Dracopedia Legends: An Artist's Guide to Drawing Dragons of Folklore

Dracopedia Legends: An Artist's Guide to Drawing Dragons of Folklore

by William O'Connor


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Learn to draw colossal dragons and legendary heroes!

It was a stormy night in Northern Wales when I and my apprentice, Conceil, had to take shelter in an old stalkers cottage along Caernarfon Bay. A peat fire was lit, and our guide, Sir Geoffrey Guest, regaled us with ancient stories of dragons while, outside, the gale battered the coastline....

What follows is a retelling of classical legends, plucked from the folklore of cultures spread across time and around the world, from ancient Greece and China to Medieval England and Norse mythology. You'll discover the epochal dragons who reigned over snow and sea; those with wings and flaming maws; those who thwarted Beowulf in underground lairs; and those slain by Hercules' mighty sword.

Dracopedia Legends presents 13 epic tales of heroes vanquishing dragons, accompanied by lavish dragon illustrations inspired by the myths. Acting as both a storybook and art guide, each chapter also includes in-depth instructions to reveal how to conceptualize, research and design every iconic battle scene, broken down into multiple stages so you can create your own commanding and evocative narrative paintings.


   • 13 tales of the most legendary dragons from around the world
   • Instructions for drawing and painting each climactic clash between hero and beast
   • How to design, sketch and develop illustrations into layered and detailed final paintings
The fourth book in the best-selling Dracopedia saga!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440350917
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Series: Dracopedia
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 384,166
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

William O'Connor is a father of two living in New York. He sometimes comes out of his Hobbit hole, where he makes books and paintings, to travel the land and explore. Author and artist of the bestselling Dracopedia book series, as well as illustrator of over five thousand illustrations for the gaming and publishing business, William O'Connor’s 25-year career has allowed him to work with such companies as Wizards of the Coast, IMPACT Books, Blizzard Entertainment, Sterling Publishing, Lucas Films, Activision and many more. In addition, he has won more than 30 industry awards for artistic excellence including 10 contributions to Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantasy Art and 10 Chesley Nominations. William has taught and lectured around the country about his unique and varied artwork as well as being a regular contributor to the popular art blog Muddy Colors and exhibiting his work at such industry shows as Illuxcon, New York Comic Con and Gen Con.

For more information about William O'Connor, his books and art, visit www.wocstudios.com.

Read an Excerpt


Beowulf And the Dragon

The Legend of Beowulf


ONCE UPON A TIME, the mighty king Beowulf ruled over the ancient kingdom of Geatsland in a time of great peace. As a young warrior, Beowulf had been summoned to the court of the Danish king Hrothgar to defeat the monster Grendel and his mother, who had terrorized the Danes. Beowulf's victory over Grendel became the subject of epic poems told far and wide. Upon his return to Geatsland, Beowulf united the thanes and clans under his banner as king, bringing peace for fifty years.

It came to pass that, one day, a young servant boy wandered far outside the halls of Beowulf's castle and discovered a cave in the cliffs by the sea. He became lost in the underground labyrinth and wandered into a vast cavern filled with a treasure horde of crowns, jewelry, coins and platters, all of the most glittering gold. High atop the mound of riches, he spied a dragon, coiled and sleeping, its wings folded under its massive scaled body, which rose and fell with each breath. Afraid to venture into the cavern and wake the dragon, the boy plucked a golden goblet from the pile, for surely no one would miss a single bauble, and hid the goblet in his jerkin. He then made his way out of the cave and back home.

What the little thief did not realize was that, as the guardian of the treasure hoard, the dragon was attuned to every ring and bracer, every torq and helmet, and he awoke in a rage. The terrible creature raced out of the cave where he had slept for centuries to seek revenge on the thief.

The dragon's fury was devastating. He swept over the Geatsland on his powerful wings and rained fiery destruction on the villages and hamlets of the kingdom. The people fled to the safety of Beowulf's castle, where they begged the king to save them.

King Beowulf was old but no less brave than in his youth. He ordered his young nephew Wiglaf to summon all the thanes of the kingdom to join him, and he called for his arms and armor. Clad in his ancient golden chainmail and shield, Beowulf brandished the mighty sword Naegling, sharpened and polished to a golden shine.

When the thanes of Geatsland had assembled, Beowulf spoke to them. "Brave warriors! Today we ride out to do battle with an ancient threat that has awoken in our lands. With your bravery we will save the people from this terrible scourge."

The assembled lords rode out to slay the dragon, with Beowulf at their head and brave Wiglaf by his side. They rode through the country-side of Geatsland, which had been razed by the dragon's fire, and passed farms and villages burned to ashes. When Beowulf and his men arrived at the seaside cliffs, they dismounted and entered the cave leading to the dragon's lair. Navigating the labyrinthine tunnels, they at last emerged in the cavern of the Golden Hoard, where they found the dragon waiting.

