Interview with Isabella Rotman, creator of This Might Hurt Tarot

By Phoebe Trillo

When we first spotted This Might Hurt Tarot a few years back, like so many in the tarot community, we were truly awestruck. From the unique character designs and gorgeous colour palettes of each suit, to all the personal references Isabella has meticulously weaved into so many of the cards, it was clear from the start that she had created a truly outstanding deck.

There is an immediate feeling of accessibility to This Might Hurt tarot, perfect for those dipping their toes into the world of tarot for the first time and for those already deep into their journey of self-discovery, This Might Hurt tarot is a truly unique addition to a collection.

Together with Isabella, using our distinct Liminal 11 touch, we have re-imagined This Might Hurt Tarot into a stunning Special Edition, which you can find here, and a standard edition which you can find here.

Here, Isabella describes her personal journey with tarot, the creation of This Might Hurt tarot, her advice for fellow artists in the tarot community and a whole lot more!

Isabella and her pooch, Flint!

Hi Isabella! We are so glad you are here with us today! Please could you tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, and when did you begin thinking about pursuing an artist’s career? 

I’m also glad to be here and so excited to be releasing this deck with Liminal 11! It’s honestly something of a dream.

I can’t tell you exactly when I began thinking about being an artist because it has come and gone throughout my life, with no clear starting point. I grew up in a small beach town in Maine in the United States. I spent a lot of time in the ocean, woods, and garden. My mom is an artist and always encouraged me to draw and create whatever interests me. I loved science and art, but I chose to attend art school in Chicago, where I met my community and started drawing comics. Things really took shape there.

I have this theory that all little kids draw. Most people stop at some point. They lose interest, or more likely, they are introduced to the concept of being “good” or “bad” at drawing and decide that they are bad and that this is more important than if they are enjoying it, and they stop drawing. I simply never stopped drawing.

“I began to understand Tarot as a lens for self-reflection, a guided way to talk to yourself and figure out what’s happening inside.”

When and how did you first become interested in reading Tarot? Did anyone introduce you to Tarot? 

I used to think a person had to have some magical power; you could call it psychic ability or a heightened sense of empathy to read tarot cards. I became interested in receiving readings, and some of my more magical friends would read for me in my early 20s. I never thought of myself as one of those magical or highly empathetic people, though, so I didn’t seek to learn myself. In 2014 I won a tarot deck in a raffle at a burlesque show. I thought that since I had the deck, I might as well learn the meaning of the cards.

I began learning with my friend Laura. I got some more decks. We did readings for each other and slowly began learning the cards. My understanding of Tarot started to shift. I no longer thought you had to have some innate ability to “pull the right cards.” I began to understand Tarot as a lens for self-reflection, a guided way to talk to yourself and figure out what’s happening inside. When I realised that, things really began to take off. I was free to explore everything Tarot could be for me.

This Might Hurt Special Limited Edition

We love the name of the deck! Could you explain the choice behind This Might Hurt? 

Ha, yes! I get this question all the time. The phrase “This Might Hurt” is something that I have been using for my work for a while, long before I started drawing the tarot deck. I have a love affair with indie comics. Many of my short-story comics are surreal, dream-like exercises to understand (and heal from) issues in my personal life through art. They are a combination of poetry and visual imagery. These comics are generally sad, relatable, and hopefully hopeful. 

The phrase “this might hurt” felt like an apt descriptor of this work. Most things worthwhile might hurt. When I started reading, studying and drawing Tarot, I was struck that it is the same. It will tell you what you need to hear, and it doesn’t care if it feels good so long as it’s good for you. It’s not afraid to tell you that you need to take an honest, hard look at yourself and your choices. When I started working on my deck, the name seemed like the perfect match. It might be beautiful, but it might be painful. It will probably be both. When the deck was finished, I was happy to see that it maintained this attitude in readings. It is the friend that tells you the hard thing that you need to hear.

How has Tarot benefited your life?

In huge ways both personal and professional. I mean, I’m in a Liminal 11 catalogue. I’m the luckiest girl in the world!

