Where to Start
Begin by examining the cards of the Major Arcana, the more important and complex cards in the deck, as they are considered to contain secret or spiritual knowledge. Carefully note each of the main figures on the cards—what they are doing, whether they are sitting or standing, their postures, the positions of their hands and limbs (what today is called body language), what they are looking at, etc. Pay attention to any other beings—human, animal, or spiritual—that appear with them. Some decks, including the Gilded Tarot and the Sacred Circle Tarot, incorporate animals, birds, insects, and reptiles into the cards’ imagery to convey specific information. Notice also the background and the foreground, for each detail is an intentional and meaningful symbol. Even something that may seem minor, such as a flower or familiar household object, is a factor in the overall interpretation of the card. Then study the Minor Arcana in the same way.
Don't analyze your initial, immediate responses to the cards—just write down what comes to you spontaneously. If a question arises in your mind, write it down but don't try to answer it right away. Return to it later.
Make notes of your impressions—of the card as a whole and of individual symbols. Accustom yourself to noticing details and try to relate to the details on a personal level, asking yourself, “What does this mean to me?” For example, in the Waite deck, The Fool carries a rose. The rose has a generally accepted universal meaning, but your own interpretation might be different. Maybe roses hold a strictly personal meaning for you, based on your own life experience. Maybe you don't particularly care for roses. Maybe when you see a rose you think of the thorns instead of the fragrance. You can go with the standard interpretation, or substitute your own. As is true of dream symbols, your individual impressions are usually more significant than the commonly accepted ones.
Let your Tarot journal be a gift you give yourself, one that makes a wonderful learning tool. Rereading what you have written is a way to show yourself how much progress you have made. Reviewing it regularly is like having a teacher at your elbow.
Over time your impressions will change and expand. You may find that if you go back to a card after you've worked with the Tarot for a while you'll have a different slant on it. This means that the illustration has penetrated deeper into your unconscious. Remember that the cards are multilayered in meaning. What you derive from your initial free examination of the pictures as well as the insights you glean over time will be important factors in how you understand and use the Tarot.
The natural inclination, for a beginner, is to interpret each card individually in a reading, and then to try to put together a whole picture from the individual pieces. But once you have impressed the meanings on your unconscious, you will find that a glance at an entire layout of cards will give you a picture of the totality. However, this only comes after much study and practice. By keeping a detailed record, to which you can return just as you might reread a diary, you will create the building blocks that enable you to get a comprehensive take on the reading before going into its details. Once you complete an intensive study of the Tarot, you'll be amazed at how significant your first impressions were to your entire process of learning to interpret.