Tag: Tarot design

VAMP: the Theda Bara Tarot, the minor arcana

VAMP: the Theda Bara Tarot is due to be entered on kickstarter to crowd fund a print run some time in September.

The minors of the VAMP deck are based on the writings of Count Matteo Boiardo (1441-1494) who proposed a 78 card tarot consisting of 21 majors, plus the Fool and four suits based on what was popularly known at the time as the Four Passions of Fear, Jealousy, Hope and Love.

In the late 1400s, Boiardo wrote a tarot poem consisting of two sonnets and five capitolo, with a tercet (3 line verse) for each capitolo. So each minor card has it’s own three line verse. The ace to ten of each suit is a tercet based on the passion, and the verses for the court cards relate to classical figures that the 15th century audience would be familiar with.

So, the Boiardo suits based on the Four Passions are the basis for the Theda Bara deck.

Mary Greer relates the Boairdo suits to the more familiar suits as:

Fear = Swords

Jealousy = Wands

Hope = Coins

Love = Cups

So, why use these suits for the Theda Bara deck rather than the more traditional suits? Well, Theda Bara was a star of the silent film era, and  the basic themes of the silent films she starred in are the passions and emotions of Fear, Jealousy, Hope and Love.

Theda was a student of the Delsarte method, that was commonly used by actors in the silent era. This involved poses and facial expressions to register emotions. In Eve Golden’s biography of Theda, she describes:

“In the early years of fan magazines, Theda and her fellow stars were pictured registering Fear, Love, ….and other facial expressions”

By modern standards the Delsarte method may look exaggerated and almost pantomime like. But it is unfair to make such judgements, and the acting methods of today may look equally ‘wrong’ in one hundred years from now. Luckily for us, we have stills from the period with Theda in poses and with facial expressions that perfectly match the Boiardo suits.

I have created each card using a suitable image to reflect that emotion. This was not an easy task. I have a collection of many hundred different images of Theda, and narrowed them down to about 130 covering the four suits. The ranking them from most to least, as Mary Greer explains in ‘Understanding the Tarot Court’

“The pip cards in the ‘good suits’ (love and hope) rank from ten down to ace and the ‘bad’ pips (fear and jealousy) ran the other direction ‘because more love and more love are better than less, and less fear and jealousy are better than more” 

This allows the reader a choice in deciding on how to  interpret the minors. The reader can relate each card to the matched traditional suit as described above by Mary Greer, so the Ace of Hope here becomes the Ace of Coins. The card is read in the traditional manner with the  common meanings for the Ace of Coins. Alternatively, they can be read in the same way that Boiardo proposed. In the case of the Ten of Fear above, this would be the ‘worst bad card’ as Fear is the worst of the Four Passions and ten is the highest rank of the pips. Using the Boiardo tercet for each card gives further guidance for the reader, and  the three verses for each minor are clearly displayed in their entirety (unlike the majors where I have deliberately obscured the text).

Once selecting the image, they were edited and digitally enhanced to be suitable for the cards. The relevant Boiardo tercet for each card was written by myself with an ink pen using an oblique nib. I used a personalised variation of chancery cursive script, a calligraphy style that was created in Italy in the 15th century, and I love to imagine that Boiardo would have used a similar style himself when creating the poems.

I will be releasing more images from the minor suits over the next few days on my instagram and facebook pages, so please follow me there to keep up to date with them.

 

Jook Tarot props

Bea Nettles created the first photographic tarot deck; the Mountain Dream Tarot published in 1975. At the time, there was no digital and no photoshop, so Nettles had to obtain all the props she needed for the deck. In her words:

If you needed an eagle in an image, you had to find an eagle to photograph…. The same was true with flames, water, boats, swords, and all of the other props.

Work in progress on the shield for the Emperor and Empress

This reality is very true for my tarot deck. Although it would be possible to scan the plates from the wet plate process into photoshop and add items there, this would not be true and honest to the process and to the aesthetic and look of the deck. Consequently, all the props I need for each card must be purchased, borrowed or made.

Making the Sun; with 21 rays

For some cards this may be a large undertaking due to the number of props needed. Some cards will get away with very little. Under props I include costumes. As noted in the previous blog, these need to adhere to the theme and aesthetic of the period, so no modern clothing allowed.

