Zoomorphic initials are fascinating drawings and paintings of animals, hybrids and fantastical beasts shaped to create letters in manuscripts. Although the most arguably famous examples are found in the Book of Kells, zoomorphic initials decorate illuminated manuscripts from many regions, countries and periods in art history.
Reference examples in this demonstration are from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts – for more examples enter “zoomorphic” in the search box.
A cursory look at manuscript zoomorphic initials reveals an astonishing range of styles and techniques that can be loosely grouped into three categories:
- full initials composed entirely of a zoomorphic construction (Harley 3052 f. 3)
- partial initials combining zoomorphic elements with parts of the letter (Lansdowne 383 f. 166)
- decorated or inhabited letters with zoomorphic creatures (Arundel 490 f. 91)
In this demonstration, we’ll construct and draw a very simple full zoomorphic dragon initial “C”.
Manuscript Zoomorphic “Dragon” References:
- Arundel 100 f. 1 – two dragons, initial “Q”
- Harley 2645 f. 1v – dragon-like creature, initial “S”
- Harley 1662 f. 104 – fully painted zoomorphic dragon
What you need:
- graph paper
- pencil and eraser
- tracing paper
- fine and medium point markers (e.g. Sakura Pigma Micron, Staedtler Pigment Liner)
- paper suitable for pen and ink drawing
First we’ll use the graph paper and pencil to work out the basic outline and then transfer the design onto drawing paper to ink in the details.
Draw a “C” on the graph paper.
Draw lines around the center “C” line – this will be the dragon “body”.
Sketch in a large oval at the top for the dragon head, a smaller oval for the tail, and a large oval down the side for a wing and foot.
Draw shapes for the head, tail, wing and foot.
Tip: Use the graph squares to help the draw the shapes by following the lines in the example.
Erase the construction lines, then add a few scallops to the bottom of the wings and extend the lines.
We now have a basic outline to copy onto tracing paper and transfer to the drawing paper.
You can either ink in the outline first, or do that as the last step. These steps do not necessarily have to be done in order – whatever fits your drawing style.
Starting at the back of the head, ink in the body to the end of the tail leaving a border on each side.
Add as many or as few details to head, wing and foot as you prefer – I’ve added a few details lines to the head and wings, claws to the toes, and a few head details including teeth:
Use the fine marker to add dots in the border area, and we’re done!
Once you have drawn out a basic structure, try experimenting with various details, patterns and colors to recreate a particular style, draw inspiration from manuscripts, or create something completely unique!