There’s a saying that goes, “You should never meet your heroes.” I have been lucky to meet a lot of the heroes of my youth, and meeting some of them hasn’t gone well I have never regretted it. Several of them were artists for Magic: The Gathering. Their art was a major part of my childhood and my growing love of fantasy art that led to me going to art school. One of those heroes was William "Bill" O'Connor, who is no longer with us, having passed away this time last year. He was an accomplished fantasy artist, working on games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Most important to me though, he was a great person.
I met Bill at Gencon in 2006. I was in my second year of getting my Fine Art degree and was talking to every artist that would give me the time. I wanted to know how they painted,why they painted digital versus traditional, how they sketched, what brushes they used; literally anything that popped up in my head. He let me ask them all, and he took the time to really answer all of them. I can’t express how much that meant to me back then and how much it still means to me today; I wish everyone had the chance to meet and interact with Bill as I did.
In addition to his work on games, Bill was also known for drawing and painting dragons; he was author and illustrator for a great series of books called Dracopedia. In honor of Bill I wanted to try and give a similar treatment to a Magic: The Gathering dragon. Bill would take a dragon concept and flesh it out like it’s a real creature and write about encountering it and studying it over a few pages. Then he would typically go into how he drew the dragon and the process. For this article I’m just going to do the encounter and study parts.
As I’ve said in previous articles, some of my favorite art is from the concept phase, so I went looking for a concept Magic Art dragon piece. And I found a beautiful one by Steve Prescott from the Innistrad set concept push. Here you get to see how one piece of concept work can be interpreted by multiple artists, including myself. Artwork not credited is done by me and all of the details come from what little I have gleaned from cards, articles and books, but are not canon. So here goes.
Innistrad Dragon Field Journal
Entry the first:
This is my first trip time visiting Innistrad, and I have to say that this plane does not agree with me. The feeling of something watching you seems to follow everywhere you travel on this plane. While I have no hard feelings for or against necromancy as an art, and have taken to the study of such creatures at times, I find the prevalence of undead on Innistrad to be more of hindrance than a point of study.* To say nothing of the vampires, demons, or the recent problems with eldrazi and mad angels. Though it would be interesting to observe if the mutations caused by the eldrazi presence affected every creature on this plane including my reason for being here.
I come in search of the elusive dragons of Innistrad. Sightings of which are extremely rare and potentially dangerous, as the dragons here are known to hunt and kill any creature, man or beast, that happens upon their territory. There is some evidence that there are certain dragons that prefer to hunt less human fare. These are seen as a sign of good luck and are known as Moonveil dragons.
"Their hearts beat, their lungs draw breath, and they have one true form. I count them as allies of the living."
Entry the second:
As this is my first time here, and I don’t know the area, I procured the services of a guide, known only as Mac. The mountains of Geier Reach are located within vampire controlled Stensia, and serve as the home of dragons. The place I need to go is in the most remote parts of the province. I sometimes wonder how stable my guide is for him to be willing to take us into this place. I don’t have many options though, since he was the only one who would take the job.
Entry the third:
Traveling through Stensia there was little opportunity to question natives about the local dragon population; the people of Stensia are not overly communicative. They were terse almost to a fault, but I did meet someone who had a drawing of a stained glass window showing a dragon that his father had done. I did my best attempt to reproduce it. I found the sketch odd in that Geier Reach rarely ever sees the moon due to the ever present cloud cover; my guess is that it is not from Geier Reach. The father had since passed away so there were no other details. The only other thing anyone told us about the native dragons was this advice:
“If it comes for you, die boldly or die swiftly—for die you will.”
Entry the fourth:
It appears that their advice would prove accurate. We spent days awaiting any sign of a dragon. Fourteen days of my tour guide telling the same story of his friends getting corrupted by eldrazi over and over again was beginning to wear thin. On Day 15 it happened, we chanced a sighting of a dragon. I will admit what happened next was my fault. Despite my guides warnings, I approached closer to get a better look as I was sketching. It was such a magnificent creature, but unfortunately it was not of the Moonveil variety. I have since learned that natives call it a “Balefire Dragon”.
The balefire dragon did not take well to our presence and attacked. Mac and I attempted to flee and as the maxim goes “I don’t have to be faster than the dragon, I just have to be faster than you”; and I was faster than Mac. His expertise and sacrifice allowed me to glean the knowledge needed for my study. After getting what details I could, I planeswalked away before I too was eaten.
I do not know if the dragon I saw was indicative of a large or small member of the Innistrad species of dragon. It was roughly 30 meters in length with an approximate wingspan of 28 meters. They are native to the most remote reaches of Geier Reach Mountains within Stensia on the plane of Innistrad. Information shows that in the mountains they most likely maintain the position of the apex predator. Flight, size and ferocity mean that few creatures can contend with the Innistrad dragon.
Sightings of the dragons are exceedingly rare. Meaning there is little information about their mating habits or the size of their egg clutches. The dragon species’ egg clutches must be small or there is some other reason for the scarcity, such as predation or environmental.
One of the more interesting features of the Innistrad dragon is its wings. Unlike most dragon species the skin of the wing, or patagium, does not connect to the body. Instead it stretches between the metacarpals and phalanges. In this they remind me almost of insect wings, especially with the wing supports creating a pattern that resembles stained glass art.
Several features of the Innistrad dragon serve as natural camouflage. The dark coloration fitting for the mountains of Stensia and the patterns serving to fit in with the human made architecture. I imagine it could go unnoticed perched on a cathedral spire until it strikes out at it’s prey.
I want to thank Steve Prescott for the help making sure the drawings I did were close to his original ideas for the dragon, and for letting me use his “MacReady”* sketch. Here’s the full MacReady sketch, may he rest in peace.
If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you check out William O’Connor’s books, they’re great reads and have great tips on drawing and painting dragons. The world is a little less awesome, but here’s to keeping Bill’s memory alive.