Friday, September 21, 2012

Damn Dragons

- By John Jude Palencar

While I have not painted many dragons over the course of my career, they have been somewhat enjoyable to paint. It seems that it all has been done before. Dragons have been visually explored in a variety of approaches and all have been loveingly rendered by artists for centuries. Think about that for a second... the dragon is a proverbial cliché in  the fantasy genre. It’s right up there with flying saucers and dangerous little green men (substitute your color of choice)  and killer robots too! Dragons kick the asses of water nymphs, centaurs, minotaurs and especially unicorns! Damn unicorns! The dragon is king in the land of fantasy. Really what can anyone do to improve on the artistic stereotype that is the dragon? We know that many cultures across the globe have legends featuring dragons.  We’re all hot for dragons! I’m luke warm. So what attracts countless generations of fans to the archetype of a fire breathing lizard? Could it be the archaic equivalent of an explosive car chase in a movie? The drama of unrequited love? Something more powerful than man but with all of his triumphs and shortcomings? Some dragons are evil others are benign, even noble. They are personified in countless ways. So what’s the draw, what’s the attraction? Do we seek comfort in something uncomfortable. Maybe it is because dragons are what we want them to be... in fact they’re a lot like us. They have the same lofty intentions but are also prone to falter through jealousy and greed. They can be vain and caring. Destructive and nurturing. Anyway... here are my small  contributions to the gigantic heap of dragons... You know some of my dragons look like anthropomorphic  killer worms. It’s a Freudian thing, I’m just saying...

The first dragon painting I ever created was for the Time/ Life book series ”The Enchanted World”. I was absolutely terrified... I had never painted a dragon... never desired to. I recalled the advice of Leonardo daVinci, when, in his notebooks he said... “for mythological creatures the artist should combine a variety of existing animals into pleasing combinations”. That’s not an exact quote... but you get the idea.

The Enchanted World  Book Series, 21 (?) volumes in all, was my introduction into the fields of speculative fiction, myth and folklore. In essence, an encyclopedia fantastica ( I made that up). Having just graduated from art school a year or two before I was contacted by Time/ Life  Books. This was a welcome and steady gig for two plus years in my early career. For those not familiar with this series.... each volume focused on a different fantastic subject - Dragons, Ghosts, Night Creatures, Wizards and Witches etc. Most stories were harvested from european myths and folklore with a few middle eastern and asian tales thrown in for balance. Time/ Life’s creative crew did a wonderful job of working with various artists from around the globe. It was a bit like herding cats but they got the job done and they did it well. The books are packed with art from numerous contemporary and golden age illustrators, symbolist painters, classic renaissance and pre-raphaelite artists are in there too.  Even though the series is out of print, you can occasionally find the books at garage sales or thrift stores for very little money. Complete sets on eBay cost around $150.00. Buy’em if you find them! I wish Time/ Life Books or other publishers would continue to produce these types of imaginative book collections. Even back then the budget for this venture was high and scared away most publishers but Time Life stepped up and produced one of the most memorable and far reaching explorations into the realms of the fantastic and unknown. Maybe one day someone will again attempt such a venture, but in this economy it’s not likely.

Here are a couple of dragons I painted for the Enchanted World series Dragon book. Both are done in transparent watercolor on mounted 3 ply Bristol board. Also below is one of the studies done on toned paper with pencil, marker , highlighted with white gouache and colored pencil. This study also shows the general layout and type/ text indication. Then there is the final spread as it appears in the published book.

My original inspiration was gothic in nature. There is an egg tempera piece that Andrew Wyeth painted, titled “Soaring”. That Wyeth image, along with the movie “Dragon Slayer”, provided my initial inspiration for the "Winged Torch".

"Winged Torch" 22" x 30"  transparent watercolor - Private collection , Germany.

Spread/ layout sketch: pencil marker and white gouache.

More dragons - ARGH!

Years later I was contacted by Random House for a new book written by a then fifteen year old author - Christopher Paolini. The story revolves around a young boy, his newly hatched blue dragon and their subsequent adventures. I was skeptical of the novel’s content or success.  Boy was I wrong! Christopher wrote a several hundred page novel! This kid was serious. I don’t know about you but I had a hard time doing a five page report at that age. This series would eventually become an international bestseller with 34 million copies in print worldwide. Yes 34 million and climbing! During the creation of the first cover I found out through the art director that Christopher had named chapter three after me (Palancar Valley). Christopher didn’t know that I had been hired to create the cover art  for his first novel and the art director didn’t know that he had named chapter three after me! It was a surprising magical coincidence.... I was completely humbled and honored. I later found out that Christopher was a fan of my art as well as a fan of my fellow artist buddy... noted gothic fantasy artist Brom. (A main character named Brom appears in the novel(s) as well). After discussions with the art director we decided on a portrait approach to symbolize the intimate psychic relationship Eragon has with his blue dragon, Saphira.

"Eragon" Acrylic on paper mounted on board

Over the last ten years I have had the pleasure to paint the covers for Christopher Paolini’s four books in the “Inheritance Cycle”. The covers have also been licensed by the publishers in approximately thirty countries around the world. The final book in the series, “Inheritance” was released last year. A Deluxe Edition of “Inheritance” is due for release this fall. This newer edition will feature a specially created painting on a fold-out poster of the black dragon  “Shurikan”. (See the cropped sneak peek below). Sorry that I can’t show the full art right now.

