Drawing Monsters: an exploration of the shadow

Artists throughout history have used monsters and mythological creatures to explore their inner worlds and experiment in a free and expressive way.

by Heidy Weingartner

Monsters have been popular mythical creatures for as long as humans have been telling stories. Mythology has used monsters to describe something or someone outside the bounds of acceptable form or behavior. Artists have also used monsters and mythological creatures throughout history to explore their inner worlds and experiment in a free and expressive way. Monsters don’t just act monstrously, also their appearance reflects their nature. “Monster” has its root on the Latin word meaning “to show or demonstrate”. Makes sense!

Artwork from the Middle Ages

Not all mythical creatures qualify as monsters though. Think of unicorns for example, which look way beyond the conventional and at the same are not really considered to “act” monstrously – they’re pretty cute actually. Or the Egyptian Sphinx, with the face of a man and the body of a lion, which was mostly considered as guardian protector to temples and pyramids. The Greek Sphinx on the other hand, with the body of a creature and face of a woman, was believed to mercilessly devour whoever could not guess her riddle!   

Sketchbook Practice: Artwork by Derek

Monsters then are mythical creatures that have in some way transgressed a social boundary, a.k.a they pose a threat to society! They also can embody particular human fears, giving them a tangible form. Ancient Japanese Yokai is a great example. The characteristics of yōkai ranged diversely from malevolent and mischievous entities believed to cause misfortune and harm to those who encountered them. Later on, with the popularization of picture scrolls and paintings, yokai creatures became less and less seen as fearsome spiritual entities and more like caricatures.  

Why do monsters exist throughout history? In medieval times monsters were seen as creatures sent by God to punish humankind’s evil doings. But also because for centuries humans have been fixated by the bad guy vs. good guy narrative, right? The cycle goes something like this: the mysterious monstrous creature appears out of nowhere threatening the well being of humankind, bringing death and destruction and then… “taa-daa!”, the hero appears, kills the beast and saves the day (and humanity!). This is the never ending cycle portrayed in mythology and till this day mostly in superhero Marvel and DC movies. 

But could it be that we all have little monsters and demons inside us and that art is one of the many ways a person can learn to deal with their fears, insecurities, sadness, whatever it may be?

Japanese Yokai inspired artwork by G Caruso

When I need to rest my brain and just lose myself in the flow, I love to study Japanese Yokai. The monstrous subjects take the pressure off the need to make a “pretty” drawing and it all becomes a brush technique exercise that is going to look good anyway. This image caught my attention because recently I feel the weight of all the demons I carry around and the baggage that comes with them. While drawing I started to really look at the subject and I realized that the guy is a warrior and the demons, even if only the dead are left, are still alive. So maybe the goal is to get to the point where your demons lose their bodies and their ability to hurt you, then they’re still there to talk and remind you why you created them. Drawing ugly, scary things has a cathartic effect that makes you feel better!

– G Caruso
artist-instructor of Sketchbook Practice: Monsters

Art is a powerful tool, as well as narrative, as we see expressed in Greek Mythology for example. Artists express their fears and anxieties through beautiful, as well as grotesque, imagery. That’s why we loved the Sketchbook Practice: Monsters Workshop at Berlin Drawing Room. We encouraged our students to explore gesture and personal expression through a variety of different mediums, to tear down inhibitions and help their artistic voice break free. This is what they came up with. Check it out!