There is something about dragons that just captures the imagination.
Their powerful and have amazing abilities. Their role in our imaginations has changed over the centuries, informed by science, legend, religion and culture. They may be mere animals, or intelligent. They are a myth or a metaphor and maybe more. They can be fun to draw, but also a challenge. You won’t often find a photo of a ‘live’ dragon to pose for you. But if you know their history, you’ll be able to piece together enough of an image to create your own.
Dragons in Myth, Legend and Religion:
Spiritually, European dragons were thought of us ‘evil’. This is due to the influence of Christianity and the infamous claim that ‘Satan is a dragon’ in the book of Revelation (Revelation 12). However this is a bit of a stretch: the same devil is compared to both a snake and a roaring lion. Since Jesus is also compared to a Lion, we can’t say all lions are evil. And while many of us don’t like snakes, others do. They are, for better or worse, animals. A mouse might think a snake evil but most of us don’t. In artwork of the Renaissance Period they are often shown as a snakelike creatures with wings. Whether these are meant to represent a real extinct creature, or were a metaphor for sin, is known only to the creators. (ie look up when internet comes back). In any case these were characterized by not only a very lizard like look, batlike wings and an ability to breath fire.
Eastern dragons on the other hand were considered good luck. It’s a symbol of water and the heavens as well as fertility.
Physicality of dragons:
Given the general description of dragons, it’s possible they were informed by a combination of the Bible translations and remains of dinosaurs. Unless of course there is a real dragon that is not only extinct and the remains totally destroyed or buried deep in unexplored ocean depths.
It’s unknown what Eastern dragons are inspired by, but dinosaur bones are also found in China. But they share similarities to creatures in art by the aztecs and inuits.
Komodo dragons are real lizards, and in some tongues the word dragon traces back to ‘serpent.’
In recent years dragons have become popular in the realm of fantasy. In some ways, they’ve always been a hot topic. But now, advances in computer science allow for the creation in digital dragons. They swoop through movies in pursuit of Harry Potter and chase knights with swords. Perhaps it’s a slow recognition in our own flaws that has us re-evaluating dragon lore. Some dragon movies have come out which show dragons as more misunderstood than monstrous. Pete’s dragon is an old Disney movie featuring a friendly animated dragon and a real boy. But at the time most dragons were villains like The Hobbit's Smaug. Now stories like ‘Dragonheart’ reveal a different tale: a dragon who helped create the code of chivalry. In the Dragonriders of Pern series, dragons are a combination of human engineering and a natural species which help combat a deadly threat from a colony planet's skies.
As for the dragons of Christianity, some authors have finally recognized the gap in fantasy that Christian books had after CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. They have created new fantasies, and unlike the old ‘villain’ dragons, new ‘hero dragons are born. Stories like Donita K. Paul’s Dragonspell series where our heroes live in a world of dragons and magic where ‘Wulder’ and his ‘Paladin’ represent the creator and all follow his laws. Their are evil dragons here too, but they have their good counterpart. Also Bryan Davis ‘Dragons in our Midst follows the tale of a boy and girl who are the children of dragons turned into humans. The dragons were pursued by slayers, who had already slain all the wicked dragons and were indiscriminately turning to the ‘good’ dragons, not caring that they served God. Prophecy says these children will save the dragons and restore the Arthurian throne.
When drawing dragons, it’s helpful to keep this dragon history in mind.
Is your dragon good or evil or neutral? Intelligent as a human or purely an animal? Is he a dragon from an established fantasy or are you inventing one all your own? Given that dragons are usually lizards, pictures of lizards can be useful in determining types of scales. Bats can supply the wings. Claws are important too. Natural earth colors would make up a realistic dragon. Remember that it would take huge wings to support this critter!
You can of course be totally exotic. You might change bat wings for feathers, go for wilder painted colors and or markings. It can have a more mammal like paws and face. Perhaps your dragon is meant to have a rider like the ones in Dragonspell, Eragon or Dragonriders of Pern. It’s your dragon. You decide! How you draw your dragon will bring it to life and influence it’s personality.
Don’t forget that where your dragon lives can help you too. Grab some pictures off the internet to reference if you want to create your own ‘cave’ backgrounds, look up sky and mountain photos for how tips and tricks on coloring your backdrop. It can be harder than it looks. Make sure your dragon stands out, at least in those features you want to be prominent.
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Finally: keep in mind how much of your dragon will be in your picture. A dragon is usually big and long. So if your limited to small paper you’ll either need to shrink down your dragon and lose details or focus on one area, such as the head, and crop out others. Of course, if you can afford big paper and have the place to work you can go all out!
Here are a couple of cool references I've used for dragons:
Dragonart: How to Draw Fantastic Dragons and Fantasy Creatures – J. “NeonDragon” Peffer
DVD- Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real – Discovery Channel Volume 3
Imaginative Realism- James Gurney
The Dragon Chronicles (Fiction)
Dragonspell series - (Fiction – Series) Donita K. Paul
Dragons in our Midst – (Fiction – Series) Bryan Davis
Dragonriders of Pern (Fiction- series) – Ann McCaffrey
For beginners, here is a decent video tutorial on dragons:
Check my Squidoo lens on dragons for more resources!