Making a wyvern soar

In the past months I put away my RRPGE endeavor for some experimenting with digital art, and as it turned out, English language writing. In short, I sketched up a brass wyvern (a variant of dragon with four limbs: wings and hind legs), and it got me a bit carried away. So a story was born, and I also looked in the matter of making these large beings actually fly which is not a simple thing to accomplish.

Brass wyvern
Brass wyvern
The wyvern (not entirely airworthy but looks good)

Drawing the image by itself has some novelties compared to my older works. First, this is the first larger attempt with a tablet, showing some types of detailing which otherwise might have been impossible (I did crazy stuff before with mouse, but I wouldn't do scales with it in these quantities). The second maybe is that it has slightly better use of color than my older works. I have to admit I didn't get any better at it: I still end up failing bad, creating washed out stuff, but here I laboriously fixed that up by digital means at certain key stages of my work so the final result is acceptable.

Otherwise challenging parts were the perspective, anatomy, and gathering references to get things right. For the wyvern himself, strange it may sound, I didn't actually need too much: I mostly used my own body, and some human anatomy charts to figure out where things are, and bats for the components relating flying. The background and the plane wing was more interesting for me in this regard. The fiddling with the perspective is visible on the creation animation below (and also how I post-corrected coloring):

Wyvern creation
Wyvern creation
The creation of the wyvern image

Making a large fantasy creature soar

The especially fun part was when, mostly after the wyvern's shape was established, I went out for researching for flight, how large flying creatures existed, and what they relied upon for their flight. I found the largest pterosaur ever flown had a monstrous 11 meters wingspan (the Quetzalcoatlus, the wiki article even has a nice size comparison chart there), and the largest flying bird wasn't too small either with 7 meters (the Pelagornis Sandersi). For a huge wing-webbed wyvern, the pterosaur is a more decent starting point.

Flight isn't a simple thing to accomplish. We might have large planes, but those aren't suitable for designing a living creature. The primary problem is energy: they have very little reserves compared to a plane which uses preprocessed concentrated fossil fuel. The wing-flapping nature isn't really a problem here (it is even believed to be more efficient than "conventional" engines within it's operational limits with the appropriate wing design). The problem is that for the above engines' power output is measured in ten thousands of horse power units while the dragon or wyvern is unlikely to have more than at best five. Considering these, one could maybe use the Solar Impulse (Sun powered aircraft) or the Snowbird, which latter is even more appropriate since it is an ornithopter (wing-flapping aircraft) experiment propelled by human muscle power (you can also watch it flying).

OK, so then let's get back to pterosaurs, wyverns, and how to actually fly. First thing, if you looked in the articles linked above, you should have realized they would prefer gliding instead of active flight. So the principles of designing sailplane wings also apply to them. However with biological constructs it is not trivial to get something similar. A good paper on the pterosaur wings is this one (Flight in slow motion: aerodynamics of the pterosaur wing by Colin Palmer) which briefly covers many aspects of the wing design: even if you don't understand the terminology in-depth, it could show how the bone and flesh membraned wing could be constructed to achieve flight. You might also want to take a brief tour in airfoil design, but to know the vague shape of a preferred sailplane airfoil is sufficient.

Interesting unique components of the pterosaur wing mentioned in the paper are the propatagium (front wing membrane, equivalents also exists on bats & birds), the pteroid bone (which stretches the propatagium taut, also visible on my wyvern above), and the possibility of pneumatized tissue (air sacs) which may help forming a proper, thick airfoil. The main challenge of designing the wing is "hiding" the supporting arm and finger bones well within so they don't deteriorate flight performance (the thinner bones would be the better, but that sacrifices structural strength, so it is a trade-off). Air sacs are described not contributing much, but it depends. The wing shape used in the paper (and several other places) might be wrong: you may want to check this site on the matter offering lots of content, and from this point, a different, very well supported theory on pterosaur wing shapes, which are even more sailplane-like (and with these, the air sacs might also function better). For the pteroid bone and the limitations relating it's placement, this paper (Biomechanics of the unique pterosaur pteroid by Colin Palmer & Gareth J. Dyke) might be interesting.

Since fantasy creatures such as wyverns and dragons might well be fused from many sources, even using some creative properties, it might also worth looking in bird and bat related articles for gathering resources. For bats a particular interesting feature is that they have tiny muscles in their wing membrane which helps shaping it during their flight for better performance. For birds the Wikipedia article on flight provides some very decent information on wing designs, some of which are possible to be adapted to membraned wings as well.

