By Paolo Rivera

Air Soldier. 2009. Pencil on paper (with digital coloration), 11 × 14″.

Live every week like it's Dragon Week!

I am far from an expert on drawing dragons. I don't even qualify as a novice. In fact, the closest I've come to drawing a dragon professionally is Dragon Man (a somewhat lovable Fantastic Four character). And yet I have a pretty good idea of what I'd do if I were required to do so: I would steal from nature.

Admittedly, my artwork is kind of a stretch for the Muddy Colors dragon theme, but I hope to make the case that it's all built upon the same foundation. In this case, I was tasked with creating super-human soldiers for land, sea, and air. But had I been required to illustrate the dragons of the Nazgûl (something that might happen sooner than later) the process would be exactly the same.

Aside from their rich history in myth and fantasy, I tend to associate dragons with an even larger group of mythical beasts: chimeras — any creature  grafted from the parts of another (including us). Since the beginning of art (and mayhaps before) humans have invented the new by splicing the old. This is at the heart of all entertainment. But even novelty becomes tradition — just watch the internet for a day.

Land Soldier. 2009. Pencil on paper (with digital coloration), 11 × 14″.

The trick is to come up with combinations that are fresh by broadening your sphere of influences. The internet has increased the rate at which ideas can propagate — it's more difficult than ever to create something original — but it has also opened the floodgates of inspiration. There is no known animal that you can't find a picture of. That's insane! Start with a Komodo dragon eating, bring in a little python mouth, maybe some hydrothermal worm, but end with a hairless chimpanzee. And don't forget the bat wings!

But why restrain yourself to nature?

Well, because the work's already been done for you. These things actually exist in this crazy world we all share, and they will lend credence to creatures that only exist in your private world. You're more than welcome to attach a limb or organ that no one's ever seen before, but if there truly is no precedent, you risk believability. There are ways around this, of course, but that has as much to do with your creature's environment as its physiology.

Sea Soldier. 2009. Pencil on paper (with digital coloration), 11 × 14″.

All that being said, these design are rather conservative — the most basic of mash-up mutants — but that is what was required. They were proto-superheroes, back-up material for The Marvels Project, a story by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting that explored the early history of the Marvel universe. The drawings were intended to mimic sketch book pages from a scientist hellbent on creating human-animal hybrids. (I provided the notation myself, with the knowledge that most of it would not be legible in publication.)

Final printed art

And here is the final art that graced the back covers of variant issues. I'm not sure who put the "case file" graphics together, but I certainly recognize some Marvel editors in those profile pics. I wonder if those are their fingerprints as well.

Before I let you go, I wanted to share the closest I ever came to painting a "dragon" for Marvel. The mini-series Old Man Logan (about an elderly Wolverine) featured a T-Rex covered in an alien symbiote (of Venom fame). I got as far as this color study before they reminded me what they had asked for: Logan on his horse. It may not technically be a dragon, but as I said, it falls into the same category for me.

To paraphrase Orson Scott Card (from the Audible version of Ender's Game): Fantasy has trees and Science-Fiction has rivets — that's the only real difference between the genres.

Old Man Logan. Digital Color Study