Dragon Doula

This piece is meant to be a part of a series of two portraits. One of myself as Dragon Warden, and the second as a portrait of my most beautiful and excellent partner. Both of these pictures were taken from a single reference photo of the two of use at NorwesCon 38 where George R. R. Martin attended as the guest speaker.

The reference photo that launched a thousand sails, or something like that. Both Dragon Warden and Dragon Doula came from this snap from NorwesCon 38.

Originally when I conceived of the piece it was going to be a more direct representation of the reference, with the two of us sitting on the throne of swords set in the context to the Red Keep at King’s Landing surrounded by three dragons. You know, your typical fare for geek power fantasy. And I will still likely do that … eventually. But that is for another time.

In the meantime, I created these two pieces. My own self-portrait was born as much as wanting to “brand” my art on sites where I can post with a profile picture. Something that is both identifiably me and identifiable as my own work. But for Dragon Doula, I truly wanted to create a gift to my partner for whom I would not be here, or you for that matter reading this post, were it not for her support and inspiration.

It was some years ago, right before we attended NorwesCon 38, that she came back from a writer’s workshop. She shared her experiences, which included having met some visual artists – who were also writers – extolling how great their work was. She shared links to their websites, and I looked at them. To set some context for what I share next, note that I had not seriously done artwork for some twenty years other than to pursue digital photography. There is a rather interesting story of me not seeing myself as an artist after “quiting art and the art community” coming out of high-school; and you, astute reader, surely agree that that itself is filled with absurd proportions since as a high schooler, while I was of some latent art talent, I was not setting the art world on fire at the age of 18 when I “quit” it. Nevertheless, some twenty years later, and with the help of another good friend and fellow artist, Tracy Boyd, I finally found the courage to consider myself amongst the ranks of artists. Oh, the tortured paths we artists must take, eh? But that again is a tale for another time.

That all said, while I then thought and still think that the appellation of artist is appropriate for myself, I had an overly inflated sense of self when it came to my ability to illustrate. While I had talent (in short, born with latent ability, I had never seriously honed it into a skill like the professionals whose artwork I was then seeing – watch Marco Bucci’s excellent video on this very topic. So it was with more than sufficient hubris that when I examined their artwork – as I recall distinctly it included Mark Ferrari’s work and who we now have two of his pieces hanging in our home as inspiration to both of us – I thought I could do as well (or better!) than them. Yes, my dear reader: how little did I truly understand how far I was out of my depth in thinking (and league in skill!), and more so, stating with some great gusto at the time. But such are my follies; I have never suffered from any lack confidence in my skills and talents, especially when it comes to the arts and sciences.

But that was the first step, no matter how lacking in perspective, that set me on this course. Since that time I’ve endeavored to improve my craft, and I’ve dedicated myself as seriously as time and energy will allow to learning both the technique of visual storytelling, but as it were, also the art of it. And as fate would have it, I got to meet and befriend Mark (and his equally lovely partner) whom to this day remains one of my favorite people for his kindness, humility and generally super-human awesomeness. But I digress in the telling, as it is not Mark that this tale is about. It is about my partner, who inspired and supports my own passions.

So it was in this vein that I wanted to create a portrait of her. We like to joke, and I tease, that since I draw dragons she can have the unicorns, largely since this site was originally meant to be about dragons and unicorns, thus the name Unigon. But I hope it’s abundantly clear now by looking at my posts that pretty much only dragons ever get writ down to the proverbial page. But truth be told, she may well love dragons more than me. Which is saying a lot, as I heart dragons a lot. And while I wanted to add a dragon, or dragons to her portrait, I certainly did not want to create a piece identical to my own; it was important to me to make it distinctly her own that suited her personality and her tastes.

Dragon Doula v.~2. This is at a fairly early stage where I like to get my values nailed down. At this point, I really have no idea where I will take this piece. I know I want to add fantasy elements, but not sure what specially.

