40% OFF SDCC Prints & 15% off SDCC Ap’s – follow us on IG or FB for Sales and coupon codes!

Painting with Gold Leaf: The Illuminated Dragon

I came into this life with a dislike for dragons… just never vibed with them. As fate would have it my career sprouted and bloomed primarily within the fantasy art genre, wherein powerful dragons were considered THE coolest thing. Fast forward 26 years to 2017, I began making art for my Tokens of Spirit deck. This collection features 56 of the most popular, MtG style tokens. To start, I was provided a comprehensive list of which tokens were most sought after and was then advised that a Dragon (4/4 flying) token just HAD to be included in this deck.

A realization smothered over me. I’d been successfully cornered and had to paint a dragon. This elicited one of those (eyes half-mast) long-belabored-cleansing-breaths, followed by an under-my-breath muttering of, “Ugh. How do I make this interesting to me?” 

Up until that point I’d managed to mostly sidestep illustrating dragons. If for instance a Magic the Gathering job did come along wherein I had to include a dragon, it was usually a character of secondary importance within the piece. 

Early on in my career I gruelingly discovered that, whenever doing an illustration job, it is absolutely imperative to find a way to “care” about it.

Creating art requires sitting in a chair and staring at a piece for many hours, a minimum of 2 days, usually more. Thus, it is essential to find a way to maintain interest in and resonance with the image. For me, getting a paycheck is never enough to keep the inner “I care” fire ignited.

So what are my tactics for morphing less than ideal subject matter into something that will hold my attention?

My Inspiration Tactics

  • Use a model that is a good friend or family member. (That point carries with it an assumption that you like that individual.)
  • Imbue & design the piece around: esoteric motifs, meaningful symbolism, diagramatic elements.
  • Ask yourself, “Is there a beautiful and compelling reason why I want to spend the time to bring this into existence?”
  • Pore over a favorite artists work and use it as a creative springboard. For example does that artist inspire you because of their: design-sense , story telling, composition, color palette, technique, subject matter, medium… ? Experiment with implementing that aspect/s into the piece you’re working on.
  • Paint the image in less than 3 minutes! Haha. I’m kidding… though honestly anything longer than that and I need to find reasons to care. Also, bullet points are fun.
  • Experiment with an entirely new medium or technique.
  • Collaborate with another living artist in which you enjoy good creative chemistry.
  • Utilize gold leaf for decorative or design elements within the painting.

So, can you guess which strategy I used, to make the idea of painting a dragon, appealing? That’s correct. The last one.

It’s no secret I have a love affair with gold leaf. So I gave myself a more extreme challenge of, “Let’s see if I can render this entire dragon using ONLY different varieties of gold or variegated gold leaf– and simultaneously create an illuminated manuscript feel.

See how I tricked myself into having fun with this?! 🙂 

Mediums, Materials & Measurements

I’m happy to report, I was able to employ EIGHT different types of gold leaf (and variegated gold leaf) to bring this luminous, golden dragon to life. The slight cheat I used (regarding rendering the dragon in ONLY gold leaf) was the underside/belly of the dragon. I wanted to insure the belly would remain a light value no matter which way the light reflected on the painting. Thus, I used two variations of pearlescent Kremer watercolor pigments creating a light, illusive, shimmery-goodness feel.

The high-key, soft, pastel looking background is in direct contrast to the intense value, color and texture of the vibrant golds. This area is done in, well…pastel. I rarely use pastel. This medium (on a final piece of art) has to be MUCH more carefully handled, or quickly framed, or set somewhere with a sign in all caps screaming, “DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH IT!” — unlike the fixed nature of acrylic and oil. For instance you can lay an acrylic painting on the floor and walk across it and it’s fine.

I mean, that’s not very nice, but truth be told there are a couple illustrations out of the hundreds I’ve done that elicited that dark desire. No I’m not putting a link to those. That said, in 1995 there was this time a slug meandered its way across my painting. I’d set the art outside my apartment door to offgas the stink of Crystal Clear. You’re obviously asking, “So how did that comic book cover hold up to the slimy trail of a wayward slug?”

My answer. How about you prop your best painting up outside on a warm summer evening and find out? 😀

PRO TIP: Fence off the detailed face area… they head right for it. Moreover, slugs can taste which part of a painting has the highest saturation of blood, sweat and tears invested in it. I digress.

Working up the preliminary design.

Final refined drawing, ready to scan and print.

What is the process of how this piece came together?

  • Design and sketch it in detail on tracing paper parchment.
  • Scan the sketch and print it on Arches Oil Paper.
  • Preserve the white borders of the paper by taping them off with delicate painters tape.
  • I generally start by washing in watered-down acrylic to establish loose midtones and colors. However, in this case I dove right in and painted sections with the milky, gold leaf adhesive followed by laying in one variation of gold leaf at a time.
  • To bring the art to completion I use pastel in the background and fine-tune the edges with sharp, Prismacolor pencils.

The dimensions of this shimmery, gem is about the size you’d slice out of an ancient manuscript, the paper size being 9 x 12″ and the image area measuring 6.5 x 9″.

Final framed art showing the variations of color within in gold leaf

Looking Back

A couple years after I painted this, upon studying some ancient scrolls, it came to my attention that Golden Dragons (male) and Silver Dragons (female) are the good guys! In other words it’s the red and black ones we have to keep an eye on. 🙂

For those that like dragons, and those of us that don’t, this dragon bridges the gap. “I” ended up making friends with this one. How about that?! 🙂

DRAGON” 13×19″ signed PRINTS, Tokens of Spirit TOKENS (foil and non-foil) and PLAYMATS.