As many tarot lovers have come to realize (or ignore, as the case may be), the notion that there is no perfect tarot deck is a tough reality to accept. It’s true and if you haven’t realized that yet, then I am truly sorry to be the bearer of bad news. The more time one spends working with the tarot, the more decks one acquires, collects, and lusts after. One’s individual taste for what they enjoy and what they don’t enjoy in a deck also has a hand in building the hoard, particularly as your style develops and evolves. Like any fascination or life-embedded hobby, the collecting of decks and the desire for perfection knows no bounds. It’s a vicious cycle and admittedly, I am a living victim of its madness.
At the age of 11, I received my first tarot deck from my grandmother. Yes, the dear semi-sweet mother of my mother introduced me to the tarot- in a sense. While vacationing in California, we were in a magic shop in one of the local malls, and there they were, multiple decks of the tarot all grinning before me. I don’t know if I even knew where to get them at the time, but there they were kept under the glass counter among an assortment of tricks, crystal balls, and other magical oddities. My grandmother -Grammy as she was known to us- wanted to buy something for me because, living on opposite coasts, we rarely saw each other. While ogling over the mysterious fortune-teller cards being held under lock and key, I pointed at a deck and she purchased it. My first deck, the Rider Waite Tarot (more affectionately and respectably referred to as a Smith-Waite Tarot, in honor of its beloved artist Pamela Coleman Smith) was obtained. Tarot in hand and over thirty years later, here I am. Let’s just not dwell on the thirty years ago part. I’m still trying to process that.
I never managed to get into the habit of regularly reading cards, which I’m currently trying to change. Practice makes perfect, right? Despite not being a regular user of the tarot, I have been known to switch up my preferred deck of choice, which might have had a hand in me not becoming an expert. With the shifting iconography between decks, developing a solid foundation in the tarot can be difficult. Regardless, I’ve used the Crowley Thoth Tarot, which is a beautiful deck and I’ve even used the non-traditional Osho Zen Tarot, but I’ve always returned to the Smith-Waite Tarot. It’s a staple, after all. So beloved is this deck among tarot enthusiasts that there are also numerous decks that take direct inspiration from its imagery, not to mention multiple editions of the original design. In my case, I now own four such variations of Smith-Waite decks shown below in order of their purchase.
The columns above show (labeled as the decks are labeled and sold by):
- My first Rider Waite Tarot, purchased in 1988 (30 years ago!?)
- The Original Rider Waite Tarot Pack
- Smith-Waite Tarot Deck (Centennial Addition)
- Universal Waite Tarot
After moving around between different other styles of decks, I reacquainted myself with the Smith-Waite while doing my blog series Tarot 4 Tyson several years ago. It taught me how to approach the tarot in different ways and helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the imagery established by Pamela Coleman Smith. After this new found love, I wanted to update my deck, so I purchased the Original Rider Waite. From what I saw online, I liked the antique aesthetic and subtle detail in line work of some of the images. However, I would later realize that some reworking of the artwork fell flat and actually ruined a few of the images as a result (The Magician and the Death card come to mind). The card stock was also a little on the heavy side and the back of the cards gave away whether or not a card was reversed which I never liked nor appreciated in a deck. At least the plaid blue backing of my first deck maintained that bit of secrecy when it came to shuffling and dealing. In the above image, you can see how the colors shifted between the two columns (1 & 2). They became richer and more saturated while the black lines became thicker with very little variation, affecting some of the more intricate images. All these little concerns caused me to consider another version of the deck. Hence my interest and inevitable possession of the Smith-Waite Tarot Deck (Centennial Addition).
Seeing an improvement in the antique aesthetic of the Original Rider Waite and in the artwork of the cards -even if they were a bit dingy in appearance and lacked the needed contrast that a titanium white would offer- I received the Smith-Waite Tarot Deck (Centennial Addition) as a welcome gift. Sadly, it too suffered from a heavy card stock with a back design that gave away the card’s orientation. Again, the heavy card stock made this deck a bit unwieldy to shuffle and required a little maintenance to prevent the cards from bowing one way or another. They were just too rigid for my taste, which is a shame because it’s a beautiful deck despite my personal criticisms as an artist. The colors were less saturated than in the Original Rider Waite and the black line-work displayed a variation that enhanced the beauty of the imagery and helped better distinguish the visual elements found in the drawings (see Death/Magician comparison photo). In retrospect, I think the heavy card stock and back design is what really killed this deck for me, but who knows? Maybe I’m just really picky and a tough tarot lover to please?
I recently acquired my fourth installment of the Pamela Coleman Smith variety, the Universal Waite Tarot which I am finding quite enjoyable. This is not a newly released deck by any means, but the re-colorization of the imagery by artist Mary Hanson-Roberts is surprisingly vibrant, detailed, and fun without being obnoxious. I was honestly hesitant if I would enjoy it or not, as it is in complete contrast to the aesthetics harbored in the other three decks while still distinctly being a Smith-Waite deck. As you can see in the large image above, the art is a direct recoloring. It wonderfully displays not only tonal variation in the colors and line-work, but the people now have actual faces, which show expression as well as a sense of life and awareness. It’s also nice to see the markings and textures of the artistic medium used to recolor the images, which appear to be a well-articulated colored pencil. The backs of the cards (not done in pencil) are an ambiguous nighttime field of stars that don’t (THANKFULLY!) reveal the orientation of the cards. Plus, the card stock is comfortable without being unwieldy, allowing them to shuffle with gentle grace as a deck of cards should, instead of slapping down in stubborn clumps. In these cards, it would seem that I have found my deck of choice, at least for the time being. Is it perfect? No, that would be ridiculous. There is no such thing as “the perfect deck” and as an artist, it is unfortunately in my nature to be hyper-critical of any creative endeavor or product I look at (especially to spend money on), so I’m sure I’ll eventually find something to complain about, but until then- Cheers!