Diving into our imaginations at Dragon Masters camp

Diving into our imaginations at Dragon Masters camp

I had the joy of starting off the new year in a fun way: by leading a “Dragon Masters” camp for tweens.

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The camp was hosted by the Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC) and involved sculpting dragon scales, painting gemstones, drawing fantastical creatures, and—of course—writing about dragons, too!

One of the best aspects of this three-day camp is that I had only 15 students, which meant that we could really immerse ourselves in the activities and I had a lot of one-on-one time with each one of the kids. Many of them had worked with me in the past, so it was a fun way to reconnect with them.

“I Am” poetry

The first activity we worked on was a pair of point-of- view poems. Students brainstormed two characters, one a thief trying to steal something from a dragon’s lair, and the other a dragon who was being threatened by the theft. The students wrote one poem from each perspective.

To help with this activity, we sculpted our own dragon scales, prompting many of the students to choose this as the item that the thief would steal from the creature. Of course, the students had to come up with a reason for the theft and the response from the dragon.

One thing about sculpting, is that it’s good thinking time for writers! While the kids sculpted, they could work out some ideas for their writing. But, of course, the sculpting project in itself was a lot of fun.

Sculpting dragon scales

Here are some photos of the scales in progress. We started with plastic shapes cut from a soda bottle, then plastered them. Some students opted to sculpt ridges or shapes into their design; others decided to do a flat surface, leaving the detailing for the next phase.

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We actually had to let the scales dry overnight, but by the next morning they were ready for the students to add more detail by bejweling them (if they chose). By using acrylic gems, the students were able to add intricate detail and give their scales texture. By using the strips of acrylic gems (available at any dollar store), you can gain some uniformity, too.

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Afterwards, we painted the scales with mod podge, to help bind everything together.

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The last step was painting. I find that painting everything with a black base provides a rich undercoat; once this coat is dry, students can dry brush on a variety of metallic colors to help achieve that dragonish feel.

Of course, each student had a very specific idea for what their dragons looked like, or the type of environment they lived in, so their scales were design to match these concepts.

Here are a few of the completed projects:

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Developing a story

After the students had explored the point-of-view poems, I had them choose one of the points of view, either the dragon or the thief, and then develop that perspective into a longer, more conventional story.

The poems were more about capturing character emotion, but the story provided the students with an opportunity to flesh out a plot.

I led the students in some brainstorming exercises and provided them with some vocabulary words to help invigorate their stories. (Honestly, I’m tired of my students overusing the word “run” so we worked hard on developing a list of alternate ways to describe how characters such as dragons and thieves might move.)

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Gems of sorcery

One of the other projects that we worked on was painting glass cabochons to look like magical gems. The idea here was that these gems could be found in a dragon’s lair or a character could already be in possession of them and use them to train or communicate with a dragon.

The project is pretty simple; all you have to do is paint on the backside of the cabochons with fingernail paint. Abstract designs work well and are easy to do, though some of my students tried their hand at painting dragon eyes.

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Welcome to the Dragon Races

One of the challenges of teaching a camp is making sure students always have something to work on. Everyone creates at a different pace, and I like to have everyone work organically, which means instead of developing a checklist of projects that MUST be completed, I just have a cauldron of projects to choose from once we start getting close to the end.

For the final day of our camp, I brought in my own custom-made dragon eggs to inspire extra stories about dragon’s hatching.

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And, finally, for those students who had written, sculpted, and painted everything I had them finish off by imagining there was a dragon race coming up and had them illustrate posters.

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This turned out to be a really successful camp. I want to thank the organizers and my two assistants, Jamie and Chelsea, who helped the kids work on their art projects and did a lot of the clean up. Jamie and Chelsea have been students of mine in the past and it’s really gratifying to see them step into a different role.

Next step? We’ve collected all the students’ writing and drawings and we’ll be publishing them in a short anthology.

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A new addition to the dragon’s nest

A new addition to the dragon’s nest

I have been building dragon eggs for a couple of years now, but I recently took on the challenge of crafting a giant one. I originally wanted to build an egg so that I could use it as reference in a book I’m working on (not the MAIN book I’m working on, but a side project).

I realized that my eggs were all too small—I wanted a model that would be the exact same size as the one my characters would have to deal with in the book.

So, I hunkered down over spring break and set to work . . . Here’s all the stages, starting with the raw materials: a giant plastic Easter egg shell, acrylic jewels, and plaster.

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I started by plastering. This is the same type of material that doctors use for casts, but you can buy it at most art stores. I cut the plaster sheets into manageable strips then begin forming designs on the shell.

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The plaster dries quickly, but can snap off if you’re not careful. A coat of mod-podge does wonders to keep it intact.

