The Touchstone Tarot by Kat Black is a masterfully done digital collage deck that you would never know was digital collage unless told. Working with Renaissance and Baroque classical art, the deck is a European art gallery in a box.
Black’s Golden Tarot remains one of my all-time favorite decks and Touchstone is right up there with it. Funny story actually. When I first opened the box of cards, which was sent to me by U.S. Games, I didn’t read the box and went straight into sifting through the deck art. My very first thought was, “This is a copy of Kat Black’s art style!” … only to realize… it’s Kat Black’s deck.
That’s an incredible testament to how consistent and defined Black’s style is as an artist. She’s got such a signature that I can spot her work miles away.
Also, one of the features I appreciate the most is the inclusion of all art references and a card art description in the companion guidebook. Too many digital collage art decks omit any credits, attributions, or citations. If you’re working with public domain art, technically you don’t need them, but it’s always a nice-to-have, and here, I really love that Black lets you know exactly what all her sources are.
The earthen tone box is embossed with gold leaf and metallic gold frames every card image. The card backs are also embossed with gold leaf, in ornate brown and black filigree and floral patterns. The exquisite production value here by U.S. Games means this would be a great gift idea for someone just being introduced to tarot.
The cardstock is high-gloss but really sturdy, and just feels like great attention to detail went into its crafting. Since the art is sourced from Baroque paintings, you’re going to get strong Christian references, which I don’t mind.
I’m intrigued by the direction Black went in for The Hanged Man, and I’m here for it. “This card traditionally portrays a man hung upside down, with his legs forming a cross,” she writes. “As this deck is not one of esoteric symbols so much as real people, I have used one of the many paintings of St. Sebastian.”
Key 13 features Carvaggio’s controversial painting, “The Death of Mary,” and shows the Virgin Mary as a poor peasant woman in a realist style. The RWS rose icon here appears as the Tudor rose. You also see a skeleton, an hour glass, and a coffin.
The guidebook is wonderful. It includes a description of the card image, the card meaning in a reading, and the meaning in reverse. There are many little details that you’ll want to know about, so if you get this deck, definitely give the LWB a read-through.
For example, the figure in the Five of Wands has a lazy eye! I guess that might be something I picked up on more sensitively because I used to suffer from lazy eye, too, but overcame it in my adulthood (sorta). The High Priestess is described as an androgynous woman.
Then in the back of the book, there’s a section that cites every painting that every symbol on that card was sourced from. So, for example, The High Priestess is a composite of a Rubens painting, Bellini, Anguissola, Heem, Botticelli, and several others.
Art history lovers are going to love this deck. Those who want to work with the RWS but not the RWS 1911 deck itself are also going to love this deck. Black has such a masterful command over tarot knowledge that she is able to translate key RWS symbology– the iconography you’re most likely to latch onto– and reproduce them in her decks. It’s one of the reasons I loved the Golden Tarot back in the day and it’s one of the reasons why I highly recommend the Touchstone Tarot.
The guidebook is keyed to a total beginner and really quite comprehensive for an LWB. I appreciate the culture and history lessons. Kat Black herself is a traditional painter and is a fine artist. Only later did she move into the digital art medium, and more contemporary forms of art like video installations and digital collage.
The deck’s namesake refers to a hand-held tool that is used to detect whether something else is true. Likewise, the purpose of this deck is revelatory.
Another little detail this deck does particularly well is it highlights the socioeconomic correspondences that the four suits were historically associated with. For example here, the suit of Swords is representative of the medieval ruling class, of worldly authority and leadership.
The suit of Cups corresponds with the clerical class, representative of spiritual study and personal reflection. Wands were the medieval peasant class, symbolic of the work you do, of strength, and of craft. The suit of Coins is the merchant class, suggesting trade and commerce.
In 2021, even 2020 when this deck was published by U.S. Games (it was self-published much earlier), a deck reviewer almost can’t not comment on diversity and representation issues. Here, quite literally, everyone pictured is going to be of European descent, or look it. And I’m totally okay with it.
Here’s why: The defined theme here is artwork gathered from Europe’s Northern Renaissance in the late 15th century, flourishing predominantly in the Low Countries (northern Europe), France, Germany, England, and Poland, with imports from Italy. That and also features from Baroque period art.
Not only do you get snippets of fascinating history lessons in the LWB, but you learn about the many mythical creatures, like a Satyr, and goddesses, such as Demeter and Minerva, pictured, along with historical figures, like Christopher Marlowe, William the Silent, Christina of Denmark, or Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria, to name a few. Love how Black described Marchesa, by the way– “a hottie if ever there was one.” (Queen of Wands.)
In most of the compositions, the figure is looking out, straight at the viewer, making eye contact, which draws you in and gives this deck a more intimate feel. Black writes on her purpose for creating the Touchstone Tarot– “I wanted to create a deck that was a little warmer and more human.” The original medium for this tarot deck was going to be as a digital app on cell phones, and it was only later that it got picked up by U.S. Games and produced as a mass market deck.
There are two bonus cards with this deck– the Happy Squirrel and the Author Card, titled “Touchstone Tarot” (above to the right). You see fortune-telling depicted in this tongue-in-cheek Happy Squirrel card, which is just a light message to not take yourself, the situation, or anything too seriously, and to keep your sense of humor about things. As for what the Happy Squirrel card means in reverse– I love Black’s note here: “Hey, it’s bad enough that I gave you upright meanings, you do realize this isn’t a real tarot card?”
As Mary Greer writes in the Dedication for the deck: “This is a magical deck. Personalities dominate each card, and the perception in their eyes becomes a test– the touchstone– by which your sincerity and truth is measured. . . . I highly recommend this as a deck you’ll have to not just own, but use– frequently.”