Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dragon Mythology

by Donato

The Silk Road  25" x 35" Oil on Panel 2011
Over the course of my lifetime I have seen and been entertained by thousands of dragons, from fire breathers and world eaters to fliers and crawlers to bestial and wise.  The greatest challenge and thrill for me was to bring a creature like a dragon to life on the panel in front of me as a work of art - to make the imagined real.  I would spend hours laboring with discrete scales flowing over the arching back, fill the wings with veining and patterns of color, and hopefully breath life into a mass of lines, shading and paint.

Early on, during the execution of my second or third dragon commission as a professional,  I began to conceived of the dragons I was creating as flying dinosaurs.  Not that I really thought that dragons should be related to dinosaurs, nor turn to dinosaur anatomy as a referencing point, but rather formulated for myself a cognitive structure to help wrap my mind around the justification of how and why a dragon came into being.  As a lover of science, I sought to have a deeper feeling of why this animal existed and distance myself from the act of creating images about dragons for the sheer pleasure of their own power, symbolism, and exotic nature.  I wanted them to be as real as a dinosaur was - to feel that they walked (and flew) on an earth parallel to ours with similar environmental feedback loops related to evolutionary heritage and species relationships.
DragonFlight  Oil on Panel  1999

Thus began my visualization of dragons as possible flying reptiles, sporting a coating of scales, wings, anatomy and coloration related to and found with other classes of species within our own world.  This was nothing new as you can obvious guess.  Artists have been doing exactly this ever since dragons and mythological creatures were first visualized!  What it did for me though, was squarely root my creation and development of a dragon in the world of nature.  I no longer placed my love and fascination of dragons into the world of entertainment where the creation of a dragon image allowed for any choice in its design and anatomy to be excused as long as it resulted in a dragon that looked cool.  I wanted a creature I could point to and state, thus could have walked on our earth.

DragonShadow  22" x 27" Oil on Panel 1998
From that point forward I began to heavily research and reference every aspect of my dragons before putting them to paint.  From incorporating lions and tigers as inspirations for body language, to embellishing wings with butterfly patterns, to sizing my creatures to fit harmoniously into a narrative scene with other characters, I sought to make the dragon a part of the world I knew and filled with as much truth as the illustration of the human standing next to it.

This pursuit of realism has produced wonderful explorations on the theme of dragons and their accompanying characters, and I have thoroughly enjoy the ride!  But as I move into the next phase of my career, I have begun to turn to a way of understanding the dragon which pulls me in a new direction.

Gone are my fascinations with the physical structure of the dragon, as my interest now rises in the mythological significance of the creature.  What inspires me the most in new dragon commissions is the psychological implications of the animals existence in juxtaposition to that of other human characters in the narrative.

My dragons have become sentient!

What I attempt to create is an empathetic relationship between the figures and creatures, weaving a narrative which binds the elements closer together than superficial actions.  What makes these images more powerful is the knowledge I bring to the creation of the dragon as flying dinosaurs.  I could not confidently create this new wave of work without being so well grounded in the naturalistic renderings I have for years undertaken.  I feel my two latest images, St. George and the Dragon and Nienor and Glaurung, convey the mystery surrounding these creatures more effectively than any of my earlier paintings.

I do not know where dragons will take me in the future, but I look forward to the journey!

Nienor and Glaurung,  18" x 24"  Oil on Panel  2012

St. George and the Dragon,  24" x 30" Oil on Panel  2011


  1. Nienor and Glaurung. Now that's a cool dragon painting. One which sticks out from the rest that I've seen.

    It is always refreshing when an artist can step above the norm of a frequently painted subject and breath new life into it and give you a new perspective.

    Thanks Donato, you just made my dragon week.


  2. I love the St. George painting.

    As far as the mythology of dragons you might look into Chinese culture where dragons are good luck. I tend to favor the western view where they're trouble. To us dragons are serious business. Having just reread The Hobbit I noticed that the tone of Tolkien's novel seems to down shift in the last third when Bilbo goes into the dragon's den. From there on in it takes on weight and themes of greed and distrust and sacrifice come to the fore. Almost like old Smaug draws in Biblical connections to the serpent and the devil.

    And speaking of sentient dragons I have always had a special fondness for Anne McCaffrey's dragons on the planet Pern. It probably goes back to my love for dinosaurs since the art that went with the serialization of Dragon Flight in Analog magazine showed creatures that looked like giant winged brontosaurs (we didn't know about apatosaurs in those days). I think Dragon Flight would make a great movie.

    Oh, and don't forget the dragon of Spencer's Faerie Queen. It is the opposite of Smaug, surrounded by black light as opposed to the flying torch that Tolkien created.

    I can't wait to see where your exploration of dragon mythology takes you.

    Best Wishes,

  3. Donato,

    There are about ten people that I think do top-notch dragons; Iconic dragons that stay in the mind's eye forever and you are one of those ten. Your dragons have always been both majestic and frightening but you've out-done yourself with 'Nienor and the Glaurung' and 'St.George and the Dragon'.

    Both have a sense of amazing cinematic depth. In St. George you can almost see the camera panning slowly left to right while the dragon advances like a cat on it's prey. The sense of depth is simply breathtaking and I'm amazed you pulled that off with pigment and brushes! You, sir, are a master.

    'Nienor and the Glaurung' the scene is menacing yet quiet. I can see Glaurung moving very, very slowly and the mists of Narog drifting up and past just as slowly. Nienor is rock-still, locked in silent battle with Glaurung. Donato, you've captured this perfectly. I can tell the love you have for Tolkien in this piece.

    Thank you for sharing these and I'm now going to throw away my paints, I am not worthy! (kidding, of course...about the throwing away part anyway...)


  4. I love these paintings. And I myself dwell a lot on all these subjects when thinking of dragons. Their extra pair of limbs however separates them from all other animals, so they couldn't be reptiles or mammals in a scientific view. Rather they'd be something completely new. Which is a cool idea, as it implies all other hexapodal mythological creatures would share a common ancestor if they existed. Anyway, lovely article.

  5. Thank you all for the comments! I have never really considered myself a dragon artist, but rather tackle them as yet another character in my narratives. It has been a pleasure to create a painting with them from time to time and helps to keep me from becoming burnt out on them as subjects.

    There are so many different way to interpret dragons, I am grateful to be able to share one vision of the millions out there!