SKT III Status Update Report

I’ve just finished up the first drafts of the Fives, so I figured it might be a good time to share a status update on SKT III (edition still unnamed). There are some videos up already on my YouTube channel to get a little more into the creator intentions behind each card, though public videos ended at the Threes. I’ve put the videos on pause for now, in terms of releasing them.

Works-in-progress drafts only; final production subject to change

If you might recall, Key 1: The Magus was the very first card I learned digital painting on. The line work was done by hand, scanned in, and the color was subsequently done via digital painting software programs. Then it was Key 2: The Priestess, and so on.

It’s amusing to look back on those first five keys, because it’s painfully obvious how scared of color I was. =) I didn’t know what I was doing. I was winging it. And you can tell.

It’s not until Key 6: The Lovers card that a noticeable improvement happens. Then after Key 7: The Chariot, off I went! =) Now that I know how to color, after finishing the Tens I’m going to return to Keys 1 through 5. I’ve already made notes on how I want to revise them.

You can click on any of these image files for an enlarged view.

WIPS of the Aces, Twos, Threes, and Fours

I’m still so torn over composition and placement for that Two of Swords. What you see above is the version where she’s centered and aligned exactly with the Lighthouse of Alexandria. I get that in terms of tarot card interpretation in readings, this version might make more sense and feel more familiar to seasoned readers. But artistically, the composition here is a big Art 101 no-no.

Aesthetically, the left one, where the foreground figure is off-center, feels more balanced than when everything is dead centered. But I’m not creating just art here; this has to be a reading deck, too.

My other thought was to break up the All-Seeing Eye and the Lighthouse, so the Lighthouse goes off-center left in the background while the Eye goes off-center right. The problem with that is then the whole top two-thirds of the image space is blank blue sky, and that didn’t look great either! SIGH.

I have a lot more thinking to do with regard to this Two of Swords.

I also want to talk a bit about my digital coloring process. I don’t use straight color off the default palette settings in the program and I don’t use any default paint brushes. Instead, each and every “color” you see is actually a seamless tile pattern.

Even when you see what appears to be just one color, it’s not. It’s in effect pointillism. I’ll create a seamless tile of lots of micro-dots of that one color, say, purple, and the actual tile is a 300 x 300 pixel square of zillions of little purple dots.

Then I “color” the section I want purple with a seamless tile application of those dots. It happens at such a magnified level that when you zoom out and look at the card at actual 2.75″ x 4.75″ size, true, it’s probably not immediately noticeable that it’s dots, not straight application of color.

Except also, I do believe you intuitively notice a difference. If you blink twice and look again, you’ll realize, hey, omigosh, that’s not just a blue sky… that’s like hundreds of thousands of dots of blue.

For the Empyrean Court, which in the SKT represents the angelic realms, whether that’s a hard religious belief in spirit entities from beyond or we’re talking about the figurative higher angels within us, I wanted to portray us, as in people, embodying or having invoked the angels.

Archangels, Shields, Knights (The Shining Ones), and Pages (The Strongholds). Works-in-progress only; subject to more changes prior to printing.

Hopefully each court card is easily discernible, where the Archangels (tarot Kings) feature the four magic squares, Shields (tarot Queens) have the, well, talismanic warding shields, the Shining Ones (tarot Knights) feature the elementals, and the Strongholds (tarot Pages) feature scrolls, to denote their messenger roles.

Arranging my completed drafts in the ways presented here also help me to scrutinize the cohesiveness of the deck. For instance, I can see right away that the Knight of Wands guy is way too tall compared to the other suits’ knights. I need to fix my Page of Orbs. And I need to rework the Shields so that the four together, side by side, will feel more cohesive.

For the Minor Arcana, before I begin each card, I decide where and when on the space time continuum. =) The labor I invest into the background for each card, even if most of it ends up covered by the foreground, is my own practice and study. It’s how I improve my digital painting techniques. And that’s in addition to the magical implications of world-building.