Beowulf at once attacked the dragon, wielding Naegling high over his head. The furious dragon unleashed a torrent of fire on the warriors, turning the underground chamber into a flaming furnace hot enough to melt the gold. The blazing attack so terrified the thanes that they fled from the cave. Beowulf commanded them to return, but only faithful Wiglaf remained at his side. The king and his cousin circled the dragon, striking from two sides, while like a serpent, the dragon snapped its massive jaws at the warriors but failed to hit. Wiglaf's stout sword glanced off the dragon's gleaming scales. Beowulf launched an attack, dealing a mighty blow to the underside of the dragon with Naegling that staggered the beast but could not pierce the dragon's hide. The dragon reeled high on its back legs, spread its wings and expelled a cloud of flame. The warriors hid behind their shields to protect themselves from the firestorm. Beowulf's shield, the companion to Naegling, withstood the attack, but Wiglaf's oaken shield caught fire and was thrown aside. Though the shield saved the warrior from death, Wiglaf's arm was badly burned, and he was without protection.

Likewise, the dragon had exposed his chest in his fury. Beowulf saw his chance. The aging king gathered all his strength and charged the blazing beast. Falling upon the dragon, Beowulf plunged Naegling between the dragon's scales, and when the blade struck, it shattered. The dragon lashed out in pain and slashed at Beowulf with its razor- sharp talons. Both the dragon and the king were flung across the gold treasure cavern.

Wiglaf saw the wound Naegling had made in the dragon's armor, and at once, with both hands, brought his own blade down upon the creature, stabbing the beast through the heart. The titanic serpent writhed in anguish, thrashing and flailing its head and tail in its death throes. Then, finally, it collapsed atop the mound of treasures and was still. Wiglaf had slain the dragon.

Beowulf lay nearby, mortally wounded. The warrior raced to his king's side and cradled his head in his lap. "My lord, be strong. You cannot die. What will we do without our king?"

"Fear not, my good Wiglaf," Beowulf whispered. "You will not be without a king, for you will lead the people after me."

Then the king of Geatsland died. Wiglaf carried his lord's body back to the castle where the great Beowulf was placed on a funeral pyre. Wiglaf, who took over the throne, erected a great barrow in Beowulf's memory.


Beowulf and the Dragon

Stage One: Research and Concept Design

Written during the Dark Ages in Anglo-Saxon England, the epic of Beowulf is a classic tale of Viking heroism. Brought to England from Scandinavia during the Saxon invasions after the fall of the Roman Empire, it is one of the oldest written English poems and has gone on to inspire famous English writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, who clearly drew upon the Beowulf story when writing Smaug in The Hobbit.

When imagining the dragon that battles Beowulf, my first thought is of the region where the story takes place. Referencing Dracopedia: The Great Dragons leads me to the Great Scandinavian Blue Dragon Dracorexus songenfjordus (pages 44–59)).

Great Scandinavian Blue Dragon Ventral View

Wingspan 85' Using the reference sets a scale for the painting, especially the size of the dragon in relation to the figures.

Great Scandinavian Blue Dragon Head Studies

The Great Scandinavian Blue Dragon of this story is a giant and ancient monster. The head is adorned with many horns, scales and scars to show its size and age.

Great Scandinavian Blue Dragon Profile

Dracorexus songenfjordus, 75' (23m) Living in the fjords and seasides of Scandinavian countries, the Great Blue Dragon was most likely the inspiration for the fire-breathing monster that terrorized Geatsland in the Beowulf saga.

Dark Ages Scandinavian Dragon Broach

The image of the dragon plays an important part in Viking culture. Dragon iconography was a common symbol of strength and power.

Take Reference Photos

With smartphone cameras now performing better than the high-end digital cameras of a few years ago, there is no excuse not to take reference photos every chance you get.

The Dragon's Lair Concept Sketch

As is the case in many dragon stories, the dragon in Beowulf lives in an underground cave. In the real world, great dragons tend to make their homes on seaside cliffs, along protected rock outcroppings or in caves. This provides shelter for their nests and eggs, as all dragons are ferociously territorial. During the Dark Ages, these dragon caves would have been places of extraordinary danger and mysticism, with fire and smoke issuing from the rocks, giving the impression of a gate into hell. One does not simply walk into a dragon's lair!

King Beowulf

By the time he battles the dragon, Beowulf is likely more than 70 years old. I've designed the hero to appear wise and armored, using the details of a Viking chieftain.