Purchasing the props would certainly be the easiest option, and I have purchased a few cheap items from vintage/antique shops and ebay. However, due to the large number of props needed, purchasing them all is not affordable. I’ve been able to borrow some items from friends and family which has helped.

The Sun almost finished

The remainder of props needed will have to be made. This is proving to actually be quite fun and enjoyable, but is very very time consuming. I realise that this is going to create a delay in producing the deck. However, I see no other way to solve this. I have a vision of the cards I want to produce and these require very specific props, and I don’t want to compromise on this.

The wet plate collodion process also has an impact on the props. Firstly, it is only sensitive to blue light, so red appears as almost black and blue as almost white. This means for some props I need to be careful about their colour. For example, yellow also appears as almost black, so if I want my Sun to look light on the black and white scale, it can’t be yellow.

Foamboard sword made for a test, and foam armour templates

Secondly, as I mention in a previous blog post, the process does not produce pin sharp images that we are used to today. Images are a lot softer, with rapid fall off of focus. So the process is very forgiving, and I will be able to get away with props that would look terrible on digital, but look fine on wet plate.

In a future blog post, I will describe the prop making process for some of the items I am making in more detail

Jook Tarot script and lettering

In my previous blog posts I have described my approach relating to tarot research, tarot elements and symbolism, wet plate collodion aesthetics and the look and theme of my tarot. The next part of the process is to discuss the script and lettering to be used in the deck. This is about the calligraphy script that I will use for the cards and the options I have looked at.

I started calligraphy classes in 2012 with the excellent Rosana Ibarrola from Love Calligraphy  and have been going ever since. I went to these to improve my handwriting and to be able to incorporate calligraphy in my art.

My original idea was to use a lot of text in my tarot card designs. This can be seen from the mock ups above. The text was taken from the prose in The Symbolism of the Tarot by PD Ouspensky where he describes each card from the point of view of a journey. I tried different scripts from Victorian copperplate to Renaissance chancery cursive.

However, after completing my research on tarot symbolism, I reached the conclusion I wanted to include more imagery in my cards, and that the kind of text above would be distracting. So, my cards for this deck will not have any background text.

The only script I will have on each card will be the name and number of that card. I will still hand write each name and number of the cards. I need a script of the type that matches the aesthetic and theme of the cards that I discussed in my previous blog posts. So, I decided to make my own so that it looks exactly the way I want it. My first idea was to make a script similar to the 1JJ Swiss tarot, but I then felt this would not fully match the theme. At the time of writing this blog, I have not finalised the look of the script, but have sketched some ideas based on the silent era film theme.

In my next blog post, I will discuss how to bring all these aspects together to create my tarot deck design.

 

The Jook Tarot theme

Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917)

In my previous blog posts, I described my process for tarot symbolism research and the aesthetic of wet plate collodion photography. In this blog post I am going to talk about the theme of my tarot deck.

I need the deck to have a unified theme, a way for the cards to work together as a set. Part of this is achieved by the use of the wet plate collodion to give the cards a uniform look. In addition to this, I want it to have a consistent theme running trough the cards to help them work as a unified deck rather than a random collection of images.

I talked in previous blog posts about the wet plate process being widely used from the 1860s to the 1890s, and according to Wikipedia, still used by some portrait photographers as late as the 1930s. I am using the same equipment and chemicals that would have been used during this period. It makes sense to me that the first part of the theme should be that the deck looks like it was created during that period. So, the clothing, make up and props should also look as if they were from that period or earlier.

Valeska Suratt (c1916)

I love the look and feel of the old silent films, and the studios were great at making many stills of these films. Sadly for the many films (such as Cleopatra starring Theda Bara) lost in the Fox studio fire, all we have left are these stills. Stills from the silent era films are a major inspiration for me as invoking the look and feel of the period.

Julia Margaret Cameron – The Passing of Arthur (1874)

Add to this the works of Victorian photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and others who were linked to the pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and were among the first to use photography as an art form. Much of this art based photography was allegorical and based on Biblical and historical events. This ties in with my interest in the silent films, especially the epic ones similarly based on historical and Biblical events. 