Only after I complete the background as a fully-formed landscape do I turn my attention to the foreground, the who and the what. For the most part, the foreground is the same as what it was in the earlier editions of SKT, with the addition of color. Of course, I do tweak details here and there, now that my technique has improved a bit since 2018.

I’m still learning how to keep my lines consistent. You can see some issues with that in the completed drafts so far. I do the various parts of the whole separately, on separate canvases, and then later combine together into multiple layers before merging those layers. That’s why some of the details have very thick outlines while others have very thin.

Welp, they looked the same to me when they were separate files. And then when I put them together and resized each for proportion, now suddenly those lines are all sorts of uneven. Doh.

I’m thinking about offering art prints as well. So that some of these painstakingly-rendered backgrounds still see the light of day. =) Plus, I feel like there’d be magical feng shui-ish uses to the art when hung up on the wall somewhere in your space, right?

In any event these thoughts are archived for after I complete the deck. Right now my main focus is the deck. Now I kinda wanna flex a little and talk about the background setting for the Four of Orbs.

Photographs of a print-on-canvas of my illustration, from two different camera angles

This was a study of a sub-genre in traditional art of featuring paintings within a painting. Vermeer would paint in his previous paintings along the back walls as part of the setting of his works. Pannini did several of such studies that are just breathtaking. Below is one James and I both loved when we saw it in person.

Gallery with Views of Modern Rome (1757) by Giovanni Paolo Pannini

Yes, I am working digitally for SKT III. But I am taking all of my inspiration from classical art. And something I had been itching to try my hands at (albeit digitally, not with a physical paint brush) is the “paintings within a painting” art study.

Archduke Wilhelm and the artist in Brussels (1651) by David Teniers the Younger

My initial notes-to-self was to do this for the backdrop of the Knight of Cups card, or maybe Page of Cups, and then work with the details and features more precisely based on whether I went with the Knight or Page. But it didn’t happen. =) I opted for different directions for those cards.

Interior of a Collectors Gallery (1637) by Cornelis de Baellieur and Hans Jordaens

Then I got to the Four of Orbs. The concept made total sense as applied to the Four of Pentacles/Disks. Yay!

James surprised me by ordering a giant print-on-canvas of this illustration to hang in our home. He liked it for sentimental reasons– it reminded him of all the places in the world we’ve traveled to, the art galleries we’ve visited and all the paintings in this sub-genre we’ve admired together (in stark contrast to 2020, I think the first year since college graduation that neither one of us has left the country).

My version features famous 17th and 18th century Russian paintings to keep in theme, but then the back wall got fun– I went Vermeer and put in framed “paintings” of other cards from this deck. =) The centered work of art along that back wall is an earlier draft of this illustration. Fun, huh?

Oh, also, I’ve figured out what I want to do in terms of the framing. I definitely want borders because it gives a more classical aesthetic. As a deck creator, you don’t just want to go with your personal preferences (ordinarily I prefer borderless deck art); you want to go with what will pair best with the style of your deck art.

Borderless tends to work better if your illustration style is modern, more abstract, if it’s got a pop art aesthetic, or it’s more expressionistic where you would want the lines of motion to flow off the edge.

For the specific vibes I want my deck art to convey, an antiqued parchment-esque border makes more sense. Although classical art styles tend to pair with ornate borders and frames, I didn’t go that route because I didn’t want the framing details to compete against the details in the illustrations.

For the Minors, the decan rulership notations are at the top– planetary decan ruler is on the top left and the sign it rules over is on the top right.

The bottom left features the card’s corresponding trigram and on the bottom right, its numerological correspondence in the Mayan numeral system. This is great for those who integrate card counting into their divinatory methods (e.g., Opening of the Key).

Six of Wands

As of this posting, I have 19 more cards to go. Then I’m re-doing the first 5, so that actually means 24 cards to go. There are details here and there in the “done” cards that I now look back on and want to tweak more.

How my digital images will translate printed on cards is yet another hurdle to contend with. I already saw issues with some of the cards when I tried printing them at home. The color saturation would be exactly what I want on screen, but then the printed version on art paper would look quite different. Sometimes the cards came out too dull; other times too bright. The type of cardstock I used for test printing also changed the color values.