As is somewhat typical of my artwork, I do not start out with a strong concept or “design brief.” I tend to allow things to progress organically, and I add elements to the piece till I feel I have something balanced. So I did what I do best, and I started roughing in her head. I knew it was going to be a portrait, and I like square aspect ratios, especially as I envisioned she might, too, use it for online posts. As we talked about the piece, she mentioned including a smaller dragon, something I had not considered at the time. But from that nugget Tooth was born, a small dragon hiding from the viewer from behind her head. Granted, Tooth did not start out as “Tooth.” But as I drew him, I started to add visual elements that fit into my story of him. A young dragon with a bit of an attitude, who happened to have one tooth sticking out of his mouth a bit larger than the others and thus how he earned his name. Nor did I realize, till later, that I must have been a wee influenced by “Toothless,” the dragon in “How To Train Your Dragon.” But so our muses, both realized and laying dormant in our minds.

Dragon Doula and Tooth v1 – this was my first pass at a rough render of a dragon behind her. While I think compositionally it worked, I felt it lacked character and depth.
Dragon Doula and Tooth v2 – in this pass I added a lot more personality to the little tyke. I wanted him to have some bravado which I thought added a bit of story and character. If you look carefully, you will note that Tooth has a small bell around his neck to help him stay out trouble. It alerts others to his presence, and is warded to protect our lovely doula from Tooth’s flaming mane.

Something interesting happened in doing this piece, and specifically in creating Tooth. I organically developed my own “design brief” where I started to tell myself, in words, about the story of both our doula and our dragon. They were not just visual elements, but there was a back-story to them. I had images of a mountainous region with large wooden structures where the dragons were born and raised. And as I went, I added elements to the image that reinforced this narrative. To be clear, I did not start out thinking I was creating “Dragon Doula” – I was just doing a portrait of my partner. But as I went, if I were to be the dragon warden, then why not she the dragon doula? If I protect, then why not she raise? If my dragon is mature and able to carry a human rider, then of course hers would be still young and needing the protection of a human handler. It was a narrative both within the picture, and across the pictures. This, too, was a first for me, at least at this level of narrative and personal connections.

My art and work station – one of the benefits of working remotely from a home office. You can see the Wacom Cintiq 22HD on the left, and my personal MacBook Pro late 2012 13” to its right. I use the iMac 27” for work, and the iPad Pro is in the front.

This picture was another first for me, too, in other ways. To date, and inclusive of Dragon Warden, all my digital artwork has been done on a 1st generation iPad Pro using Apple Pencil and Procreate.app. While I love (love, love, love!) these tools, I felt, for whatever reason, that I had earned the right to a larger toolset. So a few months ago I completed a some year-long search for an upgrade into a full-size pen display. While I had settled on purchasing a Huion Kamvas Pro 22”, my last minute reservations around lack of touch had me on a whim look for used Wacom Cintiq 22HD Touch. And as luck would have it, and some not so good luck mixed in between, I finally purchased a used Cintiq from eBay (yes, eBay) for the same price as a new Huion. That was a few months ago, and its been in my office with me feeling entirely intimated by its presence since then.

And of course, if I was replacing my iPad Pro for a Cintiq, it meant I would also have to replace Procreate.app. I was originally drawn (bad pun) to use Affinity’s Photo as it has both an iOS and macOS version, and I liked the idea of a toolset that could more easily go from desktop to tablet and back with minimal fuss. I tried making Affinity work, but ultimately I felt I was fighting the software far more than I would have liked, especially as it was akin to Photoshop: software meant to manipulate photographs, not specifically made for digital artwork. So I went software shopping. While there are a lot of apps to choose from, I was very much torn with going with a mainstay like Adobe Photoshop (which would require me to get a second mortgage in perpetude and which suffered from the same sins as Affinity Photo albeit I knew could be made to work), or something free (Krita) or inexpensive (Artrage). I was considering ArtRage as they have both macOS and iOS versions, but their iOS version cannot hold a candle next to Procreate so I quickly moved on.

