Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Let's Draw Real-Life Dragons

By Justin Gerard

Drawing from life is hard.  And drawing from life that insists on being alive and wandering off or slithering away is even harder.

But it can be highly rewarding as well. There is a wealth of information that you glean from direct observation that you just can't get any other way. Like that someone taught that miniature monkey over there how to make obscene gestures.

But also more useful things like how reptiles breath, how they interact with one another, how they act when they are startled, or how they sit with jaws open in order to cool off (and not in the hopes that I will carelessly step there.)

These drawings were done at a reserve called Alligator Adventure, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This reserve is home to one of the largest crocodiles in the world, "Utan." (pictured above) Utan is 20 feet long and weighs 1 ton.  He is in his own spacious exhibit, because he ate everything else.

He is a genuine monster, a horror from another age. In other places in the world his kind allegedly still kill more humans than any other predatory animal on the planet.

I doubt this chicken wire would really do much if he really decided he wanted to eat me, it looks like it's a screen door he might accidentally trip through on his way to the loo. But as you can see, I'm not worried at all. This is because I am wearing my sweet camo hat, which renders me pretty much invisible to him.

Here we got the head done, and then Utan decided he'd like a swim.  This was inconvenient, but you don't argue with 20 foot crocodiles.

So I moved on to the smaller lizards:

These juvenile alligators, like the juveniles of other species, could not sit still for more than 30 seconds. Drawing them proved fruitless.

Here we were able to catch a tail, and that is all.

Still there were fascinating tidbits that now get filed away for future projects on enormous, man-eating reptiles. How the water moves around them as they submerge is particularly fascinating.

This alligator didn't like the way I was looking at him. That, or he didn't like my sweet camo hat. Either way, he eventually had enough and made a break for it.  But not before I snapped a photo which I would later use to cheat and fill in all the missing details.  Justin: 1, Alligator: 0

This guy knew that I knew that he knew that I knew that he was there and that he was NOT a log. I watched him slide into the water for crying out loud.  But that didn't stop him from slowly drifting up to the edge and pretending to be a log.  We all knew the game, and he knew that sooner or later, I would have to cross the water to get back to my car. And in my haste I'd forget that he wasn't a log.  And he'd even that score up a little.

But I knew a little secret called, "using the bridge."
Final Score: Justin: 2, alligator: 0


  1. So relieved you let slip about the all too casually implied PHOTO REFERENCE you shot - otherwise ways would have to be found to try and curtail your talents. Couldn,t you buy a camouflage hat for them as well? Beautiful drawings, especially the water.

  2. in my opinion results count. I am fascinated by your use of different shading techniques. the side of the lead for deep shadows, the etching like pencil scratches for the textured halftone.. i really would love to have this control of my fuzzy lines :) would you suggest some books inherent the subject?

    1. You are correct that it is using the pencil at different angles for the shading and line variety. Most of those ideas came from watching a Drew Struzan demo years back. He is a master with pencil.

  3. Excellent. Correct and faithful, yet unique and personal. As it should be.

  4. I wish I knew what you're using for those sketches on brown paper! I've been looking for a brown sketchbook for months now, but the closest I've been able to find is a recycled paper sketchbook.

    1. If it is the Cachet Earthbound recycled paper sketchbook, then we are using the same one!

    2. Dick Blick has got some good strathmore toned paper sketchbooks on sale. I just grabbed 2 tan and 2 grey 11x14 for $25 bucks. Just a friendly heads up- Myke.

  5. That one scetch on toned paper where the gator is seen from above...just Wow!All your drawings and scetches are magical but I find those on the brown paper expecially fascinating. Great images, increadible creatures they are the gators :)

  6. Your animals go beyond simply being rendered--I can feel their disdain for humankind! I can also feel their lumpy, bumpy skin from the safe distance of miles and miles away because you have a wonderful way with depicting texture. Great drawings!

  7. I really believe he just wanted to see how handsome you made him/her look in your sketchbook or maybe ask you where they can get great camo hats like yours.

    Great sketches as always!

  8. Did the grid of the fence help or hinder?

    Quite frankly I really don't like Alligators.. I find them scary, worrisome, threatening, hidden and rather murky characters who's power and reflexes are much to formidable... hence I live in a northern climate and away from zoo's and large drain hole covers. Chances are with a dragon your gone with a gulp and you have a slight chance to run and hide, but 'gator's: it's snap, pull, struggle, shred, gulp in terror, and drown in violence...

    and now I have the willies...

    I should stayed at lines and colors today and stuck with looking at windows...

    By the way - as always - love your sketch work.


    1. Hindered. But looking at the photos afterwards I realized I totally could have used it to keep proportions correct. Something to remember for next time...

  9. Looks like I need to invest in a camo hat, and go to the zoo with a sketchbook.

  10. Love these! Your sketches also remind me of a story I read in middle school from Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum collection called "Day of the Dragon" where a scientist made dragons out of alligators in some horrible experiment gone wrong.... :)

  11. LOLZ @ the 'sweet camo hat'. Beaauuooootiful drawings, Mr. Gerard. I love how you shared the adventure with us with a great little narrative. Yer amazing.


  12. beautiful drawings, justin! i love how you brought out every last bit of the character in their dragon-y shapes.

    maybe its of interest - darren naish of the amazing tetrapod zoology blog recently wrote a 5 part article series on crocodiles: (big time animal nerdery, there!)

  13. Man! I Really love the pictures with waters, they're amazing! I've tried to do the same effect, but my white pencils ins't strong like yours, I think I'll buy a white pen to make some tests.

    Very amazing work, congratulations Justin!

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  15. Great post, Justin! I'm still grinning. Do crocs really cool down by leaving their mouths open? I thought reptiles needed to absorb sunlight to heat their bodies. Methinks that one had his mouth open in hopes of hypnotizing you into thinking you were a tic bird and could safely climb into his jaws. These drawings are wonderful. I love the bird's eye view of the gators in the water.

    When I was about ten years old we went to the national zoo in D. C.. There was a display for a saltwater crocodile in the reptile house. I stood peering into the water for a long time trying to figure out where the beast was. When it finally dawned on me that the log the curved around the tank from one edge to the other was the crocodile I got a real shiver. It must have been 15 feet long.

    Best Wishes,

  16. awesome! i was just about to go to alligator adventure when i saw this post


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