Being here there is one additional very important thing I should mention. Dragons are NOT blimps! Let this sink deep in you. Write it in a notes like a hundred times. There are just too many authors depicting them having hydrogen or helium in their body cavities to give some lift. The problem is that the weight of one cubic meter of air is about 1.3 kilograms, and no more. So you have to displace a whole cubic meter of air to win 1.3 kilograms. Even a Quetzalcoatlus (about 250 kilos) couldn't have so much volume in cavities! Not even if the whole wing was pneumatized for a proper airfoil. So in short, the effect is absolutely negligible.

Relating dragons an another problematic area is the chest where the anatomy of the forelegs and the wings should be fused. It is not likely possible. You might want to read How to draw a dragon by Renee LeCompte *Maggock* (this is a quite old article apparently mirrored by several sites). He only considered bird anatomy (large keelbone, furcula), and not that of bats or pterosaurs which are different (smaller keel, normal collarbones in the case of bats) and might be easier to be fused in some acceptable manner. However they all need(ed) huge masses of flight muscles, with all these, it is unlikely they could fly if were of sufficient size to be called "dragons".

An another common problem regarding airworthiness is the provision of adequate flight control surfaces. To understand this problem, take a brief look at aircraft principal axes (to see what pitch, jaw and roll is), then in how conventional aircrafts solve the problem of controlling. Usually flying animals have no direct control for jawing, but have for pitching and rolling. They achieve jawing by combining rolling and pitching. All flying creatures roll in a similar manner: they can bank by twisting their arms, achieving the same effect like aircraft operating the ailerons. So basically if it has wings, it can roll. The problematic part is pitching. Let's summarize how it works in either of the flying animals:

  • Birds pitch using their tail.
  • Bats have their wing membrane descending to their legs and tail. Using those they can pitch. They are active flyers though, not relying on this that much like gliders.
  • Pterosaurs by one of the theories had the membrane descending to the legs, by the other theory, they had webs on their hind legs between the hip and ankle. Either of those could be sufficient for pitching.
  • Earlier pterosaurs had long tails which had a small control surface (it is debated how it attached though). This also could have been used for pitching.

The role of the tail is especially important during take-off and landing. With dragons a frequent design flaw seems to be not providing them with any surface adequate for pitching (the wing webs usually don't extend down to the legs, neither they have any other surface for adequate control). If you like dragons, you should by the way remember How to Train Your Dragon: wasn't it especially based on the loss of a flight control surface or was it?

So guess that's about all I had on my mind on this subject. It definitely could keep one occupied for a "short" while, but let's hope for bringing more airworthy wyverns and dragons then!

Writing in English

Well, drawing a wyvern so got me quite inspired to try. I am not an English native, and it might be quite obvious after reading this far (I hope it isn't, though).

I mostly like world-building aspects, to flesh out some environment, culture or civilization. To get any of these conveyed, some lengthier piece is usually necessary, where there is ample space to detail, to introduce the world even if that world is quite unique. In the case of the wyvern story, I picked simply the idea of having them in today's environment, our civilization as an animal needing conservation. It was logical for me since I read a lot on these (such as Joy Adamson and George Adamson's field works with their lions and cheetahs), and volunteering on narrow gauge railroad, I also have some slight ideas how some related concepts work out in the reality.

It was fun to write, several parts of the story simply called for writing, the light epic behind the surface of field diary like narration forming as I progressed. That was done in relatively little time, however to get it polished took a while.

The story components themselves took many iterations to arrange: the first draft had many very loosely connected non-interrelated wyvern stuff which demanded effort to be sorted out, moved in intelligible sections, talks, told by speakers whose character they fit while still retaining the overall coherence, not missing anything critical from the point of the actual story, but dropping elements which could be lost without harm (of course retaining as much as possible).

English language had it's own challenges. I have a very limited vocabulary also with very limited knowledge of common idioms no matter how much I read. Most of my related effort concentrated on working around these, researching for synonyms, idioms, or whether I use one the right way. Sometimes I ended up rearranging entire paragraphs simply so I could reduce or eliminate some annoying repetition. It took almost a month.

Finally of course spell-checking which also directed me towards some research, to find out how some word is used, how it differs in American and British English (I used American English for the novel since most of my readings were of that dialect, so I guess my use of the language is nearer to that).

Good tools by the way to weed out even some of the grammar problems are this (languagetool.org) and this one (polishmywriting.com). Note that while they are useful, they are not to be followed blind: in doubt, even Google (to find whether a particular way of using the language is right in a given situation) or TheFreeDictionary (to find whether a dubious word really doesn't exist or is misspelled) could come in handy.

So that's it, reflecting flight, let's get those wyverns soar!

Referred artworks

  • Brass wyvern
  • A BRCF volunteer's log
  • Outbreak to the Sky
  • Legwing dragon
  • Tani Akri (dragon) reference
  • Tani Akri (dragon) reference 2017
  • Wyvern creation

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