The Fantastic World of Tarot

Most of the time I have been teaching about photography, its been devoted to the single image captured in an instant, or built up with multiple exposures. However, much of my personal work takes the form of photo-Illustration, where an entirely new image is created from multiple photo elements assembled with graphic elements, filters and illustrated elements. I have been working on a long term project to create a deck of Tarot cards using Photography and Photoshop. I thought I’d share my creative process in this post, as a way to introduce my new workshop on Photo-Illustration at the Maine Media Workshops – happening July 20th to July 26th, 2014

The Magician

The Magician

The Magician is one of the subset of Tarot cards known as the Major Arcana – these are the 22 trump cards in the deck.

The figure of the Magician was shot in the studio with the model jumping on a mini trampoline. There are a number of photographic elements combined with text elements and filter-rendered illustrative elements, all assembled into a surreal scene. There are 30 basic layers above the card background, which is itself assembled from 10 layers of text and illustration elements. The figure is made up of multiple layers to adjust for hand position, and flying hair…

Magician figure - 1

The figure of the Magician is composed of multiple elements – here you can see how a new position for the staff and left hand was arrived at by breaking apart the image and rotating the elements.

Magician Figure-2

The final assembled figure has additional hair taken from another shot, and another hand, also from another shot.

In addition to the main figure, there is a spider web element that was generated with an algorithmic painting technique pioneered by Kai Krause – here a series of layer blend effects are stacked on top of one another to generate the spider web filaments!

It all starts with  a black to white gradient…


The black-to-white gradient.

The Zig-Zag distort filter is applied…

Zig-Zag filter applied to create the ripple effect

Zig-Zag filter applied to create the ripple effect.

This is duplicated into another layer, rotated 90°, transformed to fit, and applied in Difference layer blend mode…

Difference mode -1

The ripples, rotated and differenced against itself.

This process is repeated, rotating, flipping, and differenced against itself through numerous iterations…


Multiple iterations of the duplicating, flipping, rotating, and differencing.

Each time the ripples are slightly out of phase with each other, and eventually thin fibers emerge…


Thin fibers emerge from the iterative process.

The resulting fibers are perspective-distorted to lean the surface back in 3D space…

Leaned back

The complex fibers are distorted to appear as if the surface is leaning back into space.

More distortion, and “pinching” to create the point over which the Magician will hover…


The fibers are pinched into a point.

I wanted this spider’s web to be made out of 1s and 0s (to symbolize the world wide web) so I blended in a field of 1s and 0s made by creating a repeating pattern in Photoshop…

1s and 0s

1s and 0s

Blended together

Blended together.

Adding in a spider under the point…



In African myth, Anansi the spider has the same characteristics of the Magician in the Tarot deck, also similar to the symbolism associated with the astrological planet Mercury (the symbol for which appears in the upper left corner of my version of the card.)

Now we can assemble the other elements into a cohesive whole, building from the bottom up…

Card background

The web is in place on the card – at this point there are 6 layers merged into 1


Clouds – the Magician is an air element card.

Text elements.

Text elements added.


The cup, sword, burning staff, and disk symbolize the 4 – elements: water air, fire, and earth.

The Magician's aura

The Magician’s aura


The Magician is added.

The final with the Caduceus of Hermes, starburst in the hand, and Bagua on his forehead…

The Magician

The Magician is one of the subset of Tarot cards known as the Major Arcana – these are the 22 trump cards in the deck.

This image is fairly complex, but typical of the rest of my Tarot series, densely packed with symbols in an imaginative tableaux. You can view the rest of the Major Arcana images at my work-in-progress website:

I am teaching a workshop on the various techniques I use for my Photo-Illustration work at Maine Media Workshops – The Fundamentals of Photo-Illustration: Lighting, Shooting, & Photoshop

I will guide you in an intense exploration of photo-illustration techniques in the studio, on location, and in the digital lab. You will work on photographing various illustrative projects from still life, to glamour, and fine art conceptual imagery—then assemble multiple elements into a cohesive whole that goes beyond the sum of its parts. You will learn special lighting techniques that leverage the idiosyncrasies of digital capture to create compelling other-worldly images, and master Hollywood style special effects. Lee will guide you step-by-step in the digital lab to create several fantastic projects using material shot in class. Topics include:

  • Studio lighting effects
  • Advanced “lighting in layers” technique
  • False color technique
  • Hollywood lighting effects
  • Creating drop shadows and shading in Photoshop
  • Figure shaping and retouching
  • Background replacement
  • Type and type effects
  • Learn advanced masking techniques for hair
  • Master blend modes and advanced Blending Options
  • Light beams, glows, halos, and fire effects in Photoshop

The workshop happens July 20th to July 26th in the beautifully picturesque town of Rockport on the coast!

If you cannot attend the workshop, and are interested in learning about photo-illustration you should consider purchasing my online (& downloadable) course:

The Fundamentals of Photo-Illustration

Your comments are welcome!