That means the sampling and prototype phase is going to be much more involved than it was for the black and white or the sepia-toned editions.

In terms of projected pre-order scheduling, we’re still on target for first quarter of 2021.

18 thoughts on “SKT III Status Update Report

  1. Yes! Coming together very nicely. I’m frankly salivating in anticipation of this Deck.
    I kinda see your quandary re the 2 of Swords – while full centering may be more ‘traditional’, the offset version is more aesthetically appealing. Have you tried offsetting both foreground and background images each slightly in opposite directions? Or maybe that would just be hideous, and a cop-out. I dunno. Let your own instincts be your guide. Overall the coloring is astonishing.


  2. Robyn Hubbard

    I. Can. Not. WAIT!!! And art prints?! Big yes! I so want the backgrounds in addition to the cards. This style is my most fav from a childhood spent in all the great museums around the world.


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  4. Katarzyna

    A wonderful deck, looking forward to buying it!
    The cards are stunning, I have just one, single reservation – the Temperance card, I almost fear this two-headed (or two-faced) figure. Seriously. Any chance for an alternative version, like in the case of the Key 0?


    1. Anonymous

      I heard about this somewhere, either fortune’s wheelhouse or the astrology podcast. That might partly have to do with Sagittarius being a mutable sign and having ‘originally’ been depicted in Babylonian mythology with two heads – civilized and warlike, civilized on the front of the head, and warlike on the back.

      So rather than the happy-go-lucky Sag with high ideals that we all know and love, Sagittarius had a fearsome edge which kinda makes sense since (1) we sometimes see them as fanatic proselytizers (2) it’s the sign that follows Scorpio (3) which is it’s twelfth sign of hidden matters/shadow. I feel like the message of temperance is in part integrating the shadow.
      I went to wiki to make sure and yeah. “The Babylonians identified Sagittarius as the god Nergal, a centaur-like creature firing an arrow from a bow. It is generally depicted with wings, with two heads, one panther head and one human head, as well as a scorpion’s stinger raised above its more conventional horse’s tail. ” Nergal is a war eventually-turned underworld god.


  5. Wow – I was delightfully surprised to see the figures on the ceiling of the Russian Palace. Such a beautiful project and a challenge to boot. Of course I am loving all of it Benebell!


  6. Borders are a must for this deck. It creates the effect of a window/door frame. Great for journeying or guided meditation. I think you should offer a large size (around 6 x 4 inchs) Majors only deck soles for this purpose.

    The coloring of the cards is amazing and I feel a completely new world opening up here.

    (Regarding printing (I used to do a lot of large format printing) It is essential that you have a color calibrated display and have the card you want to print on color profiled. With the installed card profile on your properly calibrated monitor you will come close to seeing the final product.)


  7. Amazing, beautiful, extraordinary and oh so many words. I love the 2 of swords centered, but I also know what you mean in art elements and principles of design 1/3 principle etc you should never have main image in center. If you really want to position something off center, I would keep her sitting in middle, but place the Lighthouse and all seeing eye to the right and more in the background, a little smaller maybe and maybe at or near the line of water and sky meeting. Just my input 🙂 or keep as is in middle. I do not like the off center card as it is shown. Amazing progress as usual 🙂 Sending hugs and love


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  10. Patrick Booker

    Just got my two copies of the Revelation Edition. A nice surprise in that there were no UK customs charges this time – often a problem when I order items from the US. Congratulations on completing this monumental project, Benebell – clearly a labour of love. A beautiful deck which I look forward to getting to know. I have the First edition and the mini-version of the Virruvian. It will be fun to compare.


  11. Patrick Booker

    I have now read the greater part of ‘The Book of Maps’. What a huge range of cultural associations, many with a strong personal resonance. The Buddhist scholar John Blofield once compared Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, saying that the former was essential Buddhism) (where you go down quickly and come up slowly) and the latter comprehensive Buddhism (where you go down slowly and come up quickly). In terms of Blofield’s metaphor, this is comprehensive Tarot.


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