Preliminary Design Sketches for King Beowulf

Looking at historical reference of Viking arms and armor assisted inn the design of Beowulf's attire and weapons.


Refine Ideas

Using the reference and development art from stage one, create quick concept sketches to explore the design of a finished large-scale painting. Although there will be numerous elements and a high level of detail in this painting, the design is kept simple at this stage.

The three main elements of this painting are the warriors, the dragon and the treasure cave. The thumbnails above allowed me to experiment with the placement of each element.


Develop the Drawing

Working from the general to the specific allows me to quickly establish the placement and pose of the dragon.

Beowulf Finished Drawing

Because of the large number of figures and the high level of detail in this painting, this drawing is almost twice as large as the drawings in other chapters.

Pencil on paper and digital 21" × 34" (53cm × 86cm)


For a painting of the scale and complexity of Beowulf, I decided that an oil painting would produce the best effects and visual impact for the subject matter.

Most young or beginning artists may not have the space or equipment to work in oil, but I have been oil painting for more than 30 years, and it's my favorite medium, though for the purposes of speed and ease, I do most of my commercial work digitally. You will see, however, that the technique is the same: drawing, underpainting and finished painting. Although this example may be extreme in size, I encourage you to experiment with oil on some smaller works.

I digitize the drawing by taking multiple scans and piecing it together in a photo-editing program. I make any additional edits needed with my digital drawing tools before taking the file to a printshop and getting a 24" × 36" (61cm × 91cm) black-and-white print made on heavy stock paper. I then mount this print to hardboard using acrylic matte medium.

Beowulf Color Palette

I used a warm palette to render the effects of firelight reflecting on gold coins.


Once the mounted drawing has dried to the board, begin with a tonal underpaintng in acrylic. This technique is the same as in my digital paintings, but here I use watered-down, transparent paint to allow the drawing to show through. I use acrylic because it dries quickly with no fumes, and the acrylic seals the paper for subsequent oil painting. Almost all of this underpainting will be painted over later, so there's no need to paint any details. I chose a warm yellow tone because the room will be filled with shimmering gold, and that color will shine through all layers.

Add Local Color

Using broad strokes, I used oil paint to loosely block in the local color of the objects and forms. This establishes color, light and atmosphere in the painting. Again, no details just yet.

Details of Beowulf Finished Painting

After several weeks of painting, adding detail and color to the canvas, it is ready for the finishing touches. Because of the painting's size and detail, I photograph the painting to bring it back into the computer, where I finish the details digitally.



The Legend of Fafnir


THE SWORD GRAM] was no ordinary weapon. It was forged long ago from the rich mines of the Dwarf King Hreidmar, whose son Prince Regin was a talented smith able to shape any armor or sword from gold or bronze. His skill made Hreidmar's other son, Fafnir, wrathful with jealousy.

When the mighty bronze Gram was shaped on the dwarven prince's anvil, Regin knew at once that this was a blade of unequaled craftsmanship and unmatched power. The god Odin decreed that only one worthy of the blade should be allowed to wield it, and he bestowed the sword to Sigmund, king of the Volsungs, who brandished Gram for many years, vanquishing his enemies and becoming a mighty lord. Eventually, however, Odin decided that Gram and Sigmund had become too powerful, so during a battle, he caused Gram to shatter, and Sigmund fell to his enemies. The kingdom of the Volsungs was lost, and the queen and her son, Sigurd, fled to the countryside.

During this time, Fafnir's jealousy toward his father Hreidmar and brother Regin had grown, and he coveted the Golden Dwarven Hoard for his own. Twisted and tormented by his greed, Fafnir transformed into a powerful dragon that breathed poison and fouled the lands of the dwarves in perpetual winter, driving the dwarves from their ancestral halls.

King Hreidmar confronted his son. "Fafnir, what have you done?"

"I have taken what is rightfully mine, Father! Now I will be the king of the Golden Hall!" Fafnir then fell upon his father and slew him.

Prince Regin and the dwarves of Hreidmar fled the Golden Hall and went into hiding far away from the wrath of Fafnir, but Regin vowed to return one day to avenge the king and take back their homeland. While taking refuge in the wilderness, Regin met the exiled Prince Sigurd, also on the run from his enemies, and together they plotted to kill Fafnir and share the golden horde. Sigurd revealed that he had the shards of Gram, which was once wielded by his father. The dwarven prince took the shards and reforged the legendary sword, perhaps the only weapon powerful enough to kill Fafnir.

Bearing the sword Gram, Sigurd set off into the frozen mountains to seek out the lair of Fafnir. After many treacherous days of traveling, Sigurd came upon the icy dwarven halls and entered the great chamber filled with the golden treasure that Fafnir had stolen from his father and brother. Coiled atop the piles of gems and coins, the dragon woke from his slumber at the arrival of the warrior.