I suppose my attraction to these images is that many seem to relate to vague historical periods where there are knights with swords, kings, queens, emperors and empresses. Just like the tarot. Even the Rider Waite deck printed in 1910 features characters in armour, medieval dresses, many swords and not even a hint of the 20th century.

This was also at a time in the Victorian era when there was an interest in spiritualism, mysticism, the occult etc. So in addition to the type of images described above, there are a lot of vintage photographs surviving from this period of fortune tellers, gypsies and interesting and eccentric looking characters who embraced this culture and lifestyle. To me, many of these images look like real life tarot characters.

My approach for inspiration for a coherent theme has been to search for images from the past from silent films, Victorian art photographers and from the general area of mysticism related images. I hope that these images give me the inspiration to produce a series of tarot images that fit together as a unified whole when compared to the other cards in the deck. Whenever I came across an image on the web or from a book, I made a copy, printed them and placed them on file. Examples of these images can be seen on this page and are also part of the header image on this website.

In a future blog post I will consider the addition of text to the images, and how everything will hopefully come together to produce the card images.

 

 

 

Jook Tarot aesthetic

 

In my previous blog post, I talked about how I decided on what key elements and symbolism I wanted to include in each of the major arcana cards. In this post I will describe how I combine this with the aesthetic and look, and of the theme of the cards I am creating. This post will concentrate on the aesthetic and I will describe the theme in a future post.

The starting point for the aesthetic and look of my tarot deck is related to the medium I have chosen. By using the wet plate collodion photogaphy process, I am making a creative choice in how the medium impacts on the resulting image. Wet plate collodion has a unique look, that I believe to be both beautiful and mesmerising. It has a strange quality that captivates the viewer. Look into the eyes of a sitter on a wet plate and you feel you really are looking directly into their soul.

I describe the wet plate collodion process in more detail here. It was widely used from the 1860s to the 1880s. The look of wet plate collodion is influenced by a number of factors. I am using a camera dating from about 1880 and a selection of lenses from about the same period. I use the same collodion chemical as made according to recipes from that period. I use the same kind of substrate in glass plates. Everything is as close as possible to how it would have been done in the Victorian age. So the resulting images are as authentic and true to that period as I can make them.

So this is the first part of the aesthetic for my cards. That is that they genuinely look as if they could have been taken in the Victorian era. As far as I am aware the first photographic tarot deck was the beautiful and innovative Mountain Dream Tarot by Bea Nettles printed in 1975. But what if someone had produced a photographic tarot deck a century before that? What would it look like? What would be the influences? By using wet plate collodion, I can at least produce tarot images that could genuinely have been created then.

The wet plate process and the lens design and quality produces some interesting results compared to the later film negatives, and modern lenses. These include:

  • Wet plate collodion is a black and white process. It is only sensitive to blue light, so red appears as almost black and blue as almost white. When you see Victorian photos where they appear to be in mourning as they are dressed in black, this may not have been the case and they may have been in bright red or pink.
  • Early lenses were uncoated and of a simple design and this has a striking effect on images, especially on the way the background blurs. A very shallow depth of field and a swirling background are features of these lenses and the process.
  • Wet plate collodion is not as light sensitive as later methods. Most of my photos require an exposure time of between 5 and 12 seconds. Any movement during that time will result in a blurred image. It is not possible to get the pin sharp images we see in modern photography, and the slight softness of the image is a feature of the process and equipment. I should mention it would be possible to get sharper images by using modern lenses and powerful lighting units, but in my opinion this would detract from what I am trying to achieve.
  • Due to the process there are inevitably imperfections in every plate produced. Some of these can be explained, but some seem to be mysteries. These imperfections are often referred to as ‘artefacts’ and in some cases embraced as they are part of the uniqueness and charm of wet plate. I actively try to prevent such imperfections, but I have yet to produce a plate that is totally free from artefacts, and I suspect they will continue to appear in all  my work.

In this post, I have described how the choice of wet plate collodion as the medium has a significant impact on how the cards will look. In my next blog post I will explain how I will try and bring this all together with a theme that combines the tarot imagery and symbolism with the look and feel of wet plate collodion.

Tarot card elements and symbolism

In my last blog I described the key factors in creating my tarot card designs. The first of these that I will now describe in more detail was:

What do the tarot cards mean to me? What are the key elements and symbolism of a card that are the core of the meaning for that card?

