An Interview with the Artist Behind HBO’s Game of Thrones Tarot
The world of Westeros comes to life in tarot form in Game of Thrones Tarot—a stunning card deck by Craig Coss, an award-winning fine artist, illustrator, and storyteller, and Liz Dean, a thirty-year tarot practitioner and author.
The beautifully rendered and wholly original set melds the tradition of the tarot with the deep archetypes of Game of Thrones. Get a look at how this deck came together from Craig Coss himself below!
How did you get into art and illustration?
I grew up in a family of artists, designers, and storytellers—three or four generations on both sides—so I was raised to develop an eye for proportion and beauty, pencils, paint, and narrative. I’ve done paid illustration work since I was a teenager, starting with watercolors for my little sister who had her own hand-painted earring business in high school. I studied art and philosophy in college, and you could say that my work for the past three decades has been about expressing philosophy through visual art. In the past few years, I’m folding my interest in narrative into the mix. Both stories and visual imagery have been used to teach recondite subjects for centuries, and the idea of telling such stories—visually—intrigues me.
How did this project come to be?
It was a true collaboration. Chronicle Books asked Liz Dean to author the book that will accompany the deck, and then asked me to illustrate the cards. I’d wanted to do a tarot deck since I was a kid, and I knew the TV show. My wife Michelle is a huge fan and encouraged me to go for it. Liz and the team at Chronicle had a good idea for which characters they wanted to see on the Major Arcana cards, but few ideas for the Minor Arcana. I suggested that we pair the traditional meanings of the Minor Arcana cards with a character, moment, or scene from GoT that best fit the meaning for each and every card. It required that I watch the first six seasons three times over to find the most ideal possible pairings. It seemed so crazy and I wasn’t even sure that it could be done well. But I had a hunch to try.
It came together piece by piece. . .with Liz, Michelle, and Chronicle’s help, we were able to bring together two narratives—GoT and the traditional tarot—so that they inform and build upon each other. And if you come from a background in tarot, you might see the TV series with new eyes. I think we’re all very pleased with the result.
Which character or card was your favorite to illustrate and why?
I have so many favorites that it’s hard to choose. Some cards paired up with traditional Tarot meanings so closely that at times it was uncanny. But I think The Fool was my favorite card to create. Peter Dinklage is a brilliant actor, and I love his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister. Liz felt strongly that The Fool is a card about following intuition and taking tremendous risks—about trusting in the Grand Order of things that’s beyond the intellect’s understanding. It’s about stepping out of the world of the ego and into a world ordered by something greater. Accordingly, Liz wanted to depict Tyrion freeing a dragon in Meereen. I loved the idea! But she also wanted to include the number zero on the card—something I felt strongly not to do. The Fool has been my favorite card since I was ten years old, and I knew it was the keystone of the entire deck. We fought it out, and eventually I gave in and agreed to number it zero.
And then it came to me: the number zero, historically, came from India. It was connected to the early Buddhist concept of the empty mind—a state of consciousness without an ego or identity called Dhyāna, the origin of the word Zen. The Hindus used that sign—the circle to indicate nothingness or emptiness—in a new method of mathematical notation, and thus Hindu-Arabic numerals were born. I wanted to show that history visually in the card, and it came to me to depict the zero as the reflection of Tyrion’s head in the eye of a dragon: a visual pun.
In that way, the zero in the card hints that The Fool is connected with the dragon’s eye, but also with the state of surrender to that consciousness. And that’s the state of inspiration that seizes us from another world and allows us to think out of the box, to take risks, and bring something new into the world. Liz’s insistence on the inclusion of the zero sparked the inspiration for the composition of the whole card, and Tyrion—with his expression while holding aloft a flame in the middle of an Ouroboric dragon—brings a wealth of emotional and symbolic associations to the card. The Fool is a great example of how discussions between Liz and I gave birth to ideas that we could never have come up with alone.
What was your process for creating the artwork?
My original idea was to hand carve woodcuts for every card, to scale, just as all of the late medieval Marseilles tarot decks were created. The art director, Michael Morris, loved my colored woodcut prints, but there just wasn’t time to cut the wood for seventy-eight cards, print them, hand watercolor them and make any revisions that might be needed. So I invented a way to create a woodcut look digitally and made an analogue/digital hybrid for each card. The technique was still labor-intensive, but it made revisions far easier than having to cut new woodblocks and re-paint them. That said, three of the cards in the final set are scans of those woodblock prints. If I did my job well, they won’t be easy to spot.
Are you interested in the world of tarot itself?
My father gave me my first set of tarot cards when I was ten years old. He had no idea what they were but he saw them at a garage sale for a dollar and knew I’d love the artwork. I saw in those cards a world of symbolism, mythology, and magic the likes of which I’d never seen before. I read about their use as an oracle, which fascinated me as a kid. But the most powerful aspect of the tarot for me was the idea that archetypes were represented in the Major Arcana and narratives were represented in the Minor Arcana. That’s some heavy-duty mojo: Death, Angels, the Devil—they were all there on these cards. And I realized early on that they were nothing to take lightly.
I’m intrigued by the use of tools that generate apparently random results (e.g. dice, runes, tea leaves, cracks in tortoise shells, or cards) for oracular purposes by people all over the world, since prehistory. It’s our way of saying, “I don’t know what to do, which way to go, or what choice to make.” . . . People can make an oracle out of almost anything that they don’t feel that they control, but the tarot is the most visually beautiful and evocative tradition of divination I’m aware of. Even if you think the whole oracular thing is hogwash, the images are undeniably beautiful and powerful; for that reason, I’ve collected tarot decks since I was a kid.
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HBO’s Game of Thrones Tarot is out now—you can find it here.
Craig Coss is an award-winning San Francisco Bay Area fine artist, illustrator and storyteller with an MFA in Visual Narrative from the School of Visual Arts. He’s the author of The Goddess Coloring Book: Traditional Images to Contemplate & Color. When he was given his first tarot deck at age ten, he knew it would point him in the right direction. Visit his website or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
Liz Dean is a tarot practitioner of thirty years’ standing and the author of four tarot decks and ten books, including The Ultimate Guide to Tarot and The Art of Tarot. She reads and teaches tarot at Psychic Sisters within Selfridges, London, and lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
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