Final Product What You'll Be Creating
Dragons are beautiful creatures that, unfortunately, don’t exist. This simple fact makes drawing them quite problematic – is there any way to draw them correctly? I can show you how to draw a dragon head in a realistic style, in every pose in 3D space. You just need to consider the basic structure of a skull shape and work from there.
1. View the Skull in 3D Shapes
Here’s a 3D model of a dragon skull I’ve created for you (you can download it and use as your reference in any 3D software). I’m going to refer to this 3D model to show you the key areas on the skull. Can you identify the upper jaw, the lower jaw and the brain case? You could even pick out the eyeball socket, the nostrils, teeth and horns. If you consider each one of these areas, you can build upon it to design your own dragon. That’s all we’re going to need.
Here’s a plan of the same skull. Simplified plans are the best way to start a drawing. This plan is still too complicated, though. There are too many weird angles you’d need to take care of when turning the head. Let’s simplify it even more!
There it is! As you can see, it’s less accurate – it doesn’t fit the skull’s outline any more. Still, simple shapes make the pose establishment easier, and we can rework them later to suit our needs.
While the upper part’s movement depends on the neck, the lower jaw can move on its own up and down (and sometimes left and right too, but pure carnivores can’t really chew). The circle point shows the axis of rotation we’ll need later. Try looking at other skulls of carnivores for examples of this mechanism, like crocodiles. They have long palates which rotate on a similar axis.
OK, so we know how to draw a dragon head from one side. But if you tried drawing dragons before, you probably guessed how to get this far on your own, as it’s quite intuitive. What you want to learn is how to create a 3D pose, right? So, let’s create 3D blocks of the 2D shapes that the skull is built of.
Basically, we’ve got an oblate ball, a cuboid and an "L" shape laying flat. These blocks will let us build a dragon head!
2. Create a 3D Pose
Before we start, let’s get technical. This tutorial will be based on simplified perspective tips. While it’s not "technically" accurate, it’s a good exercise to practice the thinking in 3D. How you envision a dragon may be different to how I do; that is completely fine. However, we’re going over the 3D mechanics of a skull for the initial part of the tutorial and this theory work will be valuable for your own creations.
Let’s start with a ball. It doesn’t need to be perfectly round, what we do now is just a sketch, a base for something more.
- If you draw traditionally, keep the sketch light and almost invisible (a hard pencil may be good for this phase).
- If you draw digitally, keep the sketch on a layer you’ll be able to delete later.
The arrow shows the direction our dragon will be facing.
Time for the upper jaw. We need to draw the 3D cuboid. Intuitively, we should draw two rectangles. As the mouth is tapered, you’ll need to make the rectangle at the front of the mouth smaller.
The vertical distance should depend on the mouth’s length, while their horizontal distance should depend on the arrow’s direction. It’s only partially right, though.
The one-point perspective cube that we draw in geometry classes is, in fact, an impossible figure. This means you can draw it, but it doesn’t exist in 3D space. Don’t believe me? Just take any cube and try to place it a position to see a perfect square and a bit of two sides at the same time. Surprised?
To make the mouth more natural, we need to tilt one of the sides –
b. The next step will go into more detail about this.
Here comes some math! If you’re familiar with perspective rules, you can skip this step. The rest of you, don’t worry – you don’t need to learn everything by heart, these rules are pretty easy to follow:
- When all the sides are the same lengths and the angles are 90 degrees, we can see a square.
- When you rotate the figure horizontally, the left or right side appears. The more you rotate, the shorter
abecome, so more of the new side is visible.
- When you rotate the figure vertically, the top or bottom appears. The more you rotate, the shorter
dbecome, so more of new side is visible.
- You can’t see both the top and bottom at the same time.
- You can change the angle between sides to see three of them at the same time.
Let’s come back to the dragon. Now create the correct 3D shape. You are free to use any lengths and angles for now, but later you’ll need to match the other elements to them.
We’ll draw the lower jaw now. Do you remember the “L” shape? It should be longer than the upper jaw, with an additional part attached to it. It also needs to be placed right under the upper jaw.
My mouth is going to be tapered, so the part in the front is smaller then the one behind it. Notice that I attach the bigger part to the back of the upper jaw.