I started collecting tarot decks before I had any books on the subject, and was interested in the similarities and differences between them without really understanding the reason why. Some subtle differences totally evaded my attention until I started looking at them more closely and reading about them.

For example, I was familiar with the Empress holding a shield with an eagle on it. But I had never noticed before that in some decks the shield was in her left hand, and some in her right. And some eagles are facing right and some left.

A selection of Empress cards from some different decks I own

Does it matter? Does this change the meaning of the card or the way it is read? Are these differences deliberate? I found the answers to these questions when I started researching the history of the tarot, the symbolism of the images and how these have changed and developed over the years. For the record, these minor differences can be significant, and my Empress will have a two-headed eagle on her shield for reasons I will explain when the card is created.

So, my approach to creating the cards was to firstly go through all of my tarot decks and analyse what made sense to me for each individual card. I then scanned the cards that resonated, printed them off all together one one sheet so that I could look at all the different designs for each card together. I then noted the characteristics for each card that were important for me and that I would want to appear on my designs.

At the same time I was reading the tarot history and symbolism books I owned, making notes for each card on the elements that were important for me. I began to realise I had significant scope to change some elements of the tarot without weakening the meaning and symbolism of those cards. I also realised some elements of the tarot were almost compulsory, and I really didn’t want change or ignore these elements. For example, I really can’t imagine the Hanged Man without that iconic crossed knee. And before you shout at me and point to some great tarot decks that have a Hanged Man without a crossed knee, this is my opinion on what is important to me in my deck.

The iconic pose of the Hanged Man

I also found many excellent online resources covering tarot history and symbolism. Special mention to the excellent Tarot Heritage  website, and Mary Greer’s site too.

Combining these two approaches gives me an overview of the key elements for each card, and almost a checklist of what is important for me to include. This tells me what I really need to incorporate into my designs and what would be nice. It also helps me to decide on the subtle differences between cards and what, if any, such changes affect the reading of the card. And it gives me the opportunity to add some new or little used ideas on the cards.

At the time of writing this post, I have completed this approach for all of the major arcana, and am partway through the minors.

Having determined the elements and symbolism, the next step was to combine this with the idea for an image suitable for the wet plate collodion process and with the look and aesthetic I want.  I will describe this in my next blog.

 

 

The story so far

So having created this website such a long time after actually starting this tarot project means a lot has happened already. So the purpose of this blog post, and probably the following ones will be to document what has happened so far.

I’ve wanted to create my own tarot deck for a very long time, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I discovered the wet plate collodion photographic process (described in more detail here), and realised this was the medium I had been looking for.  There are some photography based tarot decks, some film, some digital, some based on found images, some collages. But as far as I can see, no-one has created a wet plate collodion deck. I am not saying one does not exist, just that I have not seen one. I imagine some artists will have used the tarot theme to produce images as a project for individual cards or groups of cards, but I don’t think any have become completed decks.

After a lot of thinking, and finishing up other projects, it wasn’t until 2016 that I started some serious planning for the cards. I collected information about what I wanted for the individual cards and started storing these in A4 lever arch files. This has now expanded to cover seven folders.

The theme of the deck is influenced by vintage photography from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, inspired by images of fortune tellers, gypsies, dancers, silent movie stars and film stills. Some of these images appear in the header image at the top of this page. Add to that Victorian and Renaissance paintings and symbolism and references to tarot decks through the ages from the Visconti deck to Tarot de Marseille, to the French occultist decks and onto the Rider Waite deck and then more modern decks.

My approach to card design has been in two parts.

Firstly, what do the tarot cards mean to me? What are the key elements and symbolism of a card that are the core of the meaning for that card?

Secondly, how do I incorporate those elements and symbols in an image created by the wet plate collodion process and with the aesthetic mentioned above?

In addition to these factors, I also have to consider the following:

  • Wet plate collodion has some distinct issues that need to be considered in the design stage of the image.
  •  As a photographic deck created without the use of Photoshop or collage techniques, costumes, props and accessories all need to be acquired.
  • I don’t want to use the same model on more than one card (although there is a case to do so for some cards if we consider the major arcana as a journey) so will need a large number of models.

Over the next few blogs, I will consider the above five areas in more detail.

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