry, which I later sold outright to US Games. The Intuitive Tarot One evening in 1973, doodling idly, I looked down and found I had drawn the Fool – but a very different Fool from any I had previously encountered. His eyes, otherworldly yet compelling, looked deep into my soul, and challenged me to follow him. I could almost hear the sounds of his world, and smell the heat of that other sun. In some indefinable yet vital way, I had come home. The next day I began on the Magician. He too appeared almost effortlessly, with that same sense of what I now call the Otherworld. As I continued, reading everything I could find on the tarot, I knew that I had found my home, my soul work, and also my spiritual path. I had rejected organised religion at art college, but all my life without realising it I had been searching for the direct, gnostic connection to the numinous depicted in the tarot. Each card became an exploration – into myself, into mythology and Jungian psychology, ancient and medieval history, alchemy, Taoism, the qabalah, even new physics. Other tarot decks were, of course, an endless inspiration, particularly the Thoth and Rider-Waite decks, and one of the offspring of the latter, Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot. Alfred Douglas’s The Tarot became my favourite reference book, while Art Nouveau also provided a constant source of ideas. I would begin by sketching out a number of tiny thumbnails, working with various aspects of the card meaning, until I produced one I liked. I’d then paint it full size (5” x 3.5”). At the beginning I had no idea about colour and used a chart to check what combinations worked. After a while this became instinctive, so for those who think they have no eye for colour, take heart – like everything, it can be learnt! Although most of the cards flowed through with ease, some were much more difficult. The Empress, the Devil, and the World were designed and redesigned. I dimly sensed they were mirroring parts of my psyche: my repressed anger, lack of emotional holding, and an inability to deal with the world. In a reprise of my college experience I once again found myself in some psychic neverland outside ‘normal’ existence, wrung by existential terrors. After a few months I recovered enough to start psychotherapy, and began to work through my issues. I had never considered producing the Minor Arcana. However, around 1978, encouraged by friends and my own recovery, I suddenly decided to go for it. I used a slightly smaller oval motif as the Majors and attributed each suit with its own special quality and colour range – Cups were predominantly blue, Discs were gold, Wands green, and Swords neutral. The work grew easier as I progressed; towards the end, I could complete a card in an evening. So it was that in 1981, I went to New York with my Tarot deck, to talk about publication to US Games. The next stage of the journey Stuart Kaplan is a canny businessman and his terms were uncompromising: you gave him both originals and the copyright. I decided to wait for a better offer. It took twenty- two years – but, as you see, we made it! In the meantime, I completed my course of psychotherapy and studied psychosynthesis, arts therapy, and dreamwork. I began producing large, powerful oil paintings which I interacted with, journeyed into, and learned from; and, in 2001, accomplished my childhood dream of getting a degree in Fine Art. 2002 was my year of miracles. First I discovered my tribe in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Their support gave me the courage to leave office life after thirty years. Philip Carr-Gomm, the Order’s Chief, saw my cards, thought they were stunning, and generously shared his contacts in the publishing world, as well as proposal templates. As I began writing my proposal, another helpful professional suggested the title ‘Intuitive Tarot’. This was the marketing theme the cards needed. The tarot is, of course, an intuitive tool, but my proposal could now emphasize each reader’s ability to connect into their intuition, and gave them a space with each card for notes. The day after I sent in the proposal, the publishers emailed me to ask for more details. We had a dream meeting where everything flowed. They liked me, loved the cards, and immediately accepted them for publication. The mock-up was displayed at the London Book Fair, and St Martin’s Press bought the publishing rights. Then all I had to do was to write the book! This is not the way most tarot decks are produced. Usually a writer will conceive a theme they find interesting, and an artist is commissioned to illustrate this theme. I had done the whole thing backwards! Nor were my images illustrations: somehow, they felt more like the essence. Writing about them, then, was easy. I meditated on each card (see box), incorporated any new ideas coming through; gave traditional interpretations, suggestions as to how the card could be used in self-development, and then opened it up to the reader’s own intuition. By November 2003 the book was finished. I spent a few months cleaning up the scans of the cards, and then waited for publication. This is not a process you can hurry: it takes around two years from start to finish, as each stage needs proofing and checking, and nowadays the printers are often in far-away places like China. But finally, in October 2004, the tarot was launched, and I am now able to enjoy it as it finds its place in the world. Experiencing your child grown to maturity is a strange and wonderful feeling. Getting your pack published If, once you have painted your pack, you too would like to get them published, ensure your marketing theme is clear and topical. There are so many packs on the market at present that this can be a challenge, but it isn’t impossible. Check out the esoteric bookshops and see what sells; get feedback from friends, clients, tarot groups (a number of which can be found on the internet). Other tarot decks, and The Artists and Writers Handbook (updated annually) are invaluable resources. Write your proposal, include a biography and sections on your theme and your market research findings, a summary of chapter headings and the subject matter you’ll cover. Illustrate your proposal with three or four images, and keep the layout clean with lots of white space. So now it’s time to begin your work. If you allow it, the tarot will take you on a magical mystery journey into strange and far-away lands, into the heights and depths of the human creative spirit. I wish you all the best on your path, and know that it will repay your hard work with gifts you cannot conceive at present. Let me know how you get on! Cilla Conway is the creator of The Intuitive Tarot (ISBN no. 1-85906-145-1). She lives in London, teaches at the College of Psychic Studies, and runs workshops on creative art, as well as the tarot. www.cillaconway.com and www.theintuitivetarot.com Meditating on a card in preparation for your own design First research the meanings and images of the card you’ve chosen. Then close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and center yourself. You may already have a favourite way of approaching your inner worlds, but if not, imagine yourself standing before a large oak doorway. Knock firmly, and then push the door open and walk through. See yourself standing in your inner landscape. Be aware of everything around you – place, colours, smells, sounds. If you don’t see anyone nearby, start walking; or, alternatively, send a call out for the figure/s in the card to come and join you. Visualise them as clearly as you can, and imagine your conversation. How did they come to be here? What is their story? Can they help you in any way, particularly with an image when you return? Finally, ask if there’s anything they want from you. If you’re with one of the figures in the Major Arcana, be aware you are communicating with an archetype, a fundamental human energy field, and respect it accordingly. When you are ready to return, ask if there is anything else that needs to be said, give your thanks, and move back through the oak door. Return to your body by taking a few more deep breaths. Like dreams, details from visualizations can disappear very quickly. Make rough notes, any quick jottings or ideas immediately after returning. Then, you are free to move into sketches for the finished card. You may find the ideas arrive without effort, as though they were just waiting to be called; but if nothing comes immediately, give them time to distill in the alchemic processes of the mind. They’ll probably arrive when you least expect it.
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