None of these are bad choices, even Adobe assuming you have the stomach for the never-ending flow of money to them, but I opted for Corel Painter 2019. There were a few reasons for this choice. First, I knew that Todd Lockwood used it religiously for his own artwork, having personally talked to him about it. And if one of your favorite artists thinks it’s good enough for him, then gosh darn it, it’s good enough for me. Second, Aaron Rutten whose YouTube channel I’ve learned a lot from on digital process and workflow, is an avid supporter of the software. Third, they had just updated it late this year so I felt it still had some legs in it. Four, another artist Sinix Design who I watch religiously on YouTube uses Corel Painter – and I absolutely want to be able to eventually paint with his same fluidity. And finally, while not as inexpensive as other options, I felt a one-time license fee was superior to Adobe Cloud’s subscription model for my needs. So given all that, I felt there was no reason to not seriously consider Corel Painter, and so opted to purchase a full license when Aaron Rutten offered a lovely year-end discount earlier this month. I will make a future post specically on Corel Painter, especially it took me quite a few days of watching YouTube videos, reading posts, and experimenting with it myself to be able to confidentially use it in a way that matched my needs.

Dragon Doula?

The above picture is an interesting story in and of itself. In the process of trying to correct some issues I had with the doula, I ended up making some changes that quite literally took well into the early hours one late-night session to finally figure out. While I will not go into all the gory details, I ended up moving her mouth down and significantly elongating her jawbone without realizing I had done it. And as luck would have it, since I did it somewhat gradually over the course of a few hours, I did not recognize it till it was pointed out to me. Albeit neither of us at the time knew what wrong, only that something was amiss. So there I sat in an emotional tailspin trying to figure out what I had done, but unable to pinpoint specifically what was wrong. And while it was recommended I sleep on it, but dear reader, I knew that I would not sleep till this villainy had been apprehended and its offious offensives removed.

And again, as luck would have it, I had just watched Proko’s updated versions on how to draw the head using the Loomis method. So quite literally at 3a in the morning (yes, I was still up) it suddenly dawned on me (another bad pun?) that I should go back to the basics of her head and check proportions using Loomis’s method. Once I did this, it was abundantly clear that in making some transformations to her head what I had done. It took me a matter of minutes to take the value layer and make the necessary corrections. And by 4a, as I headed to bed, I knew I was back on track with the piece. Sleep at last, although I got up at 7:30a to feed our girls (Great Danes) and get back in the chair to work on the piece some more.

Dragon Doula – final version (we think). My pieces are never quite done, especially with a digital medium where I can always jump right back in and make tweaks. Even now, as I write this post I Chan see elements I may yet again adjust, such as the left side (from viewer’s perspective) of her mouth.

As I noted above, my work proceeds in a somewhat organic fashion both compositionally and narratively. I sorta know where I want to head, but I’m not sure how I will get there nor do I know exactly what the destination will look like. This piece was no different. I spent quite some time tweaking highlights and shadows, and even played with added some design elements including gold leaf and a fur collar. But in the end, while I did add some design elements with the circle inset with a line to help compositionally center the viewer on the doula and her dragon charge, I tried to keep other elements such as her clothing and the dragon’s tail under rendered relative to other elements.

Dragon Doula & Tooth – upclose and finalized. For now.

One final note, I found creating a time-lapse video of stills quite instructional. In the past I just export a rather complete time-lapse from Procreate which I tend whittle down from 10+ minutes to about 60 seconds, a video that super fun for sharing. But it’s not as useful, as I’ve discovered on reflection, from a more deliberate look at my work in its stages. The act of importing the images and creating a 30-second video clip (see below) helped me see where some of my decisions had gone wrong, allowing me to correct in proceeding steps.

Bonus: the below is what I hope the piece will look like once I’ve had a chance to bring to the printers so I can get it framed. For now, I share with you a virtually framed “Dragon Doula.”

Dragon Doula in a virtual frame. I still need to go and finalize a print, but my goal is to frame and hang this portrait of my partner in her own office.

On one final note, I want to thank some folks. First, to Tracy Boyd who helped me reclaim a part of me that allowed myself to let go some many decades ago. Second, to Mark Ferrari whose artwork and humility remind me that this is a lifelong journey, not a destination. And to my partner for whom none of this would be possible. Her belief in me, and her support of this journey I am on, even when at the start it was obvious I had no idea how far out of touch I was with how far I had to go, is bedrock to everything I do. Thank you. I love you all.

Author: Ward

I’m the creator and operator of this little corner of the internets, writing on all things related to art and more specifically my experiences trying to figure this whole thing out. I guess I’m trying to figure out life, too, but mostly I just post about art here.

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