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by Carol Herzer
Many years ago, back in the 60's a friend gave me a tarot deck. Mysteriously it disappeared a couple years later, and when I replaced it the colors were different. I remember a vivid dream I had after that, the deck came to life and the cards themselves all became beautiful paintings. I myself was studying painting at the time, in college, and the images of the tarot were also finding their way into my psyche and my own paintings.
Years passed, I had created my own tarot, the Astrotaro, and time came where I was searching for other tarot decks to paint. I remembered my dream and decided to paint the Rider Waite. At first I just committed myself to doing the major arcana of 22 cards. I made two versions of each card, Enjoying the process, I decided to go on and complete the entire 78 card deck. It took me a little over two years, from 1987 to 1989, to paint the Illuminated Tarot. I did however continue to alter and refine the paintings for several years after that.
The original images used for painting this deck came through contact with the tarot collector and teacher Guido Gillabel, from Belgium. I first painted his Cosmic Egg Tarot and later he sent me some copies of black and white decks, including a set of the Rider Waite that is typically handed out to tarot students for them to color in. had always felt the drawings of Pamela Coleman Smith offered so much more than had ever been done with them. To me they were wonderful sketches for paintings.
I started by xeroxing the cards onto 8 1/2 X 11" sheets of a heavy textured paper called Linweave, with two images to a sheet. This gave a fine canvas-like surface to paint on. I taped each card down separately to a piece of thick cardboard and started to paint with acrylics, applying certain techniques of painting I learned in Austria from Ernst Fuchs, who taught me the misch technique, a 15th century painting technique using layers of colors. I gradually built up the colors and effects, working to create space and light. I let my imagination go and added elements of energy and rays of color and light.
Psychic and healing energy found its way into the cards. During the time I was painting, Neptune was conjunct the moon in my birth chart, perhaps the most psychic of all transits. Also at that time, a neighbor's child was seriously injured. Every day I, along with others, sent heartfelt energy for his healing. This was a very emotional experience, and I could just feel the energy of love and healing as I thought about the little boy and sent it in his direction. Now that I look back I can see how this affected the energy of the Illuminated Tarot paintings that I was doing at the same time. (His healing was near to miraculous.)
After about one year of working on the Major Arcana I decided to start the minors. First I did the court cards. In my own Astrotaro deck the signs of the zodiac are associated with the courts, so I did the same with the Illuminated. As I worked I looked at the cards in groups by suit, focusing on the elemental energies of each suit: fire, earth, air, or water. Later on when I did the minor arcana I looked at them in groups of four, by number, all four aces, all the twos, etc. as well as by suit.
I started making decks with photographs beginning with the major arcana by itself, then later adding on the other parts, courts and minors. I always did all my own photography, working hard to get the best colors and keep things lined up and square. Because I got a much better price on multiple prints the first time through I photographed the deck many times, printing around ten decks at a time. Some turned out better than others, and there were problem cards. Also, with photography there never were true white borders or clean whites in the images. I altered colors in the paintings in order to get better results in the photography. this was a god thing, it made the overall color balance much better in the deck as a whole.
I now make decks with laser printing. The colors are much closer to the original artwork, so much better with real whites on the borders! Plus I can print decks as I need them, a few at a time. Before I send the copies out to be professionally laminated with the best lamination available I paint the iridescent colors in by hand. When I get an order I mount the deck to be on the chosen colored vinyl backing material. The cuts are perfectly straight, I use a professional guillotine hand operated cutting machine like the ones you see in print shops. However, I have not found any shortcuts for hand cutting all the corners round. Pointy corners don't make it. After all the cutting is done I like to set the cards under a heavy crystal for a few days to charge them up. When I make a cloth bag I go on a search through my fabric collection for just the right combination of colors to go with the backing and the card on the front. It is adhered with a mounting material called twin-tack, though at times I leave the bag undecorated. I have found that when I customize decks, giving people choices in backings, color of pouches, and the card on the front the results are much more fun and interesting than otherwise. I enjoy making decks, and offering something unique and special to the true lovers of tarot.
A version of this article first appeared in Geraldine Amaral's "Celebrating the Tarot a Journal for Tarot Enthusiasts"