Since the lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw, and they both start at the same point, we need to move the back part a bit deeper. To find the correct direction for it, you can draw two lines across the upper jaw’s sides. If your mouth is tapered like mine, you need to pretend it’s a cuboid for a moment.
Now just “slide” the back part across your guides to get the correct distance.
This is the easy part: draw in the rest of the jaw.
The pose is ready! Wait… A dragon with its mouth closed is a peaceful dragon, but what if we want to draw a fearsome muzzle seething with anger? See the next steps if you want to learn the answer.
3. Draw an Open Mouth in 3D Space
If we want an open mouth, we need to draw the rest of the "L" shape. Its back, upper part will be the axis of rotation; we need this axis to define the next pose.
Let’s open the mouth as much as possible (a right angle is the limit, in my opinion). A 90 degree rotation is quite easy to do; the top becomes front side and the back becomes top. The right side just switches the lengths.
We need to find the middle of the mouth. To do this, draw a line across the upper jaw and the rotated block. Then draw a vertical line down. The angle between the two lines is 90 degrees, but perspective alters it.
Imagine a huge circle with a center in the corner of our right angle. Draw only the part that’s between the lines.
An open mouth will be moving along a curve. You can see the front part of the lower jaw will keep narrowing while sliding down, until we stop seeing its front (and the inside is visible instead).
To have the mouth wide open, you need to draw the front of the mouth turned away from you, then connect it as usually with the rotated back part. The lower lip should touch the curve.
Since you know how the closed and fully open mouth looks, you can easily find every transitional position. You just need to imagine the "L" part rotating over the axis, and the mouth sliding over the curve between jaws. Remember to always touch it with the lower lip!
This is how my dragon guide sketch looks. If you’re drawing traditionally and your sketch looks very messy now because of all these lines we don’t need any more, you can trace the sketch on a new page. Keep it light! If you’re drawing digitally, just lower its opacity, lock it, and create a new layer.
4. Form the Basic Structure of the Dragon
Once we have our simple blocks defined, we need to add more complicated blocks to pad out the face. When you draw a dragon without thinking about 3D, you just draw an eye or eyes, nostrils and horns, and that’s all. The whole face is flat and unnatural. You need to plan the face masses first, and then draw all the bulges and depressions. See them in 3D!
Again, it’s still in the sketch phase. It means you need to keep the new lines light (or on a new layer). Let’s draw the upper jaw first. It should be connected to the ball, but you don’t really need to be strict with the shape. Use the pose sketch as a guide, but don’t trace it.
Draw a forehead too. As you can see, I didn’t worry about the model’s size at all. It’s the direction that matters.
Add the brow ridges at a whole forehead’s width. You can even draw them from the nose to the end of the head.
The lower jaw is almost traced, as there’s no room for any changes (yet).
Place the eye in a socket. Where to place it? One helpful tip: herbivores generally have their eyes on both sides of the head for the widest field of vision possible (to see an enemy while eating). Carnivores have their eyes on the front of the face for a precise sight (compare a horse and a lion). Therefore:
- If you want a dragon with gentle look, place its eyes relatively far from the front of the face.
- If you want a murderous beast, place its eyes closer to the mouth.
Can you guess what kind of dragon I drew?
Since all the shapes are nicely defined, we can start drawing for real! Grab a softer pencil or create a new layer and let’s go!
5. Draw the Dragon’s Features
While horns look pretty easy to draw, people tend to have problems with them. Everyone has their own style, but if you want your dragon to look natural (so, more realistic), don’t make them sharp. Horns wear down when used! Also, straight ones look quite artificial, so bend them a little.
Dragons are generally covered with small scales that resemble skin (like snakes), or with big plate-scales. While small scales are very easy (and boring) to draw, plates are what make them look massive and armored. Once you learn how to draw them, you’ll see it’s much faster than covering whole body with a bazillion little ellipses! So, three tips:
- You can imagine a single plate-scale is a hand with three fingers. This hand tries to embrace the surface it’s laying on, so most of the time we’ll see just a half of it (two fingers).
- When the scales grow bigger, they don’t just increase their size – they’re like fractals. It works like a growing tree that gets more branches with a time.
- Scales lay upon each other, but they’re not glued together; when their base is bending, they “open”.