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Once I was done with the plastering, I began the bejeweling phase, using a variety of different sizes and colors—the color variation doesn’t actually matter, because everything gets painted over at the end.

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I like to start with a black coat of paint, then build up color afterwards.

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I chose metallic greens for the final color, so started dry-brushing over the black undercoat.

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Here’s the final product, sitting in my studio and shown next to an average hen’s egg, to show scale!

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And here’s four of my dragon eggs, showing the different sizes, colors, and patterns.

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The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

As a middle-grade fantasy author, a big part of my personal process is bringing my worlds to life through prop-building. It’s also something I love bringing to the classroom.

A recent project I’ve worked on with two different creative writing classes for tweens and teens is something I call “The Dragon and the Thief.” In this series of workshops, we build dragon scales then write a series of pieces about two adversarial characters.

The first set of writing is a pair of poems. The first one, “I am a Thief,” is from the perspective of a character who wants to climb the mountain to snatch a dragon’s scale.  The second one, “I am a Dragon,” is from the perspective of the fantastical beast who is being pilfered. To get the students started, I have them work on a couple of brainstorming sheets.

Of course, some students choose to do their own brainstorming in their notebooks:

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Afterwards, the students choose the perspective that they feel most connected to, and write a short story.

And, of course, along the way, we build the scales themselves. These are fairly simple to craft, though they do demand some time and patience.

The first step is to cut out some basic scale shapes from soda bottles. Then it’s a matter of using plaster to “sculpt” around them. Depending on what you want, you can just simply leave the surface flat and smooth, or sculpt in ridges.

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This is where the patience comes in; after this stage, you just have to wait for them to dry! At this stage, the scales should look like the ones below, with a gentle curve (which you get naturally from the soda bottle).

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The next stage is to texturize the scales by adding acrylic gems (though other materials could work, too). Once the gems are glued down, we then paint the scales with mod podge, which helps bind everything together.

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Then we need more patience, to let everything dry . . . but once that happens, then it’s just down to painting. I usually recommend painting the whole scale black for a base, then dry brushing metallic paint overtop to achieve the desired color and texture.

Here is a gallery of the scales that my students have produced. I think they look pretty darn amazing!

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The dragon hatchery expands

I’m continuing my work as an artist-in-residence with a group of teens at a local specialized learning center. A key goal of the residency is to provide a safe and fun place where the participants can create and do some art therapy.

In the first few weeks, we worked on building and sculpting dragon scales. This quickly migrated into the creation of dragon eggs—a far more ambitious project, and one that requires a great deal of patience.

The students have shown that patience and have enjoyed coming up with the styles, textures, and shapes to go with their eggs. There are many different approaches to this project, as is shown in the photos below . . .

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Many of the students have ambitious ideas and plans for their eggs, so there has been a lot of problem-solving required. Depending on the student’s plan, I’ve had to go and fetch very specific materials or tools to help them achieve their vision. As part of this process, we’ve decided that we should now build “nests” for these eggs. That’s going to be tricky, since I’m sure everyone is going to have a completely different plan . . . but oh, well! That’s what I’m here for.

A Magical Morning in Old Shanghai

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After spending a week in Korea to teach a creative writing camp, my wife Marcie and I have arrived in Shanghai for a bit of R&R.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_05_-_The_Blue_Lotus.jpgThis is our first time in this city, but it’s a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ve associated Shanghai with adventure since I was kid, which I think is largely thanks to Hergé’s graphic novel, Tintin and the Blue Lotus . . . not to mention the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Since Shanghai has been so romanticized in my imagination, it had a lot to live up to! Marcie knows how I’m wired, so she made sure to pre-book us a hotel just a few minutes away from Old Shanghai. This is a traditional section of the city, filled with beautiful architecture, history, and culture.

We headed over to Old Shanghai mere moments after dropping our luggage off in our room. This was mid-afternoon, and the place was teeming with tourists. We found the sights, sounds, and smells intoxicating. Incessant vendors were vying for our yuan, plying us with everything from cheap knock-off watches to luxurious jade necklaces. And, of course, everything in between.  We found that we were shoulder to shoulder in many of the quaint alleyways!

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The queues for the food stands were seemingly endless and there was a horde of people at the entrance to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Marcie and I looked at each other and knew at once what we needed to do: come back first thing in the morning.

We enacted our plan, arriving by 9am the following day. By comparison to our experience the previous day, we felt like we were ruling the old city. The avenues were clear, the lines absent.

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We headed straight for the Yuyuan Garden and at once stepped into a magical realm. I cannot express how much we love this place. Here is a perfect marriage between nature and human architecture, a harmony that is expressed through one scenic sight after another. Every time we turned a corner, we found ourselves gasping.

