Top tips for painting a dragon with personality

Manuel Castañón shares his process for painting an original dragon, from sketch to finished illustration.

Painting a Dragon with personality - Main

Manuel explains how he creates this striking personified dragon

The painting above was made as an entry for the Facebook group Draw or Die's monthly Ascension contest. The idea was to paint ourselves with our own personal dragon, one that would "symbolise who you are and what you love about everything in life". It was meant to be our inner fire, as artists, something that drives us forward.

I must confess this prospect made me feel like a child. Since I learned how to draw a dragon at the age of four, my love for them has only grown stronger over the years. I wanted 
to show my love for fantasy and art, the joy of my inner child, what I am and what I want to be, all in one image.

Needless to say it wasn't easy. This is the fourth iteration I did for the contest over a one-month period. It was the breakthrough after a lot of failed compositions and colour choices, but once I arrived at this sketch everything went smoothly. This is the process I'm going to show you.
Never let yourself get discouraged when you’re struggling. Craig Mullins once said, "Failure is 99 per cent of the artistic process." And he's right!

01. Line work sketch

Painting a Dragon with personality - Line Work

Castañón's initial sketch is done in line work, rather than shapes, to help him envision his composition

Some people work better from shapes, others work better from line work. Starting with lines feels more natural to me. 
I like the composition and the idea of this sketch. It looks like the character is protected under the dragon's wing.

02. Reference usage

Painting a Dragon with personality - References

Referencing is essential to add realism. Castañón uses himself as a guide for this characters

When you're just sketching stuff or practising, it's fine to do everything from imagination. However, reference becomes essential for a professional-looking illustration, especially for faces or other anatomical details. Having said this, capturing the character's look is easy because he's supposed to be me!

03. Adding 'stripes'

Painting a Dragon with personality - adding stripes

Castañón's 'stripes' are in fact new layers, to help create depth to the image

I create a new layer under the lines and start painting. I want to make this image bright and cheerful. I use the lighting to 'stripe' the image and create depth, while at the same time keeping a sense of warm light and cool shadows.

04. Storytelling elements

Painting a Dragon with personality - storytelling

Storytelling is essential in illustration. Castañón adds a curious element into the illustration to captivate his viewer

The transformations of the sheets of paper into dragons as they leave the notebook are there to bring interest and some story to the image. I spent a good amount of time messing around with them, trying to make the shapes read well without attracting too much attention.

05. Defining light sources

Painting a Dragon with personality - light sources

Castañón keeps a tight grip on his lighting sources to help him create a realistic and compelling piece

Defining your light sources is a very important step. The main light is the sun, which comes down from the right upon the scene. This enabled me to use the shadow of the mountains to create rhythm with the lights and darks in the background.

06. Refine, refine, refine!

Painting a Dragon with personality - refine!

From here on, Manuel simply hides his initial line-drawing by adding more paint!

From this point the process is pretty straightforward – just paint over the lines! 
I use reference for the face and take inspiration from other artists for the environment – and from horses, to help depict the dragon's muscles.

07. Values test

Painting a Dragon with personality - values

Checking for values can mean the difference between a perfect image, and one that causes confusion

A picture must be understandable. If it doesn't work in black and white it most likely won't work in colour either. Even when the value range is drastically compressed, this image can still be understood and the most basic composition emerges.

Words: Manuel Castañón

Manuel Castañón is a 21-year-old self-taught illustrator who's been in love with fantasy and medieval art for as long as he can remember. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 127.

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