Did you go to an art school, or are your skills self-taught? 

I went to the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and got a BFA. I’m grateful for all the knowledge and connections I made during this time. Specifically, my excellent teachers Beth Hetland and Peggy Macnamara; I’ve learned much from school. My skills are also self-taught, no one is entirely self-taught or taught by others – it’s always both!

This Might Help Oracle Deck – exclusive to the Special Edition

“The tarot deck is, above all else, a loving portrait of my world. I drew people, moments, and experiences that I know.”

What have been the strongest influences on your work? 

My biggest inspirations are my own life and nature. There’s nothing more fascinating than interpersonal relationships and nothing more beautiful than the natural world. Most of my art is an exercise in figuring my s**t out. The tarot deck is, above all else, a loving portrait of my world. I drew people, moments, and experiences that I know. As for nature, I can tell you this; I find myself about 1000 times more inspired after going to a natural history museum than an art museum.

When it comes to art, there is a certain feeling I want to get. It has to do with the worthwhile gorgeous terrible slog of being alive. It’s impossible to describe it except to make art about it, and this is the art I like. Some of my favourite art that succeeds at giving me this feeling are the comics of Eleanor Davis, the comics of Sophia Foster Domino, and The Distance of The Moon by Italo Calvino.

The tarot deck was influenced by a large number of other tarot decks, some of which came before it and some that were being made simultaneously. There is a list of tarot decks that I was looking at and reading with during this time in the back of the This Might Hurt Guidebook, but the ones that inspired me the most were Rider-Waite-Smith, The After Tarot, The Sasuraibito Tarot, Fyodor Pavlov Tarot, and The Tarot of the Divine.

What is your process in creating your art, and what are your favourite tools?

This Might Hurt Tarot was drawn by hand in pencil, inked with micron pens, scanned, cleaned up digitally, and coloured in photoshop by Addison Duke. The tarot deck was one of the last projects I drew traditionally. These days I work digitally from start to finish in Clip Studio on my Surface Pro. I miss the tactile experience of paper and having a physical thing as a result of my work, but working digitally makes things much faster and easier.

What inspired you to create your own tarot deck?

I started drawing tarot cards while I was teaching myself to read them. I’d pull a card of the day, read some descriptions of it, and then do a drawing of my version of it. It was like a project in school. Unfortunately, I am not a person who is capable of doing anything casually. So the project escalated. It is very hard for me to have a hobby, apparently. I wanted the deck I was sketching, a deck that was perfect for me, a deck that preserved all the symbolism of the source material, had elements of magic but was set in a recognizable world, was drawn in a style I liked, and reflected my lived experience. So I set about making it.

“I’d note which symbols from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck were imperative to this interpretation and needed to stay and which were superfluous and could be abandoned or adapted into something else.”

The imagery in This Might Hurt references the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot but with lots of modern twists and changes. How did you decide which elements to keep and which to modernise? 

My goal was to keep the meaning of each card the same and modernise everything around that meaning so it could be better understood by the people reading the deck. I found the mediaeval European setting of Tarot distracting and alienating. Tarot would be so much more relatable without it.

For each card, I would research heavily. I turned to several books, notably Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack, Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea, and Kitchen Table Tarot by Melissa Cynova. I would study the Rider-Wait-Smith version of the card and set out to understand the symbolism best I could, considering the various interpretations these authors had written about. Then I’d look at how other artists had interpreted the card, looking through my decks and images online. If an artist had shown something in a particular way that resonated with me, I’d take note of it. I’d keep these cards on my drawing table while working.

After all this research, I’d settle on interpreting and understanding the card that worked best for me. I’d note which symbols from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck were imperative to this interpretation and needed to stay and which were superfluous and could be abandoned or adapted into something else. I’d think about the modern-day version of the situation we see in the Rider-Waite-Smith card? Then I’d gather reference images, sketch, and try to put all this information together.