In one spot, a dragon swims across the top of a stone wall. In another, a spritely creature peers from the lip of a roof tile. Turn a corner and you find yourself glimpsing a lion state through a whimsically-shaped doorway. A walkway meanders across a serene pond where giant carp tipple near the surface. Rock formations with “spy holes” grant amazing perspectives of the pagodas and pavilions.

It’s hard to put into words, and the photos also barely do it justice. But, below, are a few images from our exploration . . .

First of all, I loved all the various doorways. I do not (yet) know the symbolism of the different shapes, but they were a variety of kinds. Aesthetically, my favourite one was what I call the “ice cream” doorway.

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Water is an important aspect of the garden’s balance. Many gates, bridges, and canals are featured throughout the space.

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Bats are a lucky symbol in Chinese architecture. You can find them on door latches, window shutters, and roof tiles.

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Throughout China (and the world, for that matter), you can find the pair of lion threshold guardians. The male has one paw raised and placed on a sphere. The female has her paw raised and placed on a cub on his back. I saw many of these on a previous trip to Beijing and there are many throughout Shanghai as well.

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Below are photos of a pair of stylized lions. They look different than the traditional ones, but the key elements (the sphere and the cub) are still there. The male represents the external world; the female, the internal.

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At one point during our explorations, I spotted Marcie sitting in a quaint pavilion . . . daydreaming, I suppose!

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I was quite intrigued by the holes through the rocks, which afforded interesting views of the garden architecture. So many children’s books feature items such as “seeing stones”, so I kept peeking through these natural windows to contemplate the garden details.

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I loved the sculptures that decorated the walls and roof tiles. I was especially enamoured with this dragon wall. You can imagine this magnificent creature oscillating along the wall. His claws are splayed, his maw is open, and below his beard is a delightful frog. This was my favourite place in the entire garden.

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Here is a traditional guardian figure decorating a roof. You can find these details throughout the garden.

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And, finally, here is our “selfie” in the garden, gazing into a mirror at once spot near the entrance of the garden.

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Of course, it goes without saying that we highly recommend this garden. Get up early to visit Old Shanghai and enjoy a magical morning!

 

Designing dragon scales

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I spent the last few weeks building a dragon egg prop. I had so much fun with this project, and I had enough material left over at the end of it, that I decided to experiment with making dragon scales.

I began by cutting shapes out of a plastic soda bottle, which had a natural curve well-suited for the shape of the scales. I decided that I wanted the scales to be heavy and sturdy, so experimented with different ways to achieve this.

For two of the scales, I shrouded the plastic base with a layer of plaster. For the third one, I glued a layer of leather on top. The leather one still seemed to flimsy, so I coated the back with plaster to give it extra weight.

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Once the plastering was done, I coated the scales in modpodge, which helped to smooth out any imperfections.

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For one of the plastered scales along with the leather one, I decided that I would just proceed to painting. For the third one however, I decided to texturize it with acrylic beads. After this was done, I gave it another coat of modpodge.

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Then it was time to paint!

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Here are the final scales. The gold one, which was just painted plaster, didn’t really turn out, but was kind of my base experiment anyway. I’m quite happy with the leathery (green) scale and the more armored (red) one. Into the museum of magical artifacts they go!

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Advanced dragon egg building, Part 1

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Earlier this year, I built a smallish dragon egg, and chronicled the process. While I was quite happy with the result of that project, I always knew that was just a prototype, and that I wanted to try a bigger and more complicated version.

So, after wrapping up a busy touring and speaking schedule, I find myself with some studio time, and a bad cold to boot. That combination (I find it impossible to write when I’m this stuffed up) was enough to spurn me onto the bigger dragon egg project.

For the base of the egg, I used a plastic form that I bought at the local craft store over the Easter holidays. It came covered in glitter, so it was a bit of a chore to get all that off (and my wife says she’s still finding glitter on the front patio where I did the deed).

There is an unsightly seam in the egg, but I’m not too concerned about that; it’ll be unnoticeable after my sculpting and greebling.

The first step has been to try out my idea for adding ridges to the egg. For this part, I’m using plaster strips. It’s essentially the same material they use to build casts for broken limbs. I’ve been getting it to bond to the plastic shell by adding in some glue.

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I was fairly happy with the result, but I wanted to get a stronger inkling of what the final would look like. So I bejeweled a section of the egg and then coated the area with a thick layer of modgepodge; this has smoothed out the ridges slightly and helps hold the greebling in place.

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Everything looks good, so now it’s time to continue building ridges . . .