"Shurikan"  Poster sneak peak, "Inheritance" Deluxe Edition

So... the next time you hear of a fifteen year old writing a book about dragons ... take notice! Who knows where that path will lead. Dragons are wonderful creatures especially for us artists even though there are so damn many of them. It’s really a love/ hate thing - damn you dragons!

I even have a couple of dragon chairs .... double damn you dragons!

Once owned by an evil wizard - about 85 pounds of wood in this chair. Pierced carved walnut, circa 1890.


  1. Small typo Mr Palencar! It should be spelt "Shruikan" instead of "Shurikan" :) I'm really looking forward to the painting and i'm so glad you illustrated the last dragon! Have a fantastic day sir.

  2. Hey Anon - You see...... this incorrectly spelled dragon name is a perfect example - there are just too many damn dragons! It's difficult to accurately remember all of their names. Just kidding . I hope Mr. Paolini doesn't find my mistake! I didn't have my glasses on when I wrote that section! Yes ...that's it!


  3. Although their scales don't glitter as Paolini described, I love your paintings of all of the dragons in Inheritance! I especially love how you portrayed Saphira - proud yet kind of.. coy. I'd really love to see how you'd paint her when she lost one of the scales on her nose. She was so irritated over that! :D Thank you for your vision of these awesome dragons!

  4. Hi Christie - Thanks. The portrayal of Saphira was more interpretive. I wanted to bring a gothic decorative element rather than depicting Saphira as she appears in the novel. The original inspiration for Saphira were the gargoyles that line the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

    I also was inspired by Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa... for her gaze.


    1. Oh dear lord! Ever since I first caught sight of Eragon's book cover I recognized the gaze. The recognition troubled me for a long, long time because I could not remember what image had looked at me in the exact same way-- the Mona Lisa. Have you ever had that feeling of sheer enlightenment, as if someone has just hurled a sunbeam at your eyesballs, when a long-disputed, obscure idea is revealed? I am currently experiencing that. *cue Shakespearian tears*

      Your artwork is most amazing, Mr. Palencar. You've managed to inspire even the most horrible of artists (*grabs pen and scribbles madly*) to attempt a noble, passionate, proud, and perhaps surreal dragon of our own (*raises her deformed dragon painting proudly above her head, as if announcing the lack of talent*). It is only a matter of time before all dragon-loving writers come to you for a portrait of their literary masterpieces and make mention of you in their novels. Who knows? Your name may end up forever embedded in the folklore of the next generation! :D

      All in all, you're great. I suggest (if you oh so vehemently despise unicorns) try drawing a Thestral. Wouldnt that be neat? They're very slightly lizard-like, and as gothic as Pegasus can get. :)

      Your fan,

    2. Oh, that makes total sense now that you say that. Wonderful! It's always interesting to know what inspired a particular piece.

  5. Hi Aya - Thank you for your kind words... they are very much appreciated. Remember that there is always a beginning to learning but never an end. Work through your discouragements and your work will steadily improve.

    I will try to be kinder to unicorns the next time I see one!


  6. Thanks for drawing Shruikan.Will you draw anything else Inheritance-related?

    Many thanks,

  7. Hi Anon - Everything in regard to Christopher Paolini's novels are top-secret. I took an oath to secrecy and my loyalty is unquestioned. Who knows what the future holds..... "May your swords stay sharp"!

  8. Mr. Palencar, are you doing any book sigings in the Cleveland Ohio area anytime soon? I have 3 of my 4 books signed by you and Chris and would really like to have the 4th one signed as well. We met once at Borders before they closed, that is were you signed my 3rd copy.

  9. Hi Anon#3 - Christopher Paolini's U.S. book tour is probably at an end. He may be signing books in Europe. I don't know if there will be any more opportunities to have him sign your book. Maybe when he writes his next novel you can ask him if he would sign your copy of "Inheritance".

    The only places that I will be available to sign books is at the Illuxcon Convention in Altoona, Pa in early November and an exhibition of my work at a community college in (Baltimore?) Maryland in mid October.

    The closing of the Borders Book Store chain was a sad event.


  10. hello mr. palencar.. your paintingas are incredible..could you put the whole shruikan poster? pleasee?XD!

  11. Mr. Palencar would you please draw a poster about the dragons and their riders as they lived on vroengard or just a bunch,sorry-thunder of dragons?

  12. wow, theyre just amazing. the dragons that are on the books covers are just as gorgeous as paolini describes them¦ im really impressed. i saw the shruikans poster and i almost got mad. waited 2 years to get the fourth book. this sepetember i got it as a gift and now i see deluxe version with galbatorixs dragon just as screepy as i thought it would. damn¦

  13. Hello!! You are a genius,Mr Palencar! I am from Argentina and i read the four books of paolini. The covers you made are the best drawings that i have ever seen. Well, you are the best artist in the world.

    Bye-bye, FACU


  14. The top of Saphira's head is fluffy, like my chicken.


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