Creating Creatures of Myth and Legend

A panel of distinguished artists shared their insight on creating creatures from mythology or from their own imaginations Friday at 5:30PM in Grand Hall C in the Hyatt. Moderator Rachel Rieckenberg asked fellow artists Allie Briggs, Sarah Dahlinger, Justin Gerrard, and Todd Lockwood why they chose to create mythical creatures. Lockwood quipped, “Because they’re paying me to do it.” Seriously, though, he drew his first dragon, Maleficent of Disney fame, at age four. He also learned a lot about mythical beings from his time illustrating for Dungeons & Dragons. Most of D&D’s creatures come from mythology, he noted, even though many are not well known.

Photo by Debbie Yutko

Briggs said she grew up near a cranberry bog and didn’t have video games to play as a child. This gave her a connection with nature and the creatures that inhabit it. Dahlinger had a similar childhood but in the woods rather than a bog. She was injured during college, and after two years of rehab, she decided she wanted to freelance with a focus on creatures and monsters. Rieckenberg said she also grew up in the country and used to go on adventures by the creek out back. All five artists had a deep connection to nature, but Gerrard admitted he didn’t even know fantasy existed when he was a child—until the day he read Beowulf. Tolkien followed, and Gerrard was hooked. Lockwood also read Tolkien, after first thinking he wouldn’t be interested in elves and dwarves. “It changed everything,” he said.

When discussing their favorite mediums, the subject of AI reared its head. Gerrard said he grew up in the analogue era that swiftly changed to digital by the time he began his career. He likes to draw in pencil, scan it in, then color in Photoshop. Although he loves working in oil, it takes much longer. Lockwood grew up using pencils, as they all did, but he thinks it’s important to learn the new tools available. When he picked up Painter, he felt it “blew Photoshop away.”

Photo by Debbie Yutko

Although much of their work is commissioned by clients, who give them some specifications, Lockwood said, “It’s up to us to show them what they really want.” When working on personal projects, however, they can let their imaginations run wild. They often base creatures on mashups of real animals, so they discussed the importance of studying the animals in question. According to Dahlinger, the hardest part is making up something that nature didn’t. She disliked puzzles when she was young but discovered that she loved the puzzle of anatomy and how muscles work. It’s surprising, she pointed out, how similar people, horses, and bats are when you consider their musculature. Things are just stretched out and moved a bit.

Despite the modern love-affair with nihilism, Lockwood thinks classic stories and mythological creatures will always endure. He once heard that science fiction is about the outer world, whereas fantasy is about the inner world. Dragons in Western culture often represent the darkness within us. In Asian culture, however, they usually represent elements of nature. Gerrard agreed and thinks villains are essential. “Sometimes,” he said, “we as a society need to come together to face down an existential threat.” He doesn’t want to see the bad guys of stories go away.

Gerrard also revealed how an artist can use human psychology in their work. For example, using the proportions of a human baby results in a critter that seems cute. If attributes of snakes or spiders come into play, on the other hand, the creation will inspire fear and loathing. He recommended starting with a few “trashy little drawings…weird mashups.” Then study real creatures and build a mental library for your use and develop one of the drawings.

At the start of the panel, Gerrard began an hour-long demonstration of his process. After sketching a few odd little beasties on paper that was being cast to a TV screen, he chose one and began an overall sketch of a larger drawing. He slowly refined the head and front half of a dragon that ended up being wedded to a snail-like coil as its back half. While he and the other panelists talked, he produced an intriguingly unique creature.

The panel concluded with general advice to new artists: draw, draw, draw, and observe, observe, observe! Also, draw for yourself and what interests you. Talk to other artists and learn as much as you can from the people around you.

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.