For most cards, I kept the majority of the symbolism and composition the same and modernised the characters, their clothing, objects, and setting. I had some rules. Horses became motorcycles or bicycles (except for death, because death does not modernise), knights wore leather and helmets (modern armour), and swords were usually drawn as knives. Sometimes the “situation” in the Rider-Waite-Smith card was not a situation that most people have experienced today, so I would dig down to the meaning the situation was trying to get across and come up with a contemporary version of it. For example, the 9 of Wands in Rider-Waite-Smith is an injured and battered man continuing to defend his post. I replaced this with a student working late into the night. It’s the same vibe but shown with an event we are much more likely to have personally experienced.

Do you have a favourite card from your deck? 

Oh gosh, I can’t decide on one. I have a few. I really like the devil. The visual metaphor is about as good as I could have made it, and I always love to look at a goat-headed devil. I’m also really fond of The World. It was the last card I drew and one of the first cards where I knew what I wanted to draw. I liked the idea of the best of all things, enlightenment itself, personified as a fat woman of colour with green hair. It felt validating, and it felt right. I also love the Two of Swords. It was the first card Addison coloured. I remember seeing it for the first time with his beautiful colour on it and just getting so excited about what the deck would be.

Many of the cards are lovingly crafted from portraits of real people in your life. Are there any cards that have special significance to you? 

All the court cards are real people in my life, and a few other cards. I had a really great time doing these portraits. For each portrait, I selected a person to draw who I felt their personality embodied the best aspects of the archetype. It was beautiful to think of my friends and family this way.

My favourites of these are the King of Cups and the King of Swords, my grandfathers.

“My goal at the beginning of my career was to make a living making art that I’m proud of (…) I’m incredibly grateful to say I’ve made it there!”

Do you have a long-term career goal? What would your dream project be?

I’ve been struggling with this question lately! My goal at the beginning of my career was to make a living making art that I’m proud of. This didn’t seem like a modest goal at the time. It was challenging. Anyway, I’m incredibly grateful to say I’ve made it there! I love going to work and am proud of what I’ve done! I’ve been incredibly lucky.

Sometimes I wonder if I should set a “higher” goal, but I’m honestly not sure I should. I like this life. So I’d like to keep going. And, of course, there is never enough time! I’d like to make a graphic novel, make more comics about my feelings, finish my Lenormand deck, put together a little self-publishing studio, take weekends off, and buy a house with some land and a fenced yard for my dog.

“It’s a 9 of Wands moment; how do you get through the complex, boring parts and finish what you start?”

What advice would you give to an artist dealing with a creative block? How do you keep yourself creative? 

Staying creative is not a massive problem for me. I have more ideas than time. The problem really is time. There always needs to be more time to do everything you want to do.

Generally, when I experience a creative block, it is because I am doing something I need to do, such as a freelance project that will earn me money, instead of following my creativity. In these cases, it really is hard. It’s a 9 of Wands moment; how do you get through the complex, boring parts and finish what you start? I think the answer is just to do it. Show up. Sit at your desk for a reasonable predetermined amount of time, and try. Then go do some gardening or take a swim or walk the dog or something. Come back tomorrow and try again.

As for generating new ideas, set aside a chunk of time every art day just to play. Draw. Journal. See where it goes. Take the pressure off. This is where your best ideas will come from.

What advice would you give someone looking to create their own tarot deck?

Start with the minor arcana. Yes, the majors are more flashy and exciting, but think about it; a tarot deck is going to take you a LONG TIME to do. Mine took me three years. You will learn much about yourself and your connection to the Tarot during that time. You are going to discover what exactly YOUR deck wants to be. You will also get better at drawing. We are constantly getting better at drawing. Don’t you want to do the biggest and exciting part at the end, when you have gained all that experience and knowledge?

The Special Edition of This Might Hurt Tarot is on sale May 13th, you can pre order your copy here.

The Standard Edition of This Might Hurt Tarot is on sale June 13th, and you can pre order your copy here

Follow Isabella Rotman at this_might_hurt and check out her other work here

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