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The Story of the Illuminated Tarot by carol Herzer

by Carol Herzer

Many years ago, way back in the 1960's a special 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. It was a powerful dream, and I wanted to go back into the dream, I wanted to see those paintings again. I knew it was a very special dream, more real than life, but I did not yet know the significance and how it was a window into the future for me.
In 1969, still in college, I took a printmaking class, and there I made an etching, I decided to do the tarot major arcana. I titled it TARO, and the seed was planted, within a year a new painted version of it was begun  my Astrotaro. Years passed, and by the mid 1980's I had completed the Astrotaro. this was followed by a larger version of the majors paintings, the Cosmo Meditations. The time came where I was searching for other tarot decks to paint. Guido Gillabel, the older brother of a man I would later marry, had contacted me by mail from Belgium. First I painted his Cosmic Egg major arcana deck. I asked him if he had more for me to paint, and he, being a printer, and a collector had lot and sent me some sets of black and white prints of major arcana decks to explore. Among this was a small black and white majors set of the RWS deck, a copy of a set widely used in Europe for students of tarot. I made black and white copies enlarged on a Xerox copier to 5 x 7, printed on Linweave paper, and made two paintings of each of the majors. I decided to go on and next I did the court cards. Finally I did the minors, Aces to 10's, to complete the entire 78 card deck. It took me a little over two years, from 1987 to 1989, to do the basic painting the Illuminated Tarot. I continued to alter and refine the paintings for several years after that.

 The  original paintings for the Illuminated tarot are on a textured paper called Linweave, giving a very fine almost canvas like surface. I taped each card down separately to a piece of thick cardboard and started to paint with acrylics. My approach to painting was influenced by 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. My main focus as a painter has always been landscape and people, so this deck was perfect for me to develop the images, and I felt the treatment in the commercial decks was so lacking, that the drawings of Pamela Coleman Smith had so much more potential in them, as real paintings.  She did not have the materials available as I do, with acrylics to paint, making it possible to create as I did. We know that she said she was paid very little for a very big work, that of just creating the images, the drawings, and it does not take much to figure that there was no budget for her to make full paintings out of each card.
 As I painted  psychic and healing energy found its way into the cards. During that time, 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.)
I painted the deck in parts, first the majors, then the courts, and last the numbered minors and I like to look at the cards as connecting to the elements associated with each suit. In my Astrotaro deck the signs of the zodiac are aligned with the courts, so I did the same with the Illuminated and early decks had signs on the titles of the court cards. At first 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 also looked at them in groups  by number, all four aces, all the twos, etc.
I started making handmade decks with photographs in the 1980's. I  always did all my own photography, working outside with natural sunlight 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 ended up photographing the deck many times, printing around ten decks at a time. Some turned out better than others, and there were problem cards  where certain colors did not reproduce well. Also, with photography there never were true white borders or clean whites in the images. I continued with the painting, and altered colors in the originals in order to get better results in the photography. This was a good thing, it made the overall color balance much better in the deck as a whole.
I now make decks with laser color copy printing at a shop with a big professional printer over the years there have been changes At first it was a Canon, that was replaced, and now it's another brand, colors have gotten better over the years and they are a lot faster. The colors now are much closer to the original artwork, so much better than the photography, with real whites on the borders!  I can print decks as I need them, a few at a time. The copies are laminated with the best lamination available, and we now have our own machine for that with rolls of film, not the home sandwich style that is often too stiff. My decks are very flexible and shuffle well. The cuts are perfectly straight, I use a professional guillotine hand operated cutting machine like the ones you see in print shops. Corners are rounded using a little corner clipping machine we now have. I used to use vinyl backing added to the cards, but now i print the backs at home on our high quality Canon 900 printer, and i give a choice on the back color for a lot of the decks, but not all of them. After the decks are made  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 and allow people to choose color and pouch card choices, if it is available. 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.

At a certain point I started to experiment with adding iridescent colors in by hand. these are also known as "interference " colors. the have a pearl like quality that catch the light. one thing led to another, and I noticed the order of colors I used made a difference in the overall look of the deck. I let people tell me their preferences. that led to some wild requests. First came fire, A deck with fire colors. I painted into the cards a bit more, using regular paints too, working directly on the prints made for the deck, on paper, not the original art of the original version deck. Next came a request for a deck of ice and snow. Lots of blues, I know this would be a big work, but I was into it, and wanted to do it. However, I kept the first set and made copies from that. Now I have al of the various versions I offer. After ice and snow, Deep Crystal, I was asked for a deck of the colors of the elements, but not the astrological colors, instead the colors of ritual magic. so the Elemental Visions now Elemental Rainbows  was born.  then in 2009, exactly 100 years from the publication of the Rider Waite deck in 1909, somebody wanted just a bit of sparkle on their Star card. Very quickly I fell into full glittering, and that took off like a shooting star flying through the sky. the glitter is painted on by hand, I do not sprinkle it, no, I mix it with clear gloss acrylic medium and some water, and paint it on with a brush. Some decks got both glitter and iridescent. the inspiration for a night sky Starlight deck was felt, and I crated the Starlight version. borderless decks were being asked for , I was able to go digital with that one and made it borderless , also the Deep Crystal borderless was possible. In 2016 felt I needed a break. At that time I did some just painting of my own, and discovered fluorescent paints. I use them to amplify the colors, and am still exploring the possibilities there.  Because I have remained independent and my decks are just made by me I have been able to expand into a very creative and diverse realm. It is my dream manifesting. It is endless, just like the dream, the images and paintings just kept on coming.

A version of this article first appeared in Geraldine Amaral's "Celebrating the Tarot a Journal for Tarot Enthusiasts"