Creating a tarot deck is a lot of fun and a lot of work. The rewards far outweigh the pain and effort, though; being able to use your own deck for readings or just for fun is one of the more fulfilling experiences. Plus, you’ll most definitely know each card inside and out after creating a deck.

If you know me from Inappropriate Tarot Readings on Facebook, you’ll no doubt have seen me make fun of decks that simply redo the Rider Waite imagery. It’s all in good fun; if you really like the “traditional” imagery and symbolism, by all means. Make your own Rider Waite style deck. There are several good reasons for it: the deck will be easily understood by a wider audience, half of the work is already done for you, I’m sure there are more. The most important thing is that you stay true to yourself.

This post, however, is going to be about the opposite: what to do if you want to depart from the traditional. This is what I wanted when I created my deck, the Darkana Tarot. I imagined tarot decks being like movies. How many times can you remake the same movie before it gets old? I wanted to challenge myself. The hardest part was trying to figure out new ways to demonstrate a concept visually.

With each card, I broke the process down into three steps:

  1. Suspend everything I know about tarot.
  2. What is the concept?
  3. What modern ideas can represent the concept?

The reason I wanted to use modern imagery is because a lot of the imagery from older tarot decks is lost on the current generations. The purpose of having imagery at all is to convey what the card symbolizes without having to memorize the meaning. What impression do you get from this card? You could stare at a two-hundred year old card and the only impression you come away with is, “I have no idea what this is trying to tell me.” As an artist, it is your job to convey a specific idea, concept, emotion. Thus, you must know what concept you want to convey. I did this by creating two keywords for each card. Once I had the two keywords in mind, my next goal was to think about ways I could possibly translate those keywords into the visual medium.

Here is an example:

Let’s say we have a card we want to create called “Dutifulness.” Imagine that every deck has a Dutifulness card and that most of them featured a turtle (for whatever reason). The first step, if you want to create a totally original card, is to completely dispel this turtle image from your mind to start fresh. What are some things that come to mind when you think of duty? An image of a soldier might jump to mind. Or a priest. Or a boy scout. These could all be considered modern symbols. That’s one way to convey the concept. The other way is to use action in the imagery to convey the idea. Maybe you show a fierce dog barking at an approaching stranger while a toddler plays behind him nearby. It is the dog’s duty to protect his loved one, after all. There are many ways to convey an idea through imagery. The key is to let your mind be free to make new associations.

Here are some examples from my deck, along with an explanation of how I came up with the idea.

2 of Swords
Concept: Avoidance, Stalemate
Ideas: I had always wanted to use scissors for this card, but I wanted to convey the meaning also. Many times when this card comes up (for me) it has represented a decision, usually between two opposing choices. So I made a child holding a bomb with two wires.

Two of Swords from the Darkana Tarot

Two of Swords from the Darkana Tarot

Wheel of Fortune
Concept: Luck, Destiny
Ideas: I didn’t want to use the same old giant Ferris Wheel of fate. I wanted a different kind of wheel that goes around and around that had the power to make someone very happy or very miserable. The symbolism of Russian Roulette seemed apt for me here, so I used a revolved with two four-leaf clover bullets.

Wheel of Fortune from the Darkana Tarot

Wheel of Fortune from the Darkana Tarot

Knight of Wands
Concept: Cocky, Hot-Tempered
Ideas: I like using a variety each suit’s nominal object (various kinds of swords, cups, etc.). For me the idea for this card was simple. I view each of the Knights as being young, inexperienced, ruled more by emotions, etc. I chose the hockey player because he not only embodied the two keyword concepts perfectly, but he also holds a wand.

Knight of Wands from the Darkana Tarot

Knight of Wands from the Darkana Tarot

4 of Swords
Concept: Rest, Recovery
Ideas: I used the standard concept of rest and recovery for this card, but I also wanted to use a different kind of blade. So scalpels was an obvious choice.

Four of Swords from the Darkana Tarot

Four of Swords from the Darkana Tarot

2 of Pentacles
Concepts: Juggling, Stagnation
Ideas: I typically view this card as being all about the rat race. The same thing day in and day out, over and over. Waiting for some big break. Typical cards portray a juggler. I wanted something new, so I went with the idea of a hamster running in its wheel. Since that didn’t do much for me in the way of pentacles, I just added them in like so:

Two of Pentacles from the Darkana Tarot

Two of Pentacles from the Darkana Tarot

I almost had more fun trying to come up with the ideas than I did doing the actual art. At the end of the day, it’s up to you what style and imagery you choose to employ in your own deck. Don’t be discouraged or afraid to stray far from the standard. Color outside the lines. Even if people don’t get it (not everyone will), your last line of defense is the little white booklet. Clarify your meaning in there.


Daniel Donche will represent the Darkana Tarot on the Deck Creators Panel at TarotCon Denver 2015. Visit our Speakers page for the full line-up of presentations and workshops.


About the Author

Daniel is a creation junkie. His creations span a number of domains: art, music, film, literature, even fashion. Just two years after his foray into the tarot world began, his interest and creativity yielded one of his most successful endeavors to date: the Darkana tarot deck, a post-modern grunge concept that deviated heavily from traditional motifs. While the deck was rejected by every major tarot publisher (a black and white deck will never sell), he self-published the deck, which went on to win a number of awards.

He currently lives in Colorado Springs, and divides his time between writing, film, art, programming, and hopefully ninjutsu in the near future. Find the Darkana deck at Gamecrafter or follow his Facebook Page, Inappropriate Tarot Readings.

© 2015 by Daniel Donche. All rights reserved.

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