The Black Plastic Tarot #1: The Fool

Those of you who keep up with Yesterday’s Horoscope have probably seen the first installment of my newest project, The Black Plastic Tarot. Here, I’ll be writing a little bit about the development of the project and its first card, The Fool.


     For years, I think since I was still a Uni student, I’ve wanted to illustrate a tarot deck. I’m interested in card art in general, as the stunning illustrations of one particular gaming deck were a huge driving force in my desire to become an illustrator while growing up. Divining has also held a fascination for me and as a result, I’ve been drawn to tarot illustrations in all their varied forms.

When I first played around with the idea of actually illustrating my own deck years ago, my initial thought was to incorporate characters from Encircle the Sun as tarot characters. I’ve worked on various sketches along those lines on and off for quite a long time, but when I finally decided to really pursue the tarot project, I abandoned that theme altogether for a variety of reasons, most of which are boring. On to something else!

I felt strongly that I wanted to create a deck with a postmodern theme, one that perhaps tied in to the subcultures that influenced me while growing up and in adulthood. The list of themed decks available for viewing or purchase is staggering, and I looked at quite a few while doing research for this project. I decided that I wanted to set myself a particular challenge with this deck- no matter how wacky it might become thematically, I decided to keep all the traditional symbols relevant to each card. These symbols have strong meanings and are, in effect, the meanings of the cards themselves. They are useful in remembering the message of each card as well.

As I am prone to do, I’ve decided to tackle this project in a linear fashion. Therefore, I’m starting with the Major Arcana and working my way down to the suits. Some of you already know, I’m sure, that the cards in the Major Arcana tell a story. It’s the story of our buddy, The Fool, as he works his way through life. The good people over at Aeclectic Tarot already have posted a detailed account in their “Card Meanings” section. Please check out their very informative site for pretty much anything you’d want to know about the world of tarot.

Traditionally, tarot decks have used fairly standard illustrations. A great example of this (and probably the most popular) is the Rider-Waite deck, created in 1910. There are many variations on this deck, but we’ll be taking a peek at the basic version. This is the Rider-Waite Fool:


     The key points of standard Fool illustrations are the cliff, the Fool’s motley jester outfit, the dog and the pack. Though tarot cards are always up for some level of individual interpretation, there are some general meanings to all of these symbols. The Fool card can signify beginnings of all kinds, independence and sometimes a need for caution. The motley clothes indicate a youthful jester, perhaps someone who’s “not all there”. His pack is a symbol of both his journey and his independence, for he has everything he needs. The cliff is a danger, a hazard, something that needs attention and may require education. Lastly, the little dog is the voice of reason, a warning, or a good and faithful friend. As an aside, dogs have long been the symbol of fidelity in art. A great example of this is the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, painted by Jan Van Eyck, where a dog is present to signify the couple’s pledge to be faithful to one another.

In my version of The Fool, I set myself a few challenges. For years, my weakest point in my illustrations has been perspective. Many of the images I created were technically adequate, but boring. A while back, I decided to push myself to think more creatively in terms of viewpoints. The “eye of the worm” view in The Fool is meant to capture the drama of the amount of trouble he could be in and the sheer “foolishness” of his lack of attention.


     Because I’d decided on something of a cyber/punk/magic theme (with a nice dose of goth for good measure), I ended up choosing an urban setting for this first card. I couldn’t really see my mohawk-sporting, punk-rock Fool in the type of wild, natural environment that would house a cliff-side. Besides, so many of us in these years live in cities or suburbs, our own personal cliffs tied to our modern lifestyles.

As for the decision to portray The Fool as an 80s/90s era punk, in some ways I think the punks of that era were something like the jesters of a bygone age. Sure, we all took ourselves entirely too seriously, but it always seemed to me that there was some clownishness in our mockery of the status quo. That being said, there are also numerous tales of court jesters and fools that truly knew better than their masters, along with those that poked fun at the system they were trapped in. There are some beliefs I’d embraced as a young punk that I still believe are true and right, despite the occasional silliness used to express them.

There are even some parallels to be seen in the mode of dress of jesters and punks, though they may not be readily apparent. Jesters are recognized by their motley- a piecemeal collection of brightly colored items. Frequently, they could be pretty ragged. One would not mistake a jester for something else, just as one would not mistake a punk. Punks are known for piecemeal outfits as well, though their bright colors tend to come in splashes- in dyed hair and tattoos, for example.

For aesthetic reasons, the punk outfit worked well in this image simply thanks to “boot drama”. I really wanted footwear that created an impact, and the treads on a nice hefty pair of boots fit the bill. The pack is not the usual hobo stick, but a bundle held together with energy that I felt reflected well off the treads.

Lastly, the dog is in the position he’s in also for purely aesthetic reasons. In most depictions, the dog is behind The Fool, barking or worrying his foot. Because of the viewpoint, this wasn’t really possible, so I played around with different locations until I found one that fit with the overall balance of the picture. Often, the dog is portrayed as being white. I chose a yellowish color, as white reflects the light that hits it and yellow light floods from the bottom corner of the image.

And that covers pretty much all I had to say about the project and the design of The Fool. If you have questions, let me know and I’d be happy to answer. In the next entry, I’ll be writing about how the cards themselves were designed. This will include a walkthrough and some minor tutorials. Until then, watch out for cliffs- urban or otherwise!


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