Deck Review: the Illuminated Tarot

Illuminated Tarot
Review by Valerie Sylvester
The first deck most beginning tarot readers encounter when starting out on their tarot journey is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, (which I’ll refer to as “RWS” after this initial mention). It’s often the “default deck”, the one that people learn the basic meanings of the cards from. It also serves to illustrate many tarot books and websites, and most experienced tarot readers have some familiarity with it, even if they don’t use the deck regularly. Many new Tarot decks are published each year; quite of few of these decks are based in some way upon the RWS deck.

I haven’t read with the RWS deck for many years, but I do have several copies of it (and its variants) in my collection. My own current “go-to” deck is the Robin Wood tarot deck. I like the RWS deck and its clones, but haven’t had any great interest in buying or using another deck closely or even loosely based on the RWS–that is, until I heard about the Illuminated Tarot.

The Art Behind The Illuminated Tarot

The Illuminated Tarot is only available from Carol Herzer, the artist who created it. The web page on her site that features the Illuminated Tarot (she also has designed other tarot and chakra decks) can be found at Illuminated Tarot.

During the time I was painting, Neptune was conjunct the moon in my birth chart, perhaps the most psychic of all transits.

On the page of her website titled “The Story of the Illuminated Tarot”, Herzer explains how her background in art and painting intersected, the catalyst being a striking dream in which a tarot deck came to life and the cards showed themselves to her as paintings. It took her 2 years to paint the entire deck, basing these paintings on a black and white set of the RWS deck. She also describes the way the cards were painted, using a the “misch technique”, which she learned from Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs. This technique involves using layers of colors and painstakingly building these layers (not mixing, but layering), one upon another. This results in the amazing colors that shine though in this deck. The colors are rich and yet ethereal at the same time; they remind me of 17th -century stained glass windows with light shining in and through the glass. My copy features iridescent paint, which adds a shimmering quality to the already beautiful colors. It’s very hard to describe the coloration of the Illuminated Tarot, and the photos accompanying this review cannot completely convey the effects resulting from the gleaming light that plays upon the cards when highlighted with the iridescent paint colors.

From a Dream to Life

One of the most fascinating things to me about this Tarot deck is that the idea for it came to Herzer in a dream, and she notes on her website that “During the time I was painting, Neptune was conjunct the moon in my birth chart, perhaps the most psychic of all transits. Also, at that time, a neighbor’s child was seriously injured. Every day I, along with others, sent heartfelt energy for his healing.” She explains that she feels this energy was incorporated into the painting of the Illuminated Tarot.
Those who have a background in astrology will note that Neptune is the planet that is associated with dreams and with psychic energy and healing states. I can predict that Pisceans in particular, water signs in general, and those with a strong Neptune in their chart will love this deck! (Note: I have Neptune in Scorpio in the first house). The deck does have an impressionistic/visionary quality that also makes it perfect for study and meditation. Everything seems to have an aura around it, and the clouds and waves of energy around the main figures on the cards pulsate with energy. The colors are rich and varied. One of my general complaints about many tarot decks is that the colors are flat, washed out, or too dark/sepia toned–they aren’t always visually appealing. The Illuminated Tarot is very colorful without being garish, and each card, as a mini-painting, is its own unique universe (which is one reason these cards are excellent for meditation purposes).

