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.