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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Carving the ‘Big-Dragon Lovespoon’ A Step by Step Series: 1 Drawing Dragons, The Design for The Big Dragon Lovespoon



This series of posts on the design and carving of, what I am calling the ‘Big Dragon Lovespoon’ is going to proceed with a few digressions along the way. In these digressions I will be presenting topics that hopefully will be relevant to anyone interested in the design and carving of lovespoons and art/craft in general, especially wood art.


My intention is to return to these topics more fully later, relating them to various other projects or as discrete presentations. Eventually with a view of offering instructional PDF eBooks with specific step by step projects to work from, for those interested.

Drawing and Carving - Seamlessly Related Tasks with Seperate Outcomes

Drawing and carving are to my way of thinking so closely related as to be almost the same thing. I know that many carvers claim they can’t draw, but without gain-saying that perception, it is from my view, just a matter of semantics, and they are drawing in a sense, as they go about their carving. This is one of those topics that might be returned to advantageously later if it can result in a clearer vision in our mind, of exactly what is happening, at the literal cutting edge, of imagination and working. 

With me, every carving starts with a drawing on paper. A small sketch to begin with. Often just a series of tiny thumb-nail sketches in a small pocket size sketch book, around A5 or A6 size or scattered all over a sheet of A4 photocopy paper.



From these thumbnail sketches ideas are able to be developed a little further, then scanned and enlarged until a finished drawing/design can be traced thoughtfully from a print made from the initial rough sketch. I find it much easier to design from a tiny sketch, through incremental stages, toward something more substantial, than trying to develop a full size pattern straight off. Besides, tracing and re-tracing parts of the design allows you to repositiothem quickly, multiple times, to try different relationships and orientations within the overall design.


Because drawing on paper is such a familiar process for me, and also a process that benefits from constant practise. I might almost lavish as much effort on a drawing, intended just as a pattern, as I might on a finished drawing in its own right. I say almost, because I am also aware that it isn’t really a finished work in its own right, only a pattern and the time could be better spent on actual carving.


Or is it only a pattern? And is the extra time and effort wasted? We can fool ourselves with regard to our reasons for doing things often. And maybe the ‘working’ images of processes along the way can have an audience too. Personally I like to see behind the scenes, when I see work that I admire. I like seeing 'the whole body of work' when I can. And that sometimes even includes the workspace. I think this is a common enough thing and explains why the rough and raw aesthetic of 4b pencil drawings, drawn by animators, just as part of a process, we’re often liked by them, more than the finished work. 

In fact all the still art from animated films is valued now, for being framed and displayed, and especially the first drawings, before the, also collected and displayed, clean-up artists’ work, or the painted cells at the end of the production line. Whereas the actual animated films, though revered in memory, lie out of sight in a DVD case or a Netflix list. In a similar way ‘merchandise’ after the event has eager buyers. 







So there could be good reason to invest care and attention in your pattern design drawings and visual diary work, as it adds a chapter or two to the backstory of your finished work together with a facilitating of the actual carving work later.


I found this backstory fascination myself when I bought a copy of ‘Disney Animation - the Illusion of Life’. Though I have never been a real Disney fan. I was an instant fan of all the behind the scenes art, especially the initial pencil drawings and the background art. I have often thought, some films, notable for their special effects, would be even better if you could high-res, freeze-frame the scenes. Sometimes a picture book of the concept art that went into its making, would suit me better than the actual film. 

The patterns I have drawn for carvings have often been, more rendered than they need to be, just for a pattern, and yet they are still a bit half-heartedly finished as serious drawings, because I have reasoned that they are only patterns. 


Perhaps moving toward a more conscious development of the drawings as seperate works, when time allows, can be justified both as valuable drawing practise and experiment, together with service as a helping conceptual-hand in the subsequent carving work. Because surfaces were beginning to be planned during the careful rendering done at the drawing stage. In addition, some potential pitfalls are also likely discovered, and a lingering over the design can suggest some new possibilities. Non-drawing ( so they perceive) carvers are doing this very thing as they carve – but with the removal of material there is no turning back.


Drawing Dragons

I have drawn and carved quite a few dragons now and as I think about it, there seem to be only a few reasons why they keep cropping up in my work. First and most obvious is – When you think of lovespoons you think of Wales ( that is unless you have become more knowledgeable on the broader cultural history of mankind’s lovespoon carving, by reading David Western’s books on the subject ). Completing the thought, when you think Wales you think Y Ddraig Goch

It wasn’t lovespoon carving however that led to my drawing of dragons so often, because I had drawn The Red  Dragon well before I had even heard of lovespoons.The Red Dragon of Welsh legend and emblem on the Welsh Flag was probably the first dragon I ever drew. I think it was back in the very early 1970’s. Drawn on my father’s request for printing on the programme/menu for the annual Cymmrodorian Society Dinner. 