Deck Specifics

Before I discuss specific Tarot cards, I’d like to add that the Illuminated Tarot is available in three sizes: pocket size, medium, and large. My deck is the medium size with iridescent paint. This medium size (2 5/8″ x 4″) is perfect for readings and is large enough to showcase the glorious colors. The small size (1 5/8″ x 2 5/8″) would work well as an auxiliary deck to carry around in purse or pocket, and the large size measures 3 3/8″ x 5″. The cards also have hand-cut corners.
Illuminated Tarot - Card Sizes
You can purchase the Illuminated Tarot as a “regular” deck (the layered paint technique, but no iridescent or glitter added), with iridescent added only, double painted iridescent, iridescent plus glitter, full glitter, and light touch glitter. The artist explains each variety in detail on her website. With the double-painted iridescent option, you can specify which colors you’d like to add or emphasize in your deck, in addition to the basic colors used for each deck.
When you order the Illuminated Tarot, you are requested to specify favorite colors for the handmade pouch, and the artist also asks that you name several favorite Tarot cards (one will be fastened to the outside of the pouch). My pouch is a lovely aqua slubby silk with an electric blue lining; the card affixed to the outside is the World, from the Major Arcana. An “extra” card, signed and dated by Carol Herzer, is also included (I received the Temperance card.)
All cards are laminated to preserve the colors, and the quality lamination also makes the cards more durable, a huge plus for me, since I often carry my cards with me to do readings at parties and restaurants. The lamination protects the paint but isn’t so heavy as to make shuffling difficult. The card backs are an attractive periwinkle blue color studded with white stars. As you can see, the artist has put a tremendous amount of effort into this deck, and every detail has been well thought out. It is a handmade deck and the cost reflects it (price range is from $35.00 through $223.00, depending on what configuration you order), but I suspect when most people receive their deck, they’ll agree that the cost is more than reasonable for owning a mini work of art.

Name Changes in the Illuminated Tarot

The cards themselves feature the traditional titles and numbers, with the following exceptions:

  • The Strength card is #11 and the Justice card is #8
  • The Hierophant is called The Initiate
  • The Hermit is called The Guide
  • The Hanged Man is called The Unconscious
  • Death is called Transformation
  • The Devil is called Illusion
  • Judgment is called Awakening
  • The World is called The Universe

The medium and pocket sized decks have numbers, and not full titles, at the bottom of the card (For example, the 2 of Wands has a “2″ at the base). The large deck has full titles, i.e.; “Two of Wands”.

The Minor Arcana

Before discussing individual cards, I’d like to note that one thing I particularly like about the Illuminated Tarot is the consistency in colors used for each suit of the Minor Arcana.

  • The Pentacles cards feature an array of greens. The figures in the cards wear green tunics or robes, pentacles are green or else are highlighted in green, or the auras or and even the clouds surrounding the figures in the card are tinged with green. This to me reinforces the association of the Pentacles with the earth element, with nature and green and growing things.
  • The Wands cards feature red and orange hues, highlighting the association of the wands with the fire element and energy transmission.
  • The Cups cards are dominated by a wide variety of blues, as befits the Cups’ association with water and emotion.
  • The Swords cards feature the color yellow, a color I associate with the intellect and powers of the mind.

illuminated tarot minor arcana
More than any deck I’ve seen, the skillful use of colors on these cards allows the reader, at a glance, to determine the predominant energy of the reading. As an experiment, take out the suit of Cups and arrange the cards one after the other. The range of blue colors is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is a “signifier” as to the type of energy expressed by the Cups cards.
Another interesting uses of color involves the artist’s color choices for the Fool card. The sun in this card is black, and the clouds surrounding the Fool remind me of deep space. The Fool appears to be striding out from the origins of creation, from a vast nothingness full of possibility (the black sun), into a universe that is in the process of creating itself.

Spotlight on Individual Cards

Moving from the cards as groups allied by color to individual cards, I’d like to mention a few cards that stand out:

Transformation (Death)

The figure of Death glows red, a visual match for the red sun rising in the background. The body of Death (especially the leg) reminds me of the people used in the “Bodies” exhibit, stripped of their skins, with muscles and sinews exposed. It’s a subtle touch which graphically illustrates one of the major themes of the Death card: what happens when everything mortal is stripped away?
Illuminated Tarot Death and 10 of swords

Ten of Swords

The Ten of Swords reminds me of the Death card in that the flesh of the figure on the ground seems to be disintegrating–in this case, into ropes of light. I’ve always thought of the 10 of Swords as being the “cosmic acupuncture” card and this version brings this idea to life. Each sword seems to connect with one of the snakes of light that illuminate the figure, and the hilt of each sword glows with a luminous halo, speaking to the theme of the swords acting as agents of illumination once that which is no longer of use has been left behind. Starbursts illuminate the sky at the top of the card, adding to the feeling of hope and cosmic energy available to those who make the journey of transformation.

