Long before the art begins there is much done to till the soil. For in-depth paintings and large projects, it is essential that I cultivate a love for the subject (if not already there) that will sustain me through months or years. I look to the landscape first, as the legends are a product of their environment. Then I research the time period and delve into the history and writings of the day (and some of what came before) to glean the sensibility of the people—their values, humor and tastes. Ideally I will develop a “nose” for the cultural nuances and progressions; I’ll fall in with its rhythms, and soon ideas stimulate the imagination … visions, voices for text, differing approaches, etc. It is an exciting time. With a large project I am conscious of varying the moods, seasons, landscape and palette to keep it alive. (The tarot has a color tradition that already accounts for mood.)
2. How do you build an image?
Sometimes an image appears completed in my mind’s eye—all in a flash, as was the case for the Priestess /Cerdiwen card. The finished painting is much like the original vision. Other times it is a loose idea that’s built partly by intellect and text, then shifts and evolves with the imagination and the dynamics of watercolor (which can be unpredictable in the way it settles into the grain of the paper or washes on a certain day, under a given temperature, etc.). Much of the landscape I will tease out of the paint. The figures are drawn complete before they are painted, but they inevitably change with the paint; this quality of watercolor is a consistent element of surprise that keeps me both interested and on my toes.
3. Do you use sketches and plans?
I may do some very loose sketches that tend to make sense only to my eye. Many artists do detailed roughs, but I—nature of the creature that I am—find that my enthusiasm or inspiration wanes if I do a trial run or know what is coming. I certainly have to make several attempts at some subjects, which do improve with experience. The Moon card, for example, I painted seven or eight times because I had my heart set on a particular sheen on the moon and a lively, dramatic night sky. Some early attempts were chalky dead bits of cheese. Watercolor can be unforgiving, but when those translucent washes sing—it is oh so beautiful, with an inherent light that is not found in other mediums and a glistening wet look, which, sadly, is not always retained in printed reproductions.
4. Would you give an example of how an individual painting evolves from blank paper to a work of art?
The Temperance /Keeper of the Well card was one I had looked forward to since onset of the project. It combines two of my favorite subjects, a woman and water—and in this case underwater is even better! The accompanying story is as mysterious as deep water itself, and survives in an atmospheric, but cryptic, medieval Welsh poem. Sister tales in Irish and Breton traditions helped fill in some details. In short, she guards the well that has overflowed and drowned an entire kingdom that had been wicked with excess. In some versions, she is kept company by her trusty dog, and is turned into a salmon years later, with her dog transformed to an otter. I had long watched this scene in my mind’s eye: a girl in the depths, in purples and sandy colors with changing light — so many possibilities! I even dreamed of her once. While the composition is what I intended, details evolved such as the fish-scale dress, suggesting her metamorphosis has begun. The way the paint settled in the paper first gave me the idea. The way the dog’s ear rises in the water’s current is one of the delights developed from idle thoughts and stray pencil lines when I was drawing the scene. I so thoroughly enjoy those moments of dialogue with a painting! (The dog featured is my own trusty mutt of mysterious origin, who as a white dog—a sign of the otherworldly to the Welsh—also appears in The Fool cards for The Llewellyn Tarot and Legend: the Arthurian Tarot .) The Welsh and tarot elements blend and balance to give the sense of the tempered, mixing, combining quality symbolized by the Temperance/Keeper of the Well card … “in-betweens” or bridging worlds. She was the first drawing I did for the project, but I placed her toward the end of the schedule as a carrot. The drawing was just to get my feet wet— as Temperance is wont to do.
Generally my paintings will go through at least two phases where they look awful, with values askew at the very least. It was enough to make one cry after a couple of weeks’ work, but if you can keep the faith and press on, some beauty may yet be born. I often become “blind” to my subject after weeks of work. 5. How long does a painting take to complete?
In this case, the major arcana cards are full-fledged paintings and took over a month apiece, stretching into years of work. The minor arcana are of a simpler charm and are based on the Rider-Waite designs—these cards varied in length and were a gentle pleasure to paint. 6. Do you use models?
Not often, or not as much as I should. The images are products of my imagination 90% of the time. Fortune is the only painting I used a model for in The Llewellyn Tarot. I prefer a live model, but have collected many reference photos over the years, of friends obliging by enacting scenes from battle to bliss. It’s nothing I would not ask of myself, however. I did get into a very cold river once to model for Lady of the Lake, sword in hand, drowning in billowing fabric while friend and fellow illustrator Alan Lee (of Lord of the Rings) took some reference photos. Great photos, though they were never used. (He also took the photo that became Fortune.) The landscapes, while true to the country, also come from my imagination, unless we’re talking about a specific tree, mountain, etc. There are some images in The Llewellyn Tarot derived from life experiences. For example, the Strength card, featuring the comically fierce wild Boar, is modeled on steer wrestling competitions included in the rodeos of the Canadian prairies where I have my home. 7. What is your style of art?
Classical watercolor; there’s a realism to it (but not pushed to the point of photographic realism, which I personally find leaves me cold and wondering as to the point). While the subject may be mythological, the approach in art is real in landscape, figures, light, etc. This real treatment of the unreal creates a tension of the two worlds—a borderland, and herein I believe lies the power of the art. It is much like interplay in early Celtic mythology itself—not fantasy, but a mystic realism. It is an atmosphere rather than a sighting. 8. How do your paintings and characters of Welsh mythology differ from pre-existing images of other artists?
Aside from the individual artist lens, the images were designed to serve as tarot cards, so the traditional tarot imagery is utilized. Sometimes it is subtle and unobtrusive, so that one might not know they were enacting the tarot. Mryddin (Merlin) as the Hermit , for example, appears self-sufficient as an individual painting of the bard, though a trained tarot eye would recognize the tarot elements. Lady of the Fountain, on the other hand, who appears on the Justice card, would be a recognizable character to the Welsh, given her fountain, bowl and yellow dress; yet in this rare case, I was forced to move beyond the Welsh text, to actually place her at the fountain with bowl and sword. While it is only a small leap of imagination—as Lady of the Fountain, I am sure she visited the site—I still was reluctant to take her out of her castle, but it was necessary to fulfill the tarot requirements. With much Welsh lore having been lost over time, some delicate patches are sometimes needed—and a little courtesy between the tarot and Welsh tradition. The Welsh characters tend to be highly individualistic, which is what makes them so fascinating, but can also make for a challenge in assigning tarot cards, since they pride themselves on not fitting neatly into the box. The reward, however, is a lively tactile deck with enough character to make a fresh, enduring relationship with its readers.