It all started when the local Chinese buffet changed their regular Chinese zodiac placemat for a different one. Of course, all Chinese buffet Chinese zodiac placemats are printed in red and gold and have dragons on them, and there are only about five different designs. Every Chinese buffet uses one or the other of them, which gets so familiar to regular diners that a strange dragon looking up at them over the lo mein and peanut butter chicken can’t help but attract some attention. And I’d never seen this particular dragon before.
I liked him so much, I tore him off the placemat and put him in the back of my notebook to take home, where I eventually taped him into the inside cover of my current hardcover sketchbook. I was particularly taken by his ears, which have a neat little feeler or tentacle attached to the lobe.
I’ve always been fascinated by dragon characters in stories (at least the ones that are intelligent and subtle, rather than brute beasts or monsters), and particularly by their human and partially human transforms. It makes perfect sense that a character as powerful and magical as a dragon would be able to take a human shape and go about his or her business privately. My own dragon characters can all do this, but they often have certain key features that they cannot change and which mark them as dragons to anyone who is paying attention. Or maybe it’s “won’t change” rather than “can’t change”, since dragons all have pretty enormous egos.
Before I left the restaurant, I sketched out this transformed dragon with the placemat dragon ears on the back of another (clean) placemat.
I don’t usually carry my pencil case full of actual drawing tools with me when I go out on everyday errands like a random Saturday lunch, so I had to use the ballpoint pen I keep in my pocket to write in my notebook.
This sketch, like all quick sketches, is kind of a mess both physically and artistically. But also like all quick sketches, it has a lively, lifelike quality that comes from being unplanned, and I liked it enough to keep it. It ended up taped inside the big sketchbook too; you can see the scalloped edge of the placemat at the bottom of the image.
Like a slacker, I forgot to note the date, so I am unsure of when I made it. But it was at least a week before the drawing below, which is dated, so February of this year is a good guess.
This saucy little dragon peering over his wire rimmed spectacles (no doubt they’re blank glass and he just wears them as part of his nerdy-cool look) is almost certainly going to be a character for something.
I drew this finished drawing based on the sketch a few days later as my drawing of the day. While this drawing has its flaws (to start with, it’s tilted very slightly up and to the right, which is because I drew it in my lap rather than at the drawing board, and one ear is larger and wider than the other, which is a plain old mistake) it is still a better drawing in every logical way than the rough sketch. But somehow the sketch does a better job at capturing the vital qualities of life and personality.
This happens way more often than anyone wants to admit. The first sketch, or the first sketch that works, is often the best drawing you ever make of a character because it’s the freshest. All of the finished drawings that come afterwards are always efforts to recapture that freshness in a more polished form. The only thing you can do is keep that first sketch handy, and look back at it every time.
The next time we went to the Chinese buffet they were back to their usual placemat. I’ve never seen the dragon with the ears again, except in my sketchbooks.