The dragon below is a slightly later version printed by offset litho. As I remember, this one  was pretty much a copy of the letterpress version I drew first. Looking at it now, even this ‘first’ dragon seems to have something of the flavour common to most of the dragons I have drawn. He has a kindly Harry Secombe-humorous-twinkle in his eye and kind of looks more like a tenor in a male-voice choir reaching for a high note, than he does a fierce guardian. This hasn’t been intentional, but there it is.



My father was the president of this society for several decades and the pen and ink drawing he requested was used to produce a metal letterpress die, in the first instance, and later the disposable photolithography plates, which the printer used to print the programmes. The printer was a man who owned a shop and had no need of a USB connection. You just took the metal die back to him each year and he assembled it with movable type to print the new menu.

There was an attractive substance and solidity to the letterpress die. It was a ‘keeper’ residing in wooden drawers for miscellaneous kept things, until the wooden drawers themselves passed out of sight and memory, regrettably with their contents. The solidity of that metal die, coming from an ink drawing, brings to mind the several ‘flag dragons’ I have carved by request on lovespoons in much later days, solid and dimensional versions of the drawing.




However just as in the case with that first dragon drawing, there isn’t much room for creative interpretation where this, most requested emblem, is concerned, because, handsome as he is, passant and in stately profile, he must be. In order to be recognised. 


The second dragon I ever drew was more from imagination. They are all from imagination of course, except for the real ones ( Agamidae ), but this time it was from my own imagination. My imagination also happened to be inspired, all imaginations are of course and influenced, again as all imaginations are, at the time by, in my particular case, a memory of Wayne Anderson’s illustrations of dragons, in ‘The Flight of Dragons’. The usefulness of dragons for predominantly decorative - stylised - extravagantly detailed and yet - insinuatingly-realistic graphic work, with a serious overlay of tongue-in-cheek humour, made an impression that I was keen to utilise.

My youngest daughter owns this ‘first dragon’ drawing (below). But most of the freelance drawings and paintings I did, before photoshop came on the scene, were done when publishers owned and gave away the whole of what was produced at their request. When this ceased to be the case, my illustration work was then digital, with just piles of component graphite drawings and gigabytes of graphics files. 

Portfolio Dragon Piece- Black ink line and coloured pencil on Ivory board

I had been working at The Correspondence School Sydney as a teacher/illustrator, illustrating distance education learning materials for a couple of years and was wanting to break into the publishing world for some additional freelance work, simply in order to work in colour in addition to my regular pen and ink work. For this reason I needed a quick illustration of something in colour for my portfolio. So then, here came another reason for drawing a dragon, because with dragons you can just make them up, without needing much in the way of reference, just make them fit whatever size and shape is available to make a picture.

Portfolio Dragon Piece - Detail - Black ink line and coloured pencil on Ivory board

I still had the impression in my mind of Wayne Anderson’s dragons and I liked the aesthetic of his work. With this inspiration together with other stronger influences like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson I had the idea of a graphic work in colour that I could add to my portfolio. I had long outgrown an adolescent penchant for fierce, macabre, muscular and malevolent creatures, designed to impress like a despot’s military parade. So the only very mildly fierce, whimsical and faintly humorous nature of Wayne Anderson’s dragons, was a ‘feel’ I could work from in my own accustomed pen and ink drawing style. 

Portfolio Dragon Piece - Detail - Black ink line and coloured pencil on Ivory board

This second dragon drawing was firstly a pen and ink drawing on ‘ivory board’, a very smooth, white drawing paper, even smoother than hot-pressed watercolour paper. It was the same drawing paper that I had used exclusively for the years I spent as a biological illustrator, drawing and rendering zoological specimens, with a super fine stippling technique. This ink drawing which now consisted of line work, rather than stippling, was coloured with coloured pencils, very painstakingly layering one colour over another, lifting colour off with an eraser and re-applying colour.  This was probably the only way to work with coloured pencil on this slick surface. 

I didn’t know of coloured pencil layering as a proven technique, back in the early 1980’s but it was a way of getting similar colour texture and broken colour effects to those that I had admired in the illustrations of Edmund Dulac, onto the ink drawing. I was also inadvertently blending the colour with the white rubber eraser in the process, a little similar to the proven  techniques coloured pencil artists often use these days. This dragon picture was very over rendered at the inking stage but the colouring overcame that well enough to get the supplementary freelance work I was after, though nothing in the way of colour commissions came for a couple of years. 

