Vernal Equinox/New Moon Special Feature: the making of an Emperor

I finished the Emperor card sitting outside in the sunshine listening to the peepers and birds, on the Vernal Equinox, the defining moment of Spring here in the Northern hemisphere. This is when when the Sun enters 0 degrees of the sign of Aries. I’m posting the Emperor here for the New Moon in Aries, a super potent new Moon where the Moon & Sun are of course conjunct in the early degrees of Aries (along with Uranus and Mercury).

Just mentioning all this as the Emperor is the card of Aries in the tarot so it all feels right somehow. I’ve noticed both in the creation of the Rosetta Tarot and of this new tarot deck, that the times of their creation often seem to synch up with appropriate astrological themes.

It seems like since the Emperor is big into order and structure that it might also be a good time to share some behind the scenes construction of the artwork. It basically starts with a pencil drawing, often incorporating some sacred geometry to aid the composition. (In the Emperor’s case though, the geometric part was added to the background, where the brick wall is built from bricks in the Fibonacci sequence.)

Of course it starts with an idea. Sometimes this is the hardest part, but sometimes it is the easiest. This idea has been kicking around in my head for a while, and some elements appropriately enough came to mind while I was reading a book about the face on Mars. I guess where it gets hard sometimes is finding a way to actually execute that idea that is in my mind so that it retains the brilliance that it has internally. Sometimes outer reality is hard to manipulate to portray the inner vision.

I start with a blank sheet with the dimensions of the picture inked in. The pencil drawing is usually then made from looking at reference photographs when needed (usually for people and posture – wish I had people to model for me!) and also using the imagination, combining and changing the elements until it feels visually balanced and conveys the sense of the original idea. At this stage, I refine and change the drawing multiple times. It gets rather messy with graphite, but the “paper” is actually a type of white plastic so it can take lots of abuse and erases cleanly.

Here is the Emperor when he was at the point where I was satisfied enough with the pencil drawing to feel able to move on into ink:


The Emperor pencil
copyright 2012 M.M. Meleen


The next step takes the most concentration, as I use a permanent marker to go over the lines of the drawing, and since it is immediately permanent upon touching the “paper”, no mistakes can be made, and whiting it out wouldn’t really be a good option as it would be very visible on the smooth plastic, unlike on paper. So, I have to be very, very careful at this stage as no serious mistakes can be made. Please don’t bump the table!!

Once the lines are drawn in permanent ink, I add the shading with the permanent marker with a mixture of stippling, crosshatching and line width. After that the pencil can be erased. I always love doing that, seeing the picture become clean and clear in ink with all the dirty smudgy stuff removed. The ink lines at this point are refined if needed, and if more shading is needed I add that too. I then scan the drawing at this point, as I really like they way they look in black and white and maybe might make a black & white or “color your own” version someday.


Emperor Tabula Mundi Tarot black white
copyright 2012 M.M. Meleen


The last step is to add the color, which really can make or break the image. This takes a lot more thought than one might think. I try to work so that the majority of the image follows the color scales of the Golden Dawn for each tarot card, which limits the palette somewhat. So each color that gets put down is a conscious choice, designed to work within that palette in terms of maximum impact and contrast. Sometimes the last color I add, the last object to be colored, can be the trickiest and I will agonize over it. Unlike acrylics, you can’t just paint over the inks so easily. You can do a darker color over a light color, but if they are transparent they will be a blend, like two sheets of colored glass. You can only do a light over a dark by adding enough white to make it opaque, then you lose the transparency. The inks are kind of like permanent watercolors, like a hybrid between watercolor and acrylic.

Oddly enough I have really aversive reactions to my own work sometimes during the coloring process, thinking how much it sucks and how I might have ruined it due my bad color choices etc. I’ve learned to try to ignore this part of my mind (doesn’t work too well) as when others see the image at this stage they have the opposite reaction, loving the way it has come to life with the color.

Once I have done the coloring and think the picture is done, I scan it. If it looks fine, as in, the colors scanned well and look very much the same on screen as in real life, then it is done. But sometimes a certain color may look very “off” in the scan. This is where some people would go all Photoshop on the image, but I go old school. I repaint the section of the image in question to correct the problem. What I realized is that in a weird way, the scanner has a good eye, better than a human. It sounds odd, but here is an example. Sometimes a color might scan as darker than it looks to my eye, or a yellow turns to orange when next to a red for example. What I have learned is that this is simply because there is not enough contrast in value between that color and its surroundings. So I correct that, and the image then not only scans more correctly but actually is improved in a subtle way. Often it just takes repainting the area in question with the same color, but with a little titanium white ink mixed in with the color. This addition of the white may not even effect the color except to make it slightly more opaque and better able to reflect the light of the scanner and capture the color accurately.

So, here is the final image of the Emperor. He tells an interesting story when you compare him to his partner the Empress. See her here: Tarot M cards in progress

And here he is complete, Mr Aries himself:


Emperor Tabula Mundi Tarot
copyright 2012 M.M. Meleen


Here the Emperor is seated close to the earth, on a log rather than a throne, as if resting after a battle or perhaps plotting and planning about matters of rulership. Like traditional Emperor cards, his upper arms roughly form a triangle, while his legs cross each other, suggesting the glyph of sulphur.

He ponders the entrance of his bee skep, a microcosm of his kingdom. While the Empress is the swarm of bees, the heart of nature untamed, the Emperor is the hive, the structure. The bees are not in sight here, having been (temporarily) subdued by the smoke from his bee smoker, where the sacred fire is kept.

Perhaps because Mars, ruler of Aries, is now retrograde, he seems thoughtful and pensive, though his sword is at the ready and his horns are that of the headstrong ram. His armored footwear is adorned with a face reminiscent of the face on Mars seen in Voyager photographs. It is a face resembling a man in Egyptian headdress, perhaps the Pharaoh Ramses the Great, known as the Great Ancestor and builder of cities.

The terra cotta stand that the bee skep rests on is inscribed with the word Ozymandias, a warning against hubris and a reminder that empires, like all things, are transient and impermanent. They rise, they fall – they rise again.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

There is a lot more I could say about this image, but I will leave some a mystery for now. What do you see?

2 thoughts on “Vernal Equinox/New Moon Special Feature: the making of an Emperor

  1. Daphne Slocombe

    In its execution the image seems to me a deeply satisfying intertwining of discipline, control and conscious choice on the one hand and openess to what arises from the unconscious – the innerworld – on the other. A fascinating dance of intention and responsiveness. Art embodying mystery – what a delight! I loved reading about the whole process, from astrological synchronicities to the media used. Also really liked seeing the b&w version – beautiful.


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