The queer worm i’ tha well

by thisnorthernboy

I woke up a few mornings ago with a vague thought in my head about a dragon coiled around a hill, and I thought it would make a fun illustration. I knew it was a folk story from England but couldn’t recall anymore. As soon as I was at my desk a quick search on wikipedia filled in the rest.

The Lambton Worm is a story from the northeast of England about young John Lambton who skips church one day to go fishing. He catches a lamprey, but can’t be bothered to carry it home so he throws it down a well. Years later John returns from the crusades to find the lamprey has become a monster terrorising his father’s estate. The worm is now so large it can wrap itself seven times around the nearby Penshaw Hill. With the advice of a witch, John Lambton eventually slays the worm, but at a terrible price.

I love English folk tales, so I started to sketch out some ideas of how this worm might look. In the song the worm…

An’ grewed an aaful size;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes.

…so I had something to go on. I wanted to keep something of the lamprey about the creature too, so it was definitely going to be eel-like with the distinctive lamprey gill pores along its side. My first sketches weren’t promising though.

A very poor drawing

Lambton Worm initial sketch.

I decided that rather than try to depict the entire beast, in a fight with John Lambton, or coiled around Penshaw Hill, I’d use a more graphic composition.

A small thumbnail sketch of the worm

A more promising composition

Happy with this, and with the more stylised version of the worm, I worked on a detailed pen drawing. Even though there are lots of straight lines, I shy away from using a ruler as it just gives too sharp a line. Drawing freehand creates a bit more character, and with a bit of practice you can do pretty well without the ruler. The patterned background allows the worm itself to stand out, ready for colour.

B&W version in pen

Finished pen version ready for colour.

Colouring the worm was reasonably simple using Photoshop. The colour palette was always going to be a dark aqua-ish background with a much more vivid worm. The shading and patterns were built up layer by layer, about 30 layers in total, the eye alone having over a dozen layers.

The Lambton Worm, in bright greens with a big goggly eye

The final illustration.

I’m pleased with the final result, and I think it’ll be the first in a series of three or four illustrations of English folk tales. Next, either Jack in Irons, Recdcap, or Peg Pawler!