Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert

… healing the earth, healing ourselves …

Creative Process

I wrote the following essay back in 2004. — Joanna


Rider Waite Smith High PriestessWhen I’m ready to start working on a new Tarot card, I begin by opening my Tarot notebook and looking at the section for that particular card. I read through the notes I’ve made over the years, where I’ve recorded my own personal experiences with the card as well as my notes from books that I’ve read. Then I read through newer books I’ve acquired and add more notes to the file.

Then I take the card — the High Priestess, in this example — out of about 20 decks and begin comparing the imagery. I notice symbols, colors and poses that are common to all of them, as well as the differences. I note which ones I feel a resonance with, and which ones I don’t. I set the cards up on the windowsill in my studio so I can look at them off and on for days. As the days go by, I take cards down until I am left with the ones that are the most compelling to me

My favorite High Priestess cards turned out to be those from the Arthurian (Hallowquest), Alchemical and Shining Woman decks — all very different interpretations!

At this point, I do some journal writing and rough sketches. I always ask myself: Where is the voice of Nature in this card? I often find that ideas for the image come to me when I’m out for a walk, or washing dishes, or waking from a dream.

As I meditated on the High Priestess card and its meanings, I was quite inspired by Alexandra Genetti’s interpretation of the High Priestess as an elder priestess, or crone, in the Wheel of Change Tarot. The energy of the High Priestess card felt like Hecate to me, the guide to the mysteries of the Underworld. Yet she is most often depicted in decks as a young maiden, a Persephone. I drew a portrait many years ago called “Crone of May,” which shows a woman’s face as half-maiden, half-crone. I realized that’s what I wanted to show here too.

After I’m clear about my interpretation of the card, I draw several thumbnail sketches until I am happy with the composition and the elements that I want to include.

Photo of Betsy


Once I have a good idea for the composition of the piece, I think about all the people I know and who might embody the energy of that particular card. For the Priestess, I asked my friend Betsy to pose for me. Betsy is a High Priestess in two Wiccan traditions and I knew she could give me the “look” I wanted — that slightly mysterious, challenging “between the worlds” gaze that engages the viewer. She has great ritual clothes, too! I knew I wanted her to hold a pomegranate but it was out of season for them, so instead we used an onion. We invoked the energy of Hecate and Persephone into Betsy before we began the photo shoot.





digital collage


After the photo shoot, I choose one shot from 30 or 40. I collect other photo references that I need by downloading stock photos from the net (which I pay for if necessary) or from photos I’ve taken myself. If I use other people’s photos for reference material I always make sure I change them enough so that I am not violating their copyrights. But I always use my own photos for the main figure.

For the High Priestess, I downloaded photos of a moonlit sea, a waning moon, swooping willow branches (for Hecate), a sliced pomegranate (for Persephone and the menstrual mysteries) and the Dreaming Goddess of Malta (for dream oracles). I swiped my own owl from my Moon card (flipped), and the salmon from my Sea Priestess (not a Tarot card).

Then I put the images together into a digital collage using the program Photoshop. Each element is on a different layer. I manipulate their sizes and placements until I am happy with the composition. It’s based on my thumbnail sketch, but usually takes on a life of its own at this stage.

hp line drawingsStep 4: LINE DRAWING

I print out the digital collage and make a line drawing based on it. The size of the line drawing (and final piece) is usually around 12” x 18”. I then scan the line drawing as a Photoshop file.

For the High Priestess, I enlarged a photo of Betsy’s face and printed it out. I drew her face based on the photo, then drew the crone side of her face by looking at photographs of elder women. I drew the face quite large, in order to get the detail that I wanted. (It’s very difficult for me to get the right expression on a face when I am drawing small.) Then I scanned this sketch, reduced it and incorporated it into the Photoshop file of the whole line drawing.

After I’ve scanned the line drawing, I clean it up and sharpen it in Photoshop. I decrease the opacity of the line drawing to 50% or less, then I print it out onto my good drawing paper (Rising Stonehenge), using archival inks. This way I keep the “freshness” of the line drawing and I don’t have to transfer it by hand to the final paper. I decrease the opacity of the line drawing so that it prints as a very light gray on the paper, like a light pencil sketch.

colored pencil painting


I refer constantly to the digital collage print as I lay down the color. My medium of choice is wax-based colored pencils (Prismacolor). I use a technique of layering that results in rich, vibrant colors. I always start a painting by first doing the background and the darkest colors. I base the rest of the values of the piece on the “darkest darks” and the “lightest lights.” I always save the face for last. (I learned this from my colored pencil teacher, Ann Kullberg!) I believe that after I’ve spent countless hours looking at the reference photo as I work on the piece, the energy of the face and the “being” represented is somehow imprinted on me psychically. S/he comes through my hand and my pencils and then to the viewer.




Final Piece

Step 6: Completion

Each image takes about 80-100 hours from start to finish. My goal has been to finish one card a month, but so far it has taken more like 6-12 weeks. (Note: it ended up taking me nine years to finish all 78 cards, plus the card back, and the book.)

The very final stage is the feedback I get from people who see the image, and tell me what it means to them. I am constantly surprised, amazed and delighted to hear about the symbolism and wisdom that people find in my paintings that I didn’t put there consciously! Blessed be.

Visit the High Priestess page here.