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.