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Picturing a World

Gotch dragon

Last night, tired of political news, I surfed the 'net and found an astonishing collection of dragon images at Tor.com. It goes on and on. I scrolled and scrolled. Most are 20th and 21st C illustrations for fantasy fiction, which vary from cheesy to brilliant. Even the cheesy ones are so professionally executed that if you love dragon pictures, you'll get a kick out of them. Scattered throughout, moreover, are older images from Renaissance Italy to Chinese scrolls to William Blake—and this one by Thomas Cooper Gotch. It stopped me and held me; and this morning it sent me into a variation of Natasha Pulley's writing exercise.

Remember? In Pulley's exercise, you begin by listing five impossible things and go on from there to reach the first paragraph of a fantasy story. What I did instead was start with this image of something impossible and took it through five steps to try to reach a non-fantasy story.
If you want to try it yourself, take five minutes for each:

  1. Jot down the features of the picture that strike you most.
  2. List a few obvious fantasy-story possibilities.
  3. List possible contexts for the picture.
  4. Make a few transmutations from pure fantast to realistic story.
  5. Write a first paragraph.

If you want to see what I did, here's a transcription of what I scribbled down in pencil on a yellow-legal pad. (Incidentally, Gotch meant the picture to be an allegory of innocence and experience, which didn't work at all for me, so I ignored it).

Striking features:

  • blue and gold
  • scaliness of the dragon
  • sideways gaze of the boy (ambivalent, ambiguous)
  • sandy ground—yet not really, fleet and claws don't sink in, no shadows
  • shirt—night shirt? undershirt?
  • thin tongue extended, snake-like, no fire

Fantasy story possibilities:

  • Older sister has flock of trained dragons
  • Boy staring down knight two wants to kill the dragon for glory
  • In some world, dragons of different sizes have gorgeous colors and patterns
  • Real dragon mascots for houses, heraldic

Possible contexts for painting

  • Stand-alone fine art—put where? The living room/nursery in the house of pre-Raphaelite art patrons?
  • One in a series of paintings (maybe for a calendar?) of dragons inspired by butterfly wings
  • Illustration of story, not necessarily exactly like this
  • A jigsaw puzzle

Transmutations possible

  • Shift style to flat Japanese woodcut
  • Pantomime figures for a home or professional Christmas celebration
  • Little boy is real, dragon not.

Paragraph about a down-at-heels theatrical touring company written in four minutes:

  • Alex had never questioned his father's instructions. When he was told to climb up onto the puppet-dragon's head and be lifted high over the stage, he always did. But then the old prop broke and the new one had a long thin nick, which meant he would have to straddled it and rest his chin on top of the dragon's head; and at nine-year's-old, he realized that he would look ridiculous and might fall off.

So now, if you looked at the Tor gallery or have some other picture that pleases, displeases, or niggles at your imagination, where would you go with it? Would these steps help?

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