About three weeks ago I was approached by Irene Gallo of Tor books to design a creature for a series of called The Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. The creature featured in this short fiction is a cockatrice. We treated this like a concept job and I had the honor of designing the beast from the ground up.
Here are a few of the cleaner sketches from my sketchbook that started to head in the direction I wanted. There are times when I do a lot of mental sketching. When I first read this piece, I let it sit with me for a few days. I mulled over designs in my head and jotted down some really indecipherable scribbles here and there. It's rare that I work like this but sometimes it just fits. I knew right away that I wanted to pull from parrots in the overall shape of the head. (You'll see why when you read the story.) I also referenced the sage grouse, pterosaurs and roosters for this assignment. I wanted my cockatrice to feel unique but also point back to the classic description of the mythological creature: essentially a two-legged dragon or serpent-like creature with a rooster's head.
From these initial pencil scribbles, I moved into photoshop to design the creature at a side view. I tend to design a lot of creatures this way. It offers a whole look at the anatomy and the proportions of a creature, without worrying about complicated poses or perspective. I also wanted to explore the wing design more. I knew I wanted an elongated wrist like that of a pterosaur but I wanted to keep the cockatrice's wings feathered. I felt this would compliment the scaly body and keep it between bird and dragon. To match the cockatrice's environment (no spoilers), I ended up shrinking the overall wing size to indicate a species that is on it's way to being flightless. I also gave it large, strong legs for lots of running and kicking. The large curved beak is well equipped for eating fruits, nuts and large seeds found in its environment. This creature isn't large, smaller than an emu I would imagine, but I wanted it to feel ornery and like something you wouldn't want to really mess with.
After I locked in the initial design of the creature, I needed to find a pose that I liked. I began to scribble out gestures of the cockatrice in poses that I'd imagined it'd exhibit in the wild. I looked to the cassowary and emu for inspiration and ideas. Peacocks also played a big role in the posing of the flapping cockatrice.
Once I found the pose I liked, I decided to embrace scientific approach by offering multiple studies of the creature for the final illustration. This way we can see the cockatrice behaving in ways that help sell it as a creature that could have existed. It also pulls a bit from Todd Lockwood's incredible work on this series.
From there, I followed my usual process and light-traced the sketches onto heavy watercolor paper where I completed the drawings and the final painting. The color piece measures 10x14 inches and the two drawings are each 9x12 inches. The three images were composted together in photoshop.
This piece will debut on Tor.com's with the story from Lady Trent, written by Marie Brennan. It was an absolute pleasure to work on this creature. Big thanks to Irene Gallo for the chance to add to Marie Brennan's wonderful world of dragons and of course to Marie Brennan for taking us there. Check out more from her series here and be sure to read the full story on Tor.com's Fiction Page.