The queer worm i’ tha well
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!