March 5, 2019

Creature Collections: Dracopedia

        As work continues apace on my own creature collection, it’s time for another review of some of the cool books already available.  Today I’m looking at three books by the same author/illustrator.  The premise of the Dracopedia books by William O’Connor is a blend between the genres of “how to draw” guides and “field guides” to mythical creatures.  In some ways these two genres are contradictory because instructions for drawing have to mention that you’re making things up, while field guides claim that you’re reporting what has really been seen in the world.  I think O’Connor does a surprisingly good job at the uneasy balance between the two ways of presenting mythical creatures.  All the Dracopedia books follow the format of presenting a creature and the “facts” about it, followed by a break-down of the process O’Connor used to create his illustration.  Most of his illustrations are done with a pencil sketch scanned into the computer and then painted digitally.
        The first Dracopedia book is subtitled A Guide to Drawing the Dragons of the World, and is organized as thirteen families of dragon, each with its biology, habitat, history, and different species, followed by the drawing lesson.  O’Connor’s illustrations are beautifully detailed and lifelike, although they tend to be a little too monochromatic for my idea of perfection.  His natural history is well thought out and includes lots of good information, and it would have pleased my mythical-field-guide-loving children very much back in the day.  My one caveat is that O’Connor does indulge in a bit of mythical revisionism, reinterpreting as dragons all sorts of creatures that, in my opinion, are their own separate families.  This includes quetzalcoatl (which has now become somewhat standard as a dragon species in field guides), sea serpent, and hydra, but also the claim that the kilin is an Arctic dragon, the salamander is a species of basilisk (which in turn is a type of dragon), and tales of fairies and will-o’-the-wisps are really based on sightings of dragons.  This irked my purist heart a bit!  On the other hand, I really enjoyed O’Connor’s inclusion of the tiny feydragons, as well as riding dragons, which he calls dragonettes.
        The second book appears to be Dracopedia: The Great Dragons, but my library system doesn’t have it, so I can’t tell you about it and we move on to…
        The third book is subtitled The Bestiary and broadens its scope to 26 mythical creatures selected, after my own heart, as one for each letter of the alphabet.  Each creature has a section on history, followed by the art demonstration.  This time the art demos include a fair amount about concept sketches, and it’s interesting to see how the artist tried out a few different ideas for the creature and the composition of the piece, before selecting one to complete.  O’Connor selects creatures from around the world, including several of the oddities from European heraldry, but he definitely gives them his own spin and interpretations.  He has a tendency to stick wings on everything, including the chimera, enfield, and manticore.  I get it - everything’s cooler with wings - and I certainly
can’t complain about his wanting to reimagine things, as I’m busily reimagining things in my own bestiary, but some of his reinterpretations go a little too far for me.  They also end up with a number of the creatures looking a little samey, with no fewer than seven winged lion-and/or-horse things.  These criticisms should not be taken as too damning, though; on the whole this is an excellent book, with loads of wonderful content to satisfy the lover of mythical creatures.  I especially love the way he’s done the questing beast and the xenobeast.  (Fun note: out of the entire alphabet, O’Connor and I share only four creatures!  Although a few of his others were on my short list.)
        The fourth book is Dracopedia: Legends, and is organized around thirteen famous dragon legends from Europe and Asia.  Each story is retold, followed by the art demonstration, which includes a nice section on “Research and Concept Design.”  O’Connor assigns each of these legendary dragons to one of the families he defined in the first Dracopedia book.  Again, don’t look to this book for faithful retellings to satisfy the scholarly purist, but take it as a rip-roaring collection of monster adventures and illustrations, and enjoy.

[Pictures: Fronstispiece from Dracopedia: Legends by William O’Connor, 2018;
Feydragon Biology, from Dracopedia by O’Connor, 2009;
Questing Beast, from Dracopedia: The Bestiary by O’Connor, 2013;
Xenobeast, from Dracopedia: The Bestiary by O’Connor, 2013.]

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