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How to Draw Dragons
Few fantasy beasts have captured the popular imagination as thoroughly as dragons. Whether in books or tv shows or movies or fairy tales straight from the mouth, dragons are the epitome of otherworldly grace, power and frightfulness. So if you set out to draw a dragon, you're expected to perform to a certain standard - and with some practice, you can do that standard proud.
Begin by determining your dragon's pose. For your first dragon you may want a neutral stance, as used in this tutorial, though more daring artists may wish to try something more advanced such as a dragon in flight or slumbering peacefully. Regardless of your choice of posture, this step forces you to answer several questions:
- What kind of dragon do you want? The most general layouts require some thought into the dragon's biology. Is it a European dragon or an Eastern dragon? Does it have wings? Does it have arms or legs? Does it fly, stay on the ground, or combine the two?
- How is it positioned? Will you see the dragon's entire body or just its head? Will you have to utilize more advanced perspective to create the picture?
- Is the dragon cartoony or realistic? You don't necessarily have to decide this immediately, though it's wise not to dawdle. Drawing realism over cartoons can greatly change how you go about drawing your dragon. (This article leans more to realism; in most cases, a cartoony dragon will call for less detail, curvier features and more exaggerated proportions.)
Once you've decided on a pose, sketch it out very roughly using a series of circles and lines. The lines indicate the presence of limbs while circles highlight important bits of the body or, more often, joints. You can then use this framework to build on the dragon. A few things to remember about the average dragon:
- Their bodies end in a long, swishing tail. Imagine a dragon's body as a curvy line with limbs when creating your pose.
- They often have inverted knees, rather like a bird's, and in most popular images they stand in a bit of a crouch. Changing this aspect will give the dragon too much of a bipedal look. The dragon in this tutorial leans more towards human knees, though its ankles end at a steeper inverted curve.
- Their heads are huge. Dragons are reptilian. They have long snouts filled with sharp teeth. Don't shortchange your dragon.
- The wings needed to keep a dragon aloft, if they exist, will appear more believable if they're enormous. The wingspan when outstretched can be almost as long as the dragon from nose to tail. The dragon in this tutorial doesn't have wings big enough to keep it off the ground for long, if at all (though that was done deliberately, as wings can also dominate the picture).
Once your wireframe is done, it may be tempting to proceed directly to your favourite parts of the dragon and fill in the blanks. Unless you're a pro, this is a poor idea: you may discover after spending an hour on the head that it doesn't line up properly with the rest of the body. Avoid this pitfall by slowly filling in more of the dragon via a basic outline of the skeletal structure and musculature.
You don't need to get terribly complicated here. That said, you do want to know what your dragon is going to look like when you're done, sans intricate details. If it helps, use geometric shapes to form the limbs and joints before proceeding to more free-flowing skin.
Most of the dragon's personality comes from its head. As mentioned before, dragons are endowed with long, narrow snouts that widen into broad faces, though the composition of those elements can vary wildly between dragons, thus changing the dragon's personality. A broad face with giant teeth denotes a strong dragon; a slender, slim, almost boney snout may indicate a sneakier reptile; smooth features could betray a dragon that's gentle in spirit. Tailor the face to your liking.
Being reptiles, dragons typically don't look smooth-faced. Intricate dragons are covered in spines, spikes, horns and overlapping scales. Don't be afraid to flesh out your dragon's head with sharp details. The head is also the starting point for any fin-like protrusions that may run down the entirety of the dragon's back; if you do decide to include some form of fin, start off small on the head and neck, made the fin gradually larger at the back, and taper it off to nothing at the tip of the tail.
The front legs will vary drastically between dragons. Some will look like these; others may be far more human, with opposable thumbs and flexible thumbs, in which case the dragon probably stands on two legs; some may not have front legs at all. If front legs do exist, or if they're used as arms, make sure they're much thinner than the back legs. Only humanoid dragons should have arms that are comparably thick to the legs.
A dragon's back legs need to drive it forward, and may serve as the primary supports if it can stand upright. They should be extremely thick and muscular if they exist at all.
Dragon wings are not like bird wings. They're membranous, with skin stretched between long bones attached to the wing itself. Consequently, bat wings are probably your best reference when drawing the wings on a dragon. Wings may be independent of the legs entirely and attach directly to the shoulder, or, as in this picture, they may serve as an extension of another clawed limb.
The dragon's tail may be a major part of the picture or it may hardly register, depending on the positioning of the dragon. In either case, a dragon's tail should protrude as a natural extension of its body and stretch at least as long as the body. Again, if you choose to include fins on your tail, they should get gradually smaller as you move closer to the tip.
Smaug's weak spot in The Hobbit was on his underbelly, though it was still partially hidden beneath an array of hardened skin. Your dragon will probably be the same, using interlocking plates of thick hide to protect its flesh. How these plates look is entirely up to you, and if you want less detail you can simply draw horizontal lines along the dragon's undersides to hint at armour.
Your dragon now looks like a dragon. It can still look more like a dragon, though, and you can accomplish this by adding more detail to the existing elements. Scuff marks on the underbelly give the dragon a weathered look, rips on the wings turn it into an ancient beast, rounded skin on the snout and eyes make it appear more reptilian, lines on the horns add definition, and more spines (which in this case look a lot like hair) add some complexity to the beast.
Now comes the most painstaking part of drawing a dragon: the scales. If you want your dragon to look properly traditional, you need to include some scales.
This part of the process is optional for some. Cartoon dragons, for example, can get away with a few scales here and there to indicate the presence of the rest. Even realistic artists can use smooth skin instead, depending on their species of dragon - an aquatic beast more akin to a salamander might not be so heavily armoured. Most of us, though, have to draw in scales.
Getting the scales right is both laborious and quite important, as poorly-drawn scales will throw off the whole picture. Simple scales are little more than stacked lines of U-shaped curves, one after another, lining the majority of the dragon's body. A few things to keep in mind:
- The underbelly typically doesn't have scales. Instead use the larger plates.
- The scales shouldn't all be drawn in the same direction. Tailor them according to the body part. For the sample picture, the scales on the body flow down towards the tip of the tail, meaning they're horizontal when the dragon's on all fours. Conversely, the scales on the legs are pointed roughly down in the picture.
- Scales should change direction according to the flexing of the muscles. This gives the dragon the appearance of a movable creature.
There you have it! You've got a fully-drawn, semi-realistic-to-realistic dragon. If you want to add more detail to the dragon, consider the following:
- Shading. Shading improves every drawing, and can really bring out the scales if done properly - though for absolute precision you may have to touch up almost every scale. Not for the faint of heart or short of time.
- Highlights. Scales shine, and with judicious erasures and general lightening your dragon can look absolutely brilliant under a spotlight.
- Backdrop. Dragons are fantastical creatures that dwell in fantastical settings. Consider dropping your dragon into a forest, a cave or, for particularly bloodthirsty beasts, a castle.