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Making a Tarot Deck

Updated: Jan 13

Making a Tarot Deck

Guest Post by: Michelle Castro

Hello, my name is Michelle Castro and I’m the artist behind the Little Odd Tarot. In this post I’ll be sharing how I made my deck, my thought process behind some of the cards and how I went about funding the project. If you are interested in making your own deck, I hope this helps you and gives you a sort of idea on what to expect. If you are just curious about the process, I hope you enjoy reading about it.

Before I start, I just want to emphasize that this is how I went about it, and my own personal work habits; I am sometimes very impulsive and a fast worker. Everyone’s work flow, style and time frame is going to be different. I tend to complicate things for myself so please, if you do want to make your own deck (specifically to sell) don’t feel like you need to follow exactly what I did and/or in the timeframe I completed it in. Everything varies from person to person and project to project.

I went into this project knowing nothing. And by nothing I do mean nothing. I didn’t know anything about making decks or illustrating them, I wasn’t even familiar with tarot. Since I was a child things like tarot and the afterlife grabbed my attention but, it was kind of frown upon to be interested in that so I never explored it. During my junior year in university, my best friend Ashton Maxwell (who wrote the guidebook to the deck) told me she was interested in starting to read tarot. I thought it would be a cute idea to draw a deck for her as a gift. I spent all my senior year trying to figure out a theme for the deck but, senior projects were taking most of my time and I didn’t want to make her something when I wasn’t even focused on it. On my graduation day she gave me my first tarot deck and brought up the idea of making a deck together. And, in the beginning of July 2021, the first sketch for the Little Odd Tarot was created. The idea was that because I was still new to tarot and she had more of an understanding of it, I would sketch the drawings and run them by her to double check I got the imagery right. I still did my own research before sketching, I read the card descriptions in my gifted deck, looked for meanings online (mostly in the Biddy Tarot website), and watched videos of people explaining the cards just so I had a better understanding of each card and how people perceive them.

Before we go down the rabbit whole that is my mind and memory, I’ll give you a basic list of what I did and you can do to make a deck (mostly if you plan on selling):

  1. Plan the deck: Do you have a theme? A color palette? Do you need to research the meanings of cards or the theme you are following?

  2. Make the deck: This is where you begin to flesh everything out. This includes the card, the back of the card, the box design, and if you decide to a guidebook

  3. Look for Resources: How are you printing your deck?

  4. How are you selling your deck? (Optional): Crowdfunding? Pre-orders?

  5. Marketing

  6. Shipping

Step 1: Plan the deck

I know a lot of people make a game plan first, having at least a basic idea of the theme for their deck, maybe a color palette. This depends on how you want to make your deck. Some people make the sketches of the entire deck first and then do the final illustrations. I kind of just skipped the theme planning and went with the flow. We didn’t know what our theme would be, we just thought that my art style would be fun for a deck and since my style is very Burtonesque we just ran with that. My friend pointed out that one of my older drawings would be a good idea/starting point for the fool; and that’s the direction it went in. We discussed making it a black and white deck with a splash of one color throughout it. But as I was illustrating them, I forgot about the color part and we ended up scratching that. For the borders of the cards, I wanted them to have an art/sketchy feel to them and that’s why they are a bit “messy”. And the font of the cards is actually my own handwriting.

Originally the deck was going to be a little more “darker” like my Broken Neck Guy but as I started sketching the cards, they became a little more fun and less dark. I couldn’t find inspiration to sketch the fool and make it a little different than the Rider-Waite. I was also struggling with imposter syndrome since I didn’t know anything about tarot. So, I began listening to videos of people explaining the cards and one in particular sparked an image in my head and thus the first card was sketched: The Empress. I don’t remember what video but the way they explained it made me think of a flower crown. The idea was that she would have this flower crown with the pomegranates and grass/leaves for her hair. She was going to be wearing this dress with more pomegranates and a sort of gold collar. I fell in love with this card, and still am, that it gave me the motivation and courage I needed to continue with the next card.

Step 2: Make the deck

I won’t go through my thought process for all of the cards because a lot of them follow a very similar imagery to the Rider-Waite with a few tweaks. The following cards are the ones I did twist a little based on how I perceived the meaning of them, how they just popped in my mind or just artistic choice.

Strength: The card is almost always depicted with a lion in a sort of embrace. I wanted the character and the lion to be looking directly at each other giving it a sense of equal power but in a warm way. The card can also mean inner strength so, by having both of them facing each other it also becomes a sort of mirror.

The Hermit: In the traditional imagery the character is holding a lamp to the outside. The hermit is a card of isolation and looking within. I decided to have the character hold the lamp towards themselves, almost at their core, and have it look like the light is shining from within. That’s also why they have their eyes closed, to emphasize the meaning of looking from within.

The Hanged Man: For this card I thought it would be fun having a vampire as the character since they are hanging upside down. One of the meanings I found for the card was about looking for new opportunities and that’s why I drew stars in their eyes, looking at the endless possibilities.

The World: For this card I have two doors. One door is closed representing the chapter in your life that has ended and is being left behind. The second door being opened, leading to the universe with endless possibilities. As I am writing this, I noticed that you can also read it in reverse as the second door is not opening because there hasn’t been closure in the first.