When you draw a scale (or anything made of natural material), it doesn’t need to be perfect. Nature isn’t perfect! Scales aren’t made of plastic; they have been growing for a long time, in the rain and cold; they have been hit and scratched, and that has changed them. (Or, if your dragon is made of adamantium, nothing changed them. Perfection is fine in that case.) Don’t be afraid to raise your pencil and come back to the line you just started – long, smooth lines give a cartoony look. Don’t try to fix your lines either, or you’ll get a mess.
Since we know how the scales work, we can start to dress our dragon. First, we’ll take care of the eyebrows. They look just like tapered cylinders, so it’s easy to imagine how the scales should be placed. Start with the one on the front – the only one that will be fully visible. Then draw another, a little bigger, and so on. Every other scale may be more complicated than the previous one, just as if you were drawing them growing!
Now, place your scales from the nose to the end of the head. This time they’re quite similar, as the surface they’re laying on barely changes its shape. They also can lay flat.
I’m not going to teach you about an eye’s shape, because they can be really different. However, there’s one universal thing: the eye is placed in the eye socket, covered with eyelids, and protected with two big bone masses – the brow ridge and the zygomatic bone. There are two things to remember:
- If dragon’s skin is very thick, the eyelids are probably quite thick too – therefore, when the eye is open, the eyelid will have a strong wrinkle.
- There’s a right angle between the top of the zygomatic bone and the eyeball, so keep that in mind when changing the pose.
This is how I drew the eye:
Time to draw the rest of the mouth. Draw it with your hand shaking – this way you’ll get a lot of interesting shapes, which are so much better than boring smooth lines. Also, can you see the little depression? It’s not required; you can keep your mouth round if you want.
Let’s draw the lower jaw! It’s going to be quite complicated, because of all the teeth and so on, so let’s take it slow. First, draw the front part of the jaw (a shaking hand will help you again). We also need to add this strong jaw muscle that opens the mouth. The bigger the angle of opening, the more stretched the muscles. This tension adds a lot to the picture!
Generally, teeth are going to use the same curve to slide over when the mouth is opening, because the upper and lower ones want to meet – just like the jaws. Also, don’t forget:
- Teeth wear out too! Don’t make them all pointy or they’ll seem unused.
- The kind of teeth tells a lot about your dragon. Should they be like a T-Rex’s, or more like a lion’s? What does it eat, and how does it hunt?
- Dragons can’t expose their gums like wolves, because their skin is much harder, but they still should be visible when the mouth is open.
A tongue is usually plump, so don’t make it flat. It needs to help the huge beast eat quite large things, after all! Points to consider:
- If your dragon can eject its tongue long out of the mouth while roaring, ask yourself: what’s the point of this? I don’t really know any animal that does it, so you need to find a good reason to make it "realistic".
- A forked tongue is an organ of smell. Snakes flick their tongues out all the time and, theoretically, your dragon should do the same if it has a forked tongue. Otherwise, it’s pointless!
The head is almost complete, so let’s just add an element to merge both jaws together. You can use bony wings here, additional horns and spikes, anything you like! Just remember – it all should serve a purpose (for example, to look bigger or more attractive for a potential mate).
So, the head is done! It’s still just a line art, so if you want to learn how to make it more attractive, see the next step.
6. Add a Spark to Your Drawing
We’re going to do the inking now. Digital artists are in a better position here, but traditional markers and ball pens will do too!
Our picture is made of lines of almost the same width. Stress some of them to add importance to the various areas.
Add some darkness to wherever it’s needed. Here, I want to show the difference between the inside and the outside of the mouth.
Cover the horns and teeth with thin curves. They should be thinner than most of the lines that build the picture.
Use the same thin lines to sketch shaded areas. Keep it loose and fast. When you want to darken a place, cross the lines, but don’t change the pencil!
Here is what I’ve got by adding depth to the scales.
Look at your picture and check whether it needs any more contrast. If a place is already covered with lines and you want to make it darker, you can use a bigger brush or softer pencil there.
Awesome Work, You’re Now Done!
You’ve just learnt how to create a 3D pose and draw a convincing dragon head. I hope you liked it! Feel free to come back here any time if you need a quick reminder.