How I Created a Fantastic Hydra Sculpture

Earlier this year a client invited me back to her farm to give new life back to a fallen oak tree by creating a sculpture in it. I’d already made her a Hydra Sculpture in the past (you can see it HERE) so when I saw the branches and shape of the fallen oak, there was only one thing for it: I needed to make her a fantastic hydra sculpture that would compliment the first.

Photo of a hydra sculpture carved into the branches of a fallen oak tree by artist simon o'rourke

Use Relatable Anatomy

I upset a few people on my Facebook page this week by saying dragons are make-believe. My bad! Whatever your belief about dragons though, most of us would agree that either a hydra is a mythical beast, or at the very least, people around today haven’t seen one. This makes it a little tricky to know the underlying anatomy – something that’s key to creating realistic animals.
To ensure my mythical beasts like dragons and hydras still look like an earthly creature, I often use anatomy of existing animals. For example, I often base a dragon’s rear on a horse!

Greek mythology tells us the Hydra is a “serpent-like monster with nine heads”. That gives a really good starting point, and I basically use the body of a snake.

a close-up of one of the faces on simon o'rourke's hydra sculpture

Facial Features

Having decided on the body of the snake, what is it that then makes the Hydra a ‘monster’? I’ve decided it’s a dragon-like face. A few key features I decided my hydra sculpture should have were:

  • Whispy frills at the neck.
    There are several reptiles with frills that can be a reference for anatomy if you fancy having a go at something similar.
  • Snake-like fangs.
    I ‘blackened’ some of these or made them appear uneven/broken on some of the heads to make them a little more menacing.
  • Bulbous eye.
    This was partly determined by the shape of the branches. I has to do something with curves because of the constraints of the branches

I created a dip in the skull behind the eyeball that emphasised this. This is something that is common on a lot of animals too so it helps it look mythical and monstrous but also of this world. Similarly, you’ll notice a dip by the lip that most animals have too.

Create Your Reference

With something like this hydra sculpture, consistency is key. I needed consistent features, and consistent scales and I’ve found that the way I get that consistency is by creating a reference point.

First, I create one whole side of one face. That is then my reference point for the rest of them. If I try and go about it feature by feature (eg create a skull on them all, then create the eyes on them all) I quickly come unstuck!

Once I have that reference, I can block the rest of the faces, one head at a time.

Finally, I can refine the faces and add a bit of expression to each of them. In the case of this sculpture, some have their own personality including a mischievous one and a grumpy one.

close up of a head of an oak hydra sculpture by artist simon o'rourke

One More Detail…

Did I say finally? Not quite!

There were also millions of scales to be carved! OK, so millions is an exaggeration, but my shoulders felt like it was! I think it took me a full day just for the scales using the Stihl MS151 and MSA200. Thankfully they’re both light saws!

And that’s how I created a realistic yet still-mythical hydra sculpture from a fallen oak tree! I documented the whole process on my Facebook, Insta and TikTok channels, so check them out if you want to see the full transformation.

Have you ever created a sculpture of a mythical beast? What’s your process? Drop a comment and let me know!

To commission a hydra (or any sculpture!) contact Simon via