"So my brother has sent a mortal man to try to slay the great Fafnir!" the great dragon hissed. "My father and my brother conspired against me. They wished to keep the treasure of the dwarves for themselves, but I was too powerful for them. The gold is now mine and no mortal man shall take it from me." The great monster reared up to his full height, his skin flecked with scales that shimmered gold. Sigurd drew Gram from its sheath and brandished it before Fafnir. The dragon seemed to recognize the blade and he suddenly hunched down, wary of the intruder in his cave. "You know this blade!" Sigurd shouted. "The sword Gram, wielded by my father, reforged by your brother Regin." Fafnir hissed and snapped his jaws at Sigurd, who stepped aside just in time to evade the bite. The warrior and the beast carefully circled one another, each searching for an advantage. Th e warrior swung the blade, catching Fafnir along the side, but so thick and powerful were his scales that even the enchanted blade of Gram glanced off his armor. Over and over the two combatants struck, and with every powerful swing of the sword Sigurd failed to scratch the mighty dragon, much less pierce his hide. Fafnir then belched a cloud of smoke over the warrior.

Choking and eyes burning, Sigurd stumbled away from Fafnir and ran hastily from the hall, back to the icy windswept mountain cliffs. Fafnir laughed and taunted Sigurd as he fled. "You cannot run, Gram wielder! You cannot escape the mighty King Fafnir!"

Blinded by Fafnir's poisonous breath and the forceful wind, Sigurd stumbled and fell into an unseen crevasse in the ice. He was not injured too severely in the fall, but when Fafnir emerged from the cave searching for him, Sigurd realized that he was concealed within the icy crack.

"Come out, little man. Hiding will do you no good," Fafnir snarled.

Wedged in the open crevasse, Sigurd slowly moved into a crouched position and grasped the hilt of Gram in his frozen fingers as, above him, Fafnir prowled in the snow. As the dragon loomed overhead, Sigurd saw from his low vantage a bare spot on the dragon's chest where the scales did not cover a pale patch of flesh.

Fafnir suddenly swung his head around and spied Sigurd in the crevasse. "There you are. I found you, little man." Fafnir bared his teeth to finish Sigurd, but the warrior thrust the blade upward with all his might. The magic blade of Gram found its spot and sank hilt-deep into Fafnir's chest.

The mighty dragon let out a terrible scream of anguish and toppled into the snow. Sigurd pulled himself from the crack and stood ready to strike again, but the dragon was in his death throes.

"What is your name, Gram wielder?" Fafnir choked.

"I am Sigurd, son of Sigmund, king of the Volsungs," the young man proclaimed.

Fafnir laughed, a hideous sound from the beast's throat. "Do not think that by killing me you are safe, princeling. Do you think my brother will let you live and share his gold?" With that, Fafnir let out a last breath and did not move again.

Having vanquished the terrible serpent, Sigurd returned to his homeland with Gram and golden treasures from the hoard, and reclaimed his father's throne to become king of the Volsungs.



Stage One: Research and Concept Design

The story of Fafnir and Sigurd is one of the most iconic dragon tales in world literature, related in the medieval Volsunga Saga and The Song of the Nibelungs. This legend, once again, tells of a dragon who covetously hoards gold treasure. Unlike other dragon stories, however, Fafnir is actually a dwarf who transforms into a dragon to represent the affliction of greed and power. As in Beowulf, the dragon Fafnir needs to be vanquished by the hero using his cunning and bravery.

For my depiction of Fafnir, I consider that he was once a dwarf, and that the story is a Norse legend taking place in the north. Both of these observations inform me in the design of the dragon Fafnir. It's apparant that Fafnir could easily be a member of the Arctic dragon family of Draco nimibiaquidae (discussed in Dracopedia, pages 22–33). This storytelling choice alludes to the northern environment of the legend and allows for dragon designs that can incorporate dwarven features, like beards and hair into the concept for Fafnir.


Excerpted from "Dracopedia Legends"
by .
Copyright © 2018 William O'Connor.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Materials, 5,
Introduction, 6,
Drawing Materials, 8,
Digital Drawing and Painting, 10,
Basic Tutorials, 12,
Beowulf and the Dragon, 16,
Fafnir, 30,
Jörmundgander, 42,
The Lambton Wyrm, 54,
Ladon, 66,
Mabinogion, 78,
Nidhogg, 90,
Python, 102,
The Four Dragon Kings, 112,
The Redcrosse Dragon, 124,
Ryujin, 136,
The Dragon of Silene, 148,
Zmey Gorynych, 160,
Index, 172,
About the Author, 174,
Author Disclaimer, 174,

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