Five of Cups

The Iluminated Tarot features eloquent clouds and auras in many of the cards. In the 5 of cups, the figure, wearing a deep blue cloak, is surrounded by a bank of extremely active clouds that swirl in circles, representing the turbulent emotions felt by the solitary figure. There’s one cloud at the far left that reminds me of a human ear, which to me augments an interpretation of the card as the need to finally “hear” the truth of a situation, rather than remaining enmeshed in the sadness or the barrage of emotions that cloak the person in sadness and inaction.
Illuminated Tarot - 5 of Swords and the Hermit

The Guide (The Hermit)

This is a gorgeous card, executed in deep shades of blue and purple. The Guide holds his lantern of illumination, with the purple-hued light of wisdom softly falling to the ground, while behind him wispy clouds seem to cloak figures from the unconscious. His staff shines brightly and seems to emit waves from the top, which reminds me of the radio waves emanating from the towers in the old RKO films logo–only the Guide is transmitting wisdom and understanding to all who would listen.

Eight of Pentacles

This is another card that reminds me of the chakra system. Each of the pentacles is executed in a slightly different color combination, and a rainbow wave of colors stretches above the seated figure’s head. It also seems to reinforce the idea that the apprentice builds upon his or her work layer by layer, until mastery is achieved.
Illuminated Tarot - 8 of Pentacles and 3 of Swords

Three of Swords

This card looks like the heart is suspended in a prism of light, and all 3 swords are connected by a spiral shape. If you notice the hilt of each sword, one is dark and hardly illuminated, another is starting to emit light, and the third is lit, emitting colorful rays. This illustrates the process of healing and understanding, moving from darkness to light as you begin to realize the true lessons and meaning that are brought forward through grief.

Nine of Swords

There’s so much going on in this card. Behind the 9 shimmering golden swords suspended in the air, a dreamscape (nightmare-scape?) blusters, dominated by windblown cloud shapes and what looks like an all-seeing eye. The fears and pressures of the upright figure are graphically illustrated in this card, yet the emphasis on the shining swords, with the glowing halos around their hilts, hints at the idea that illumination is needed for the person to cut through the apparent darkness of their situation.
Illuminated Tarot - 9 of Swords and the Tower

The Tower

The deep blue/black background of this card and the cluster of what look like tall crystals at the base of the Tower illustrate the need to break through deep, dark crystallized and ossified structures of all kinds, as the divine shock (a rainbow- colored lightning bolt of enlightenment) knocks a flaming crown off the Tower itself.

Illusion (The Devil)

The black background, like the black background in the Tower card, illustrates the lack of “light” of understanding in the scenario; however, lighter blue peeks through the left side of the card, with stars shimmering, allowing a bit of hope even in the murkiest of situations. The iridescent paint is put to great use here – a shimmer of gold paint runs from the lower chakras of the Devil to the top of his head, illustrating that overvaluing the material can result in enmeshment/enslavement, but that opening up to the light (the shimmering yellow) and really looking at our addictions and our shame, can be the route to a new understanding of the many facets of our psyche.
Illuminated Tarot Illusion Temperance


The colors truly tell the story in this card. Temperance wears a robe of a light yellow hue (with yellow as a symbol of intelligence and the mind), yet her wings are a striking shade of reddish-pink tinged with yellow, showing the integration of the mind and spirit with the energy and passion of fire. The rays of her halo mirror the rays of the sun blazing over the mountain in the card’s background, and a peaceful blue background, with shimmering stars, emphasize the feeling of peace and harmony the represent this card working at its highest level.

Final Thoughts

The cards I’ve selected above represent the most interesting use of color and symbolism in the Illuminated Tarot, yet many others are worthy of a detailed discussion as well. The Illuminated Tarot holds many rewards for Tarot readers, from beginners to those with years of experience and study. The jewel-like colors and evocative artwork, the care and attention to technique and detail by artist Carol Herzer make this a truly unique tarot deck.
To see more of the cards, read about the genesis of Illuminated Tarot, or to order a deck, go to Soul Guidance.
Valerie Sylvester
Make sure you check out Valerie’s excellent astrology blog, Neptune Fire.


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