While all the early and popular tarots (Thoth, Waite Smith, Tarot de Marseille etc) are either hand painted or illustrated, with the advent of computers, in particular photoshop, it has brought about a whole new generation of tarot decks based on photo montages/photo manipulated art. In other words it’s easier than ever for people to create tarot decks...or so I thought!
This is a touchy subject for some fellow creators and its very easy to alienate people if you have adverse views. I do not intend to create animosity by suggesting one creative technique is more superior to another. Instead I've decided to discuss my thoughts on it in regards to the pros and cons, both in traditional art and digital art and inform the reader as to the different options one may wish to take if they want to create their own work.
For the most part I draw on real paper, i erase with a real eraser, i ink with real ink, i draw perspective with real rulers and compasses. Nowadays many artists draw straight onto a computer screen type tablet (a Wacom Cintiq is popular), but if I can avoid it I choose not to. I am not necessarily opposed to it, but there’s something nice about sitting at a drawing board with real pens, pencils and inks and doing it “old school” like so many of my childhood artistic heroes did in the world of comics like Todd McFarlane, Joe Quesada (or at least he used to lol), the Kubert brothers and Chris Bachalo among many others. It saves electric too! (Though you have to stock up on pencils/paper/pens etc so how much you save is hard to say!)
While there have been many beautifully created tarot decks using the aid of photo manipulation in Photoshop or other computer graphic packages, I’ve made a point to keep my work as organic as possible which is why i work in the same manner as, say, a comic artist from the “pen and pencil” era.
That is not to say that photo manipulated art is inferior to hand drawn traditional art, not at all, for beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. That’s just my own personal taste. I’ll take hand drawn illustrations over photo manipulated ones any day, but as a traditional artist that's probably to be expected. It just looks more "human" to me I guess, it's organic. The trend in big name comics nowadays is that the art is becoming more photo-realistic and i feel that the art suffers if it’s too real. The art is supposed to engage you, not make you feel you’re flipping through a photo album!
That being said, one advantage to photo manipulation (which as a traditional illustrator is off limits to me) is that you never need worry if you can actually draw a bird or a horse or whatever is called for. When you use photo manipulation, you’re assured that the muscles are correct, the facial features are correct etc. There is no extensive knowledge of illustration needed. In other words it has its obvious positive points; photo realism. Photos tell the truth.
On the other hand the advantage that hand drawn illustrations have over photo manipulation is when you have a good well rounded education on illustration and how the anatomy works (self taught like myself, or otherwise) it means you don’t have to spend hours looking for that perfect pose on a stock photo website…you just draw it from memory. Generally speaking It also looks better in the long run when it’s hand drawn. It must be noted however that I am not at all opposed to reference and in fact reference photos are vital to any artist wanting to create half decent animals, facial expressions etc, or real world machinery.
I'll let you into my personal feeling in regards to reference photos. It's a bit embarrassing thinking back on it now, but up until a few years I believed that using reference was "cheating". I guess our art teacher way back in primary/secondary school had a real grudge against it. Little did I know at the time, but in reality every artist has pretty much used reference, unless you're Mark Rothko, or Picasso trying to paint the fourth dimension or Pollack splattering paint on the page. Think about it though, with every still life you need reference. Monet's water lillies, i presume, were painted while viewing the lillies, and Mucha took photo reference of his models. A hand painted replica of John Constable's "The Hay Wain" hangs in my parent's home, and presumably Constable painted what he saw in front of him.
Thinking back now, I think some of my teachers just hated kids not using their imagination, because for children, there is an inclination to trace an image without adding any of "themselves" into the work. The King's Journey Tarot and the Simply Deep Tarot were virtually reference free and you can tell. It is more cartoony than that of Twisted Tarot Tales for example, because I "thought it up" using the descriptions given to me as reference. The artwork is great, but it is different. I am not going to speak negatively of the deck as I think all of my illustrations are good (hey, whaddaya want? lol) but I openly admit that I embraced the use of reference photos for Twisted Tarot Tales. That being said, a big part of the visuals for the horror deck has come "from my mind" without any reference photos, but there are obvious reference photos brought out for the likes of the 10 of Wands' Grizzly Bear as it weighs down on the hunter in his cabin, or to get the look of Elvira just right in the High Priestess card which required a combination of photo references, yet the important thing, especially if you're doing traditional illustration, is to use it as a guide only. Don't trace your reference photos verbatim because they WILL end up looking like a poor attempt at photograph. You still want to have your artistic style intact and the only way you can do that is seek out good reference photos, especially for likes of drawing animals, machinery etc, but I wouldn't go crazy with it.
James is the artist behind the illustrations on this site, maintains the website, writes the blogs and puts together the newsletter.