This piece isn’t exactly new, but it’s not something I’ve discussed at length before, and given the fact that I actually managed to (mostly) document its creation, it seemed like a good idea to discuss it a bit. So here goes…

For this Magic: the Gathering assignment, I was asked to paint an elder dragon character called Vaevictis Asmadi. Despite the fact that this character had been illustrated before early on in Magic’s history, Wizards wanted a redesign of the character. But it wasn’t a true ground-up redesign as they were interested in the character having some visual nods to Donato’s design for Shivan Dragon (I think the idea being that Shivan dragons are the descendants of Vaevictis…or something).

If I’m honest, dragons aren’t a favorite subject matter of mine. I don’t dislike dragons, I’m just a bit tired of seeing them. They feel somewhat ubiquitous and obligatory in fantasy and I’m finding that my personal preferences continue to move away from common fantasy tropes. That being said, I signed up to work in the fantasy industry and so it is no surprise that I’ve been asked to paint and design more than a few dragons over the years and (despite the assessment of some, I’m sure) I take each assignment seriously and do my best to deliver something that makes the client happy.

Unlike several dragons I’ve done in the past and as I’ve indicated above, this one had a starting point (Donato’s design), and included the following requests: 1) the dragon would be a dark gray or black in color, 2) he would have at least some armor, 3) he would be flying amongst the smoky sky of unseen fires below, 4) he would seem to have some degree of intelligence, and 5) he would have frills on his cheeks and on top of his head as the only real nod to the original design.

Because of the groundwork already done by Donato, the body design was pretty easy to figure out (although I ended up shortening the body a bit and making the arms a bit more human and the forepaws more hand-like in order to help sell the intelligence angle. Fitting armor around the body was pretty easy, as well. The only real sticking point to me was the head. I really wasn’t sure how close to the Shivan Dragon’s head to take it or how well I was selling intelligence there. So along with my sketch, I mocked up several different heads to offer more than one option.

I aimed for a fairly diverse lineup so as to allow for many different vibes. I’d have been happy to paint any of these too, as each would have presented its own challenges and points of interest.

You know what’s more embarrassing than e-mailing a sketch to an art director without actually attaching the sketch to the email? Sending a sketch that’s missing something vital because all the layers weren’t turned on when it was converted into a jpeg for emailing.

Here he is with clothes on:

My thinking with the design of the piece was mostly around several factors. Primarily, if it was important that he had clothes/armor, we needed to see it. Second, as he was not just some dragon who happened to have a name but rather a full-fledged character, I felt that he needed to be shown in a way that gave him something a bit more akin to a human presence. So, I settled on showing him upright, which (I think) helped that idea. The rest was all about atmospherics, drama and lighting.

The digital sketches I often do end up being excellent opportunities for nailing down a value structure. Curiously I didn’t really do that this time around. The value structure of the painting swung in a very different direction. Regardless, my art director liked where it was going and let me move forward with the sketch provided.

Before I pressed on however, I took one final step: I invested ten to fifteen minutes to cobble together this really awful maquette:

I know. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad. But the quality of the sculpture wasn’t really the point. I didn’t need the details fleshed out. I needed the light reference, the basic shapes of the shadows, how the planes broke down. The quick and dirty mock-up gave more than a little information and was well worth the (minuscule) time investment. While I don’t build a maquette for every piece, it always helps when I do. And sometimes I don’t need to as an action figure or animal toy can stand in in a pinch.

Anyway, this is how the painting came together:

I transferred the sketch onto the board by projecting the digital sketch with a mini-projector and tracing it with pencil. Then I started scrubbing some basic oils in. I ended up zeroing in on the head very early on to try and nail its values down so that I could base everything else off of that.

Apologies for how red all this stuff is. The lighting in my room really ran with the reds. I mean, it’s a pretty red painting, but not THAT red. Anyway, by this point I’ve at least blocked in pretty much everything and am finishing things as I go.

It’s coming together pretty well by this point and I’ve gotten a lot of details nailed down.

A nice closeup taken the same day as the image immediately above.

Closing in on the home stretch here. By this point in a piece, I’m not only finishing things up but I’m also considering where and how to add atmospherics, what needs pushing and pulling and what edges I can soften, eliminate or emphasize.

The finished painting complete with the added smoke and sparks.

The finished painting is twenty-four inches wide by eighteen inches tall and is oil on hardboard. It was art directed by Cynthia Sheppard.

Left to my own devices, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever paint a dragon. But being asked to do things I normally wouldn’t is one of my favorite parts about doing assignments. Don’t get me wrong, there are assignments where being asked to do something outside my normal oeuvre is downright frustrating. But generally, the stuff I’d never assign to myself has tended to be a big positive. I mean, I could eat the same kind of food for every meal, but being asked to try something new is what keeps things interesting. And while I try and do that for myself (though in very different directions), taking on jobs that I would never assign myself has yielded some real positives and expanded my knowledge base both in learning how to paint particular things, but also because of the research I did to make the piece happen.

There’s one more image that I want to share here. It’s the folder that contained all the files that went into the making of this piece.

Some of the files are just photos of the process and such. But the “Dragon Inspiration,” “dragon lighting/value” “maquette/photo ref” and “smoky skies” files all contain at least a dozen images each (some containing many dozens). Contained within are photos of various lizards, birds and bats, other paintings of dragons, some cats, lots of animals that are either dark gray or black in various lighting conditions, dinosaur art, a couple images of fish, some armor, and (not surprisingly) smoky-filled skies. Obviously there are photos of the poor quality maquette, and a few photos of myself using the Photobooth app. Additionally, sprinkled in the main file folder are images of long banners blowing in the wind to help with the flow of the fabric that’s interwoven with the dragon’s armor. In addition to these still images are video clips that I watched from pretty much every movie and tv show with a dragon that I could think of—especially the ones where said dragons were flying over something that was burning.

This part: the preparation, the research and the collection of images is vitally important. Every image I make has similar folders full of files, and while some pieces are built around relatively few bits of reference (at least in comparison), other paintings have required hundreds and hundreds of images. As I sketch and solidify my vision and design, the number of images I rely on dwindles. But it still takes the whole pile of images and movie clips to get me where I’m going. A lot of the information gathered early on might not be directly present in the specifics of the finished piece, but the piece as a whole is more informed for having included them in the process.

Of course, not everyone needs to gorge themselves on reference like that, and some folks (I hope) have to dig even deeper. Either way, for me, it’s part of the process and a big step in getting me to a finished painting.