Through the deck-designer’s eyes
Creating a Traditionally-Based Tarot
Looking over the shoulder of a tarot deck designer while he’s creating… Impossible! Until now. In an unparalleled account Michael Bridge-Dickson, creator of Orbifold Tarot and currently working on Arcanum X Tarot, shows his step-by-step thought process and literal creation. Inspiring for deck designers-to-be and a huge taste of what’s to come for tarot readers and collectors!
Designing a tarot deck is an interesting and complex process — especially when it is based on a traditional system like the Tarot de Marseille. The challenge of remaining true to traditional structures and imagery while also bringing something new and different is always present.
Aesthetics & flowers
When I started working on Arcanum X Tarot, it was primarily because although I was in love with the Marseille, I wasn’t particularly drawn to aesthetic of most Marseille decks and I wanted one that fit my aesthetic a little more.
I was also intrigued by the language of flowers, which, although it reached its zenith in the Victorian Age, had its roots in the late Middle Ages and Medieval times — around the same period of the early Marseille decks. I couldn’t help but think that the floral depictions, especially in the pips, were not merely generic plants, but had some connection with this language of flowers. So, I dove into researching the imagery more closely, the history, and plant symbolism in an attempt to find connections that I could then use in my own interpretation of the TdM.
Unlike many deck designers, I chose to start my work on Arcanum X with the pips, rather than the Courts or Majors. Though the designs themselves start out with hand-drawn line art, I planned out the suits digitally, creating a background texture for all the cards, followed by a color for each card. These background colors gradually shift from one color to the next, forming a gradient for each suit: lavender to yellow for Swords, gold to rust for Wands, blue to aqua for Cups, and green to brown for Coins. These backgrounds help keep my visualization of the final card clear as I’m working on the hand-drawn, black and white elements.
Next, I first draft the pip objects themselves, refining their shape, simplifying them a little, but also giving them an organic feel while also trying to keep the geometry of the pip objects in traditional TdMs. These will be used as templates for all the pip objects throughout each suit, though the objects get smaller and/or thinner as the numbers increase, since more objects must fit on the limited space of a card.
It’s interesting to see how these size differences affect the negative space between and around the objects, and how that space is in turn filled (or not) by the decorative flora. This interplay between objects, negative space, and flourishes is integral not only to the TdM, and I wanted to make sure I kept that balance.
I then draw the designs themselves. Using the objects that I drafted earlier as a guide to shape and size, I carefully measure the width and height of the objects and alter them accordingly to fit the proportions of that card out the space and geometry for each arrangement of pips, drawing them out on a paper twice the size of the final card. For instance, the cups on the Two of Cups are much taller and wider than those on the 8 of cups, but the lines and shape are essentially the same. I then use tracing paper to draft out the forms and the directional lines that the decorative flora will fill the negative space.
During this process I’m also conducting visual research. That is, I lay out all of the TdMs and TdM-related decks that I have, and I look at the card I am working on from all the decks — what’s similar and what’s different, at any clues there may be as to what plants are specifically depicted, if any. I also look more broadly at the general shapes, how the flora wraps around or fills spaces between the suit objects. Again, it’s primarily about the form, and then the specific flower. In most cases, there is no specific flower — or at least I can’t discern one.
When I can’t determine whether a specific plant is depicted, I then go ahead and research individual plants that both suit the form, but also the general meaning (as I understand it) of the card in progress. I stick closer to the numeric concept paired with that suit’s emphasis.
Of course, during my research of specific plants, I will come across plants that I want to use because they are visually interesting and/or because their lore or meaning seems to fit a different card than the one I’m currently working on.
What’s interesting about plant symbolism is that some of its meanings are based on color and form, and so that makes at least that layer of meaning easy to apply to certain cards. Yet at the same time, the additional research is necessary, as the meanings of plants also have to do with how they grow, their resilience or delicacy, whether they are annual or perennial, how they are propagated, etc, and these factors develop into folkloric meanings that can sometimes differ drastically from the surface meanings related to form and color.
For me, this just adds more depth to the interpretive possibilities of these cards, since as many readers will acknowledge, the same card can often have opposing meanings, and the relevant meaning is contextual.
Once I have determined which plant or plants I will be using for a card, I further refine the initial form and direction lines that I drew on the tracing paper. I’m constantly referring back and forth at this point between my various TdMs, photos of the plants I’m depicting on that card, and of course my own stylistic interpretation.
Light & handwork
Here I use tracing paper so that I can interweave the flourishes without having to disturb the carefully drafted pip objects. I continue working on the tracing paper and fill in more specific botanical details, still in pencil. When I’m finally satisfied with the flora, I then place the tracing paper behind the card’s paper and using my light table, and trace the final plant decoration onto the card’s paper, joining the objects with the flourishes. The hand-drawing process finishes by going back over all the lines with pen and erasing the pencil lines before scanning the black and white line art.
After scanning, I place the scanned line work over my colored and textured background for that card, clean up any major mistakes in the line art or unnecessary specks picked up through the scanning process. I’m conscious not to over-clean the line work, as I want to keep the irregularity that hand-drawing lends, which helps keep the rougher feeling of traditional TdMs.
Finally, I color the line art entirely digitally. This is probably the most fun and fulfilling part, as it’s fairly quick — only about an hour or two per card — plus, it’s very satisfying to see the whole thing come together in full color! The digital coloring lends both a modernity and luminescence to the rougher line work. This is also where the care and attention paid to planning and taking time in creating the line work really pays off.
I love seeing the work come together, the next most fulfilling part is of course holding the deck in-hand after getting the samples from the printers… though I still have a little way to go before then.
– Michael Bridge-Dickson
Related and more…
For a sneak peek of the Arcanum X, check the big reveal of the Modern Marseille Michael did in the Sneak Peek archives of The Queen’s Sword.
The Queen’s Sword has done a review of the elemental Orbifold Tarot, and we liked it!