Portfolio Dragon Piece - Detail - Black ink line and coloured pencil on Ivory board

I have drawn many dragons since then, mostly on request, but sometimes a dragon is just the thing, simply because they require no reference, can be always very different in style and yet are easily recognised. They are a good stand-by subject, together with dinosaurs (made-up ones like wingless dragons}, when you need a quick drawing for kids to colour in. The styles of dragon I have come to use have been predominantly decorative, sometimes stately, where love spoons are involved, but mostly comic.

The red and the white dragons in combat below were part of a poster on myth and legend. This poster was painted in acrylic with additional black ink line work added.

Legend and Mythology Poster (detail) Acrylic with Black Line

The Red Dragon is of course Y Ddraig Goch, pre my carving days by many years.

Legend and Mythology Poster (detail) Acrylic with Black Line

The more comic dragon below, was also drawn with pen and ink, but the ‘painting’ and texture are digital this time. This dragon (the real one) has just won first prize at a fancy-dress contest for his ‘costume’. He’s fairly benign but confident enough in his dragon attributes to stare down any protest.

Fancy-dress Contest Winner Dragon  - Black ink line work and digital painting

Imaginative dragons are compliant to any drawing whim but real dragons do require reference material. However they do also make interesting subjects for realistic work. Below is an eastern water dragon pyrography work, also owned by my youngest daughter. This particular pyrography work hasn’t faired as badly with fading as other pyrography I have done, possibly due to the stipple like technique that suited the rendering of this subject.

Standing Still - pyrography on hoop pine ply


Standing Still - pyrography on hoop pine ply (detail)

I have given up on pyrography as medium in its own right, due to the fading, especially with subtle lighter tones. Pyrography with coloured pencil seems to stand up better and I have had reports about pyrography-with-coloured-pencil works that I have sold, that they are still just fine after a number of years. I did all I could to warn buyers about the possible fading, so this was some good news offered in response to my dire warnings. Ordinary pyrography works that I still have and were on display are now useless after just a few years. Lovespoons don’t fade however, but with reasonable care can be passed on through many generations.

Coloured pencil on timber does work well and watercolour / gouache is a proven technique for use on timber, from as far back as Victorian times at least. Pyrography has a useful place with this kind of graphic work on timber. In an earlier post, years ago, I wrote up a step by step description of a pyrography-with-coloured-pencil work, that was also published in ’Pyrography Magazine’. In this article and series of posts, I described using the pyrography line to eliminate bleeding of wet pigment along the wood grain and how the use of a low heat seemed to blend the pencil colour deep into the timber surface, burnishing the timber surface attractively at the same time. Here is a link to that archived page.

The supremely accomplished coloured pencil artist Karen Hull has some instructional PDF offerings on her site describing her slightly different technique of coloured pencil on wood rendering and some brilliantly realistic coloured pyrography tutorials. 

Some of these coloured pencil and pyrography techniques could be applied to a decorative treatment on lovespoons and other wood art, probably with a similar effect to kohlrosing.

Young Dragon Hiding pyrography and coloured pencil on kauri pine ply

The Big-Dragon Lovespoon  Design and Drawing.

Back to dragons on lovespoons. On this lovespoon which I am calling ‘Big ‘Dragon Lovespoon’ to distinguish it from all the other dragon named lovespoons, the dragon is to be the main feature, full bodied, not in relief. So this dragon can be of the more imaginative type and I am intending him to be just fierce enough to be a dragon but not a malevolent presence, more a guardian, like the passant ‘Y Ddraig Goch’.

Big Dragon Lovespoon - Various Black Coloured Pencils 
on Strathmore Drawing Pad Paper

Big Dragon Lovespoon - Various Black Coloured Pencils 
on Strathmore Drawing Pad Paper

After completing the black pencil drawing. I decided to experiment with the drawing as a grisaille under-painting but the result was the same as with the Hobbit Hole Painting, essentially ruining the drawing. As a pattern after a levels adjustment in photoshop it will serve its main purpose.

 Big Dragon Lovespoon - Various Black Coloured Pencils and watercolour
on Strathmore Drawing Pad Paper - detail

Big Dragon Lovespoon - Various Black Coloured Pencils and watercolour
on Strathmore Drawing Pad Paper - detail

This lovespoon contains eight hearts in the design, representing the sons and daughters of the recipient’s extended family. A heart bounded, simple Celtic knot is at the top, and all is tied together with plant and floral sections which will also engineer some extra strength into the design. The love spoon will be carved from New South Wales Scented Rosewood an attractive native Australian timber with an a deep reddish hue.

In subsequent posts I will feature a step by step account of the carving and finishing of this love spoon.

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