Monday 5 September 2011

John Matthews | Creating a Tarot

John Matthews

A lot of people have asked me what goes into the creation of a tarot. Having done four decks now and worked on three oracles – I thought it was maybe time to give you all a creator’s eye view. 

First of all the situation differs a lot depending on what skills you have and who you are working with. If for example you are an artist then the only person you have to work with is yourself – and then the process is somewhat different. But if, as in my case, any drawing you do looks like a drunken doodle, then you need an artist. I've been very lucky to work with some of the best tarot artists in the world – namely Wil Kinghan, Will Worthington, Miranda Gray and Giovanni Casselli. 

And let me say right now, that if you have an idea for a tarot yourself, it’s a good idea to find a good artist first. Then, when you go in to see your potential publisher, you are ready. Some people we know ended up with an artist whose work they really weren’t happy with because the publisher chose them.

What usually happens is that I come up with an idea - let's say for The Grail Tarot, published in 2001. In this instance I knew that I wanted imagery that reflected the Medieval quality of the Grail quest, and I also wanted the cards to create a single freeze when they were laid side by side - a bit like the kind of cartoons that many of the Medieval painters created, in which several events, separated by time, were still taking place in the same frame. Giovanni Casselli immediately understood what I wanted and was able to produce some extraordinary images, drawing upon existing art from the Middle Ages which he then turned into the pictures I described.

A lot of people think that the creator of a tarot simply says to the artist ‘I'd like you to draw some pictures based on the Grail - or the Wildwood - or the Arthurian legends.” But what actually happens is that I write descriptions - as detailed as I can - of what I think each image should look like and what symbolism it should contain. Then I give these to the artist, and hopefully, in a few weeks or months, I start getting pictures sent to me. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when you first see things you imagined actually represented as a piece of art. It's a bit like having someone walking around inside your head, looking at the picture gallery that is up there, and copying it down.

Of course, inevitably, the artist's vision doesn't always coincide exactly with mine, and it is then that we sit down, if possible over several glasses of wine, and discuss the whole thing. This is all part of the process by which a raw idea becomes a tarot.

By this time, hopefully, there's a publisher involved. Which is a good thing for all concerned, as it generally means that we get paid! I must say that I've generally been very lucky with the publishers I’ve worked with, who are usually very sensitive to the original vision, and hardly ever get in the way, except occasionally to separate the artist and the writer into separate corners ... 

So, in most instances, the stages are this. I come up with an idea, I show it to the artist, or the publisher, who sometimes will find an artist for you (this was what happened with The Grail Tarot, and I'm enormously grateful to my editor at Eddison-Sadd for teaming up with Giovanni.) If I already know which artist I want to work with, and if they are free and agreeable, and the publisher likes them, we start working together on the creation of the deck. This can take anything up to two years to complete, depending on how many other things I'm doing, and how many other things the artist is doing.

With The Wildwood Tarot the process was a little different. First of all, there was an already existing text and cards which had previously been created by Mark Ryan, with the collaboration of the artist Chesca Potter nearly 20 years ago. As we had been unable to contact Chesca, we had to look for new artist. I had worked on several decks with Will Worthington and loved his work. Once Mark saw them he agreed that this was the best artist we could wish for.

So, with Will on board, Mark and I set out to redesign the cards, basing them on many of the original concepts from The Greenwood Tarot, but allowing ourselves the freedom to find new expressions for ideas included in the original pack. We also wanted to expand the original ideas and add detailed meanings to the minor arcana, which originally had only a couple of lines. Together we reinvented The Greenwood Tarot, taking it back to its more primitive, pre-Celtic level, and in the end making something completely new. 

Then it was over to Will, to whom we provided detailed descriptions for the new imagery. With a couple of minor exceptions he got it right away, and the results were even more spectacular than we could have hoped for.

So this is something about the way in which a tarot is created. There's no space here to talk about the intricacies of Tarot meanings. Over the years I've learned these pretty thoroughly, so that when I sit down with a new concept, or a new deck, I'm usually able to write the meanings straightaway. If I'm not sure about any, I turn to my wife Caitlin, who is herself a considerably experienced tarot reader and creator, and in most cases she gets me out of a sticky corner if I need it. 

I hope this answers a few of the questions about how a tarot comes into being. And of course I hope you enjoy working with what emerges in the end – in this instance The Wildwood Tarot!

1 comment:

  1. John, lovely to see you post and to read your comments on how The Wildwood (and other decks!) were created!

    Blessings to you and to Caitl├Čn!

    Priestess Tarot