The Knights: For the knights in the original Rider-Waite they are all on a horse but I wanted them to have different animals. For the suit of cups, I thought it would be cute having a Seahorse. The Knight of Swords is fast paced so a winged unicorn would probably be the fastest. For the Knight of Pentacles, I read it as taking things slow and having a plan hence the snail. And for the wands, what says adventure, passion and impulsivity than a lion.

Five of Cups: The idea for this card stemmed from an image of a funeral and that sort of sadness. In my image we have this character who is standing in the rain with their umbrella. The umbrella has these 5 cups, the four bottom ones have tipped over from being overflowed by the water. Meanwhile the last cup at the top is still catching that rain water. I wanted to represent being overwhelmed by negative emotions.

Ten of Cups: This card is generally depicted with a nuclear family, the two parents, typically a mom and dad, and kids. I wanted to open that up, not everyone has that type of family nor wants to build a family like that. Instead, I tried to depict a sense of community, so I drew a table with food, drinks, candles, and ten open spots so the reader can decide who sits at their “family” table. Whether it is a nuclear family, same sex couples, adopted family, friends you’ve made along the way, by yourself or a spiritual family; you could see your family/community in this image. Another thing that I drew inspiration from was my own life. I am Mexican and grew up in Mexico. Something really big to us is to get togethers, usually once a week and on holidays. We have big meals with all the family, that’s also why I thought the table would be a good idea to represent the community.

Six of Swords: For this card I drew 3 swords pointing one way and the other 3 pointing the opposite direction. Upright, there are 3 luggage bags being held by the swords pointing to the past while in the reverse the luggage is being pointed to the future. The luggage represents the baggage we are carrying whether physical or emotional with us.

Nine of Swords: This one is similar to the traditional image but I wanted the swords to be present in the dreams rather than just on the outside.

Ten of Swords: For this card I wanted to depict the pain that the card represents. With the swords being on the character’s head it can be both physical and emotional pain or outside and inner pain.

Six of Pentacles: This card is all about giving and receiving, what better way to depict it than a chain reaction. We have these characters all sharing the wealth/pentacles with each other and the statue having the balance.

Seven of Pentacles: Again, another similar image to traditional decks. Instead of having a character in the card I decided to have an hourglass to represent the waiting period before seeing the rewards.

For the entire deck I drew a few sketches at a time by hand and sent pictures of them to my friend. Besides a few days to rest I was finishing illustrating at least one card per day. I then made the design for the back of the cards. I tend to draw a lot of eyes and unknowingly draw a variant of the evil eye. Next up was the box design. This part sort of mixes with the next step.

Step 3: Finding Manufacturers

If you are creating traditional size cards the format should be consistent no matter what manufacturer you use. Just make sure you follow the cut/trim guidelines so nothing important is cut when they get printed. For the box, depending on the manufacturer, they might have different templates to follow. I recommend waiting until you have the manufacturer you want to print with and see their template, then create the final design for the box. I had a lot of fun designing the box but it was a lot of work, and because I changed manufacturers during the second campaign, I had to redo the box design to fit the second template.

You will also need to decide whether or not you want your deck to have a guidebook. Originally, we weren’t going to have one but, after the first Kickstarter attempt a lot of people were asking if we could include one. I didn’t write our guidebook but I did format it and again, I recommend having the writing done beforehand and do the final formatting once you have your manufacturer so you have the right template.

During the first campaign I ordered a single deck as proof, just to double check that everything was formatted right and if there were any problems, I could fix them before ordering in bulk. I also ordered sample packs from multiple companies to see their cardstock in person. At this point I still didn’t know what I was doing so I wanted to play it as safe as possible by picking a cardstock. Some companies like MPC allow you to get single copies, while others give you an option of sending a proof copy before producing the rest of the decks. But I highly recommend getting your hands on a proof deck if you are making it to sell, or something close to what you have in mind.

Step 4 & 5: Funding and Marketing

If you are making a deck for yourself and don’t plan on selling them, or at least on a bigger scale, then you might not need the next steps.

We went into the project knowing we were going to sell the deck. Which was very nerve wracking for me. It is a lot of investment, time and money wise; I was new to the community and had never done a project to this scale. My first thought was to do a pre-order. Post about the deck and make a website, open pre-orders for a certain time and make the deck. The only problem, for me at least, was that I don’t have a big social media presence. I’ve struggled in the past promoting my own work which made it scarier to think that no one will even see my deck. And with a website you need people to be searching for you. If you already have a community of people that would be interested in tarot, even if it's not big, a website pre-order might work for you! But for someone like me, whose tarot deck came out of nowhere to my followers, it might not have been the best option. That’s where Kickstarter comes in.

If you don’t know about Kickstarter, it is a crowdfunding website where you basically put out a project with a funding goal amount and if you reach that goal, you get that money to fulfill your project. If the goal is not met, the people (backers) who pledge don’t get charged and you don’t receive those funds. It is a little risky since it is an all or nothing but for me it worked. A great thing about Kickstarter is that people can search for decks. So even if you don’t get the attraction from your own marketing, people might find your deck by just searching “tarot” in Kickstarter. Which was a huge deal for me.