Petaluma artist scores 'Game of Thrones' deal for tarot card deck

Award-winning fine artist Craig Coss, who lives in Petaluma, had hopes of illustrating tarot cards for years. Yet, nowhere in his wildest dreams did he imagine his first deck would be the official set for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV series.

It all started with a phone call from Michael Morris, art director for the publishing company Chronicle Books, who asked Coss if he was interested. He had taken notice of Coss’ “The Goddess Coloring Book: Traditional Images to Contemplate & Color” from his website.

A storyteller with a master’s degree in visual narrative, Coss, 47, remembers at age 10 when his dad bought him a tarot card deck for a buck at a garage sale. He thought his son would like them, but neither of them knew what they were.

“I felt like I was looking into little mirrors that reflect different parts of myself,” recalled Coss. “I appreciated them before I even knew what they were used for.”

Originally from the mid-15th century in parts of Europe, the tarot is traditionally a pack of 78 playing cards for games, and later on, fortune telling. Coss combined the use of hand water-coloring and digital editing to depict striking imagery captured from the series.

Anybody who illustrates a deck is taking on at least a year’s worth of work. For Coss, it also meant watching the first six seasons of “Game of Thrones” at least three times. He searched for the perfect “Easter eggs” - hidden messages - to hide in each card, so only a few could notice them.

“It may take people years to figure out all the nuances and allusions in these cards,” said Coss. “They’re going to have to understand the series like I’m seeing it.”

Along with author Liz Dean, who lives in England, the two spent many hours on Skype hashing out the “pairings” of each traditional card with key elements of the show. Coss told Chronicle Books there were five audiences he’s making the deck for.

First, those who don’t know either medium, but can appreciate the art. Second, for tarot card readers who haven’t seen the series. Third, “Thrones” fans who don’t know anything about tarot cards. Fourth, those who only had small impressions of the show.

“The hardest audience, the toughest critics,” said Coss, “are the ones who know both the tarot and ‘Game of Thrones,’ inside and out. I needed to ring a bell with that audience.”

Each card has to have all kind of symbols because there might be a primary meaning, but what if a card reader gets stuck trying to understand it? Coss reiterated the necessity to have little backup meanings for them to draw from, and one card, in particular, this works well.

Conveying someone like fan favorite Tyrion Lannister, being surrounded by a dragon in his interpretation of “The Fool” card, invokes a wealth of meanings, character arc, transformation and flaws, that only those truly invested in the series will understand.

“When a task appears to be impossible,” said Coss, “but I have an intuitive hunch that - with enough work and inspiration - it might be possible to pull off, I get really excited.”

He had to comb through the series. Coss wasn’t sure if this idea could be done, but he loved the challenge and puzzle of it. Before presenting the art direction, he decided to watch the entire series in a week and a half, to determine whether it could work or not.

To keep it consistent is also tricky. In this instance, Coss and Dean were attempting to marry one narrative system with another, where it couldn’t be perfect, but fulfilling.

“We’re doing something that’s never been done before,” said Coss. “We have to play to that strength. It’s what made this deck an enormous undertaking, but one worth doing.”

“Game of Thrones,” he says, was the first television show he watched in 25 years. In a class he was taking for his master’s program, Coss had been given a formula for long-form stories but, seeking alternatives, he started an online discussion to find examples of different approaches.

Everyone kept bringing up “Game of Thrones” - and at that time, he had no clue what it was. Coss asked his wife Michelle Moore if they could binge-watch it together so he could participate. Luckily, she said yes, or an opportunity to design the cards may have never happened.

“If it was any other TV show, I would have had to say ‘no,’?” said Coss. “It was miraculous that I was familiar with that show.”

Aside from the tarot card project, Coss leads a busy life as an artist and illustrator. He is currently in the process of varnishing earth shrines he made for a clear-cut area at Mount Tamalpais, where he’ll be placing them this summer as a thank-you to the land.

He has been in juried shows at Sebastopol Center for the Arts and the Petaluma Arts Center.

For Coss, it was truly a special achievement, to work on this project for a series loved by so many, and set to release its final eighth season in 2019. Like the rest of “Game of Thrones” fans out there, he knows no more than anyone else about the outcome, and is eagerly waiting for it to return.

“When I finished making the cards,” said Coss, “my wife told me, ‘You can die now. You’ve made a lasting contribution to the world, Craig, and if you die now, it’s OK.’?”

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