Have your fundamentals down
Just in case you get here thinking to get a shortcut into creature design: I’m sorry to disappoint you, There is no easy way into this niche. In fact: There is no easy way into art, to begin with. No matter what your approach is: It’s key to have your fundamentals down. Understanding the basics of art will make your life as an artist significantly easier. So, if you didn’t get into that yet: Stop right here and focus on the following:
- Color theory
- Shapes on a flat surface (how shapes read on a 2D surface)
- Forms in a 3D world (how shapes read on a 2d surface and in a 3D world)
- Value and lighting
- Anatomy (Oke, this is not exactly an art fundamental, but it surely is for creature design!)
Know what you’re getting yourself into
If you went through this already, or you’re just curious as to what creature design encompasses: You are in the right spot. Even if you don’t have your fundamentals down: There are a few steps you can take even before doing so. But always remember: Art, and even more so, a niche like creature design, takes a lot of practice, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of blood sweat, and tears.
I’m not here to discourage you, I’m just hoping I catch you in an early stage where you’re still jolly about your journey and ready to take on a challenge because that’s what it is. This article will run you through some of the key components of creature design and set you on the right track on this journey! And if you’d like to learn anything more: Read on or join our community!
Just because I feel the need to mention this: Art is a passion, if you don’t feel this passion: Walk away. If you do: please take proper care of yourself. When you are, and only recently opened up to art: Understand that you’re opening up your heart. The road you’re taking isn’t an easy one, but if you know how to beat yourself through it: it’s a very valuable and rewarding one. And no matter if you are a beginner, or a weathered artist: Hone your fellow artists, make friends, and communicate about your wins and your losses!
Practice on real life
Maybe this is a no-brainer to you, but real-life is key. All the masters among creature designers work from life. Even if creatures are surrealistic: To have it make sense, it needs to abide by nature. Nature evolved over time because of opportunities and limitations on our planet, and this is what we know and what feels familiar to us. To be able to break the rules, you first need to understand the rules. And to understand these rules you need to know the creatures you want to use for your designs inside-out.
To find the limits of life on planet earth, look deep, and you’ll be surprised about what evolution brought us.
Learn how to build up an image like the one above by subscribing to the newsletter, It will give you access to the Treasure Trove where you will find the fur-tutorial which runs you through the way I built up this portrait.
Ways to study animal species
- Figure out their basic shapes (2D)
- Understand that figure and shape are two different things! Not all languages encompass this difference and use just one word for shape and form.
- Get used to their forms (3D) by drawing them from different angles.
- Learn about their locomotion. The way they move and their range of motion. You can do this by drawing it (recommended). But also by observing it intensely.
- Tracing is okay! Pick an animal species (birds for example) and trace a row of them while also figuring out their shapes to get a sense of what you’re dealing with.
- Understand their anatomy. Not only their shapes and forms but also their underlying muscles and bones.
- It makes sense to know where different organs are placed. This is generally the same among most animals, but it’s the exceptions that confirm the rule that makes creature design so interesting.
- Understand the environment animals live in. Animal species evolve around their environment before their environment evolves around them. Understanding where they come from helps a lot in understanding why they evolved the way they did.
- Understanding the behavior of the animal you want to use in your design makes a lot of sense. But don’t let it limit you! It’s perfectly fine if you combine a carnivore with an omnivore or an insect with a mammal. That’s exactly what makes creature design so interesting ;).
Dive into anatomy
Maybe not the most entertaining part, but understanding anatomy is the absolute key to creature design, It will help you understand the possibilities and limitations of a species, and the difference between them. An exoskeleton is limiting in different ways than the skeleton of say, a panther. That of the land-dwelling quickest cat in the world: The Cheetah, is significantly different from that of its close relative: The panther that likes to hang out in trees.
The big differences are maybe a no-brainer when you take a closer look at those, but the devil is in the details. It gets really interesting when you dig into why the cheetah is so quick. It’s not just its long limbs, it’s also the insane length and flexibility of the spine and their disability to retract their nails, which gives them extra grip while running.
National Geographic obviously picked up on that long before I did, or many other people for that matter. And they made a slow-motion video of a running cheetah, pointing out how extremely specialized they are for what they do. Imagine this being true for each and every animal on this planet! Does that pique your interest? ;).
Understand behavior and environment
To take the cheetah as an example: Why do you think they became so extremely specialized? Well, one reason: They found a niche. This niche is speed. And the only reason they were able to develop into these speed monsters is that they have this huge savanna full of very fast prey animals. Each hunter on the savanna has its own tactic. The lion is an ambush and group hunter. A pack of hyenas can follow its prey to exhaustion. A cheetah may use ambush tactics but really relies on its significant speed.
The cheetah as a species won’t be able to survive in a dense forest. They cannot use their main ability: Speed. So they would need to rely on ambushing small animals. because they don’t have the power to take down a stationary large animal. They can only do that at high speed when the animal can be easily pushed or pulled out of balance by hitting their back legs or jumping onto their hinds.
These animals are also not built to climb, which isn’t helpful in dense forests either.
But when you think of it: The savanna is only a savanna because it’s grazed by many large herbivores. The huge migrations that take place stop trees from growing everywhere. So the cheetah didn’t only become the way it is because it happened to have a huge flat area to run over on top speed, or because it has to hunt quick prey. It’s BECAUSE of the prey that the area is so suitable for this wonderful cat to become as specialized as it is.
You have to understand that animals evolve around nature and that nature evolves around animals. It gives a whole new dimension to your creature designs and will guide you to come to a design that makes sense for anyone looking at it.
Read more about environments
- The importance of environments in your creature design + case study
- The effect of environment on living organisms
- Creating a fictional world – Heathland habitats
Have a narrative ready
A narrative is a story that supports your creature’s design. It gives a lay of the land. What can it do, where does it live, how does it behave, what are its specializations? This information helps you to develop a picture in your mind and helps to pick and choose from a plethora of animals that meet these chunks of information. A great place to start from.
You may not have a narrative ready yet. That’s not ideal, but it’s okay. Sometimes your best ideas will come from a scribble, something you thought you saw from the corner of your eye, a broken branch, or a shape in the air bubbles of your morning coffee. What better way to start your day? It’s like watching the clouds take the shapes of animals we know. And what we know will shape the narrative around it.
Below an example of a creature design that came forth from a weirdly shaped branch, I came across. There wasn’t really a narrative for this one, other than that it’s made of wood and in a forest. Honestly: It still doesn’t have much of a narrative, and the name proves of little imagination: Woodsnake. But hey! The point is to prove that you can do just fine without a solid narrative. Always be inspired by your surroundings!
Challenge yourself with (weird) prompts
Yes, this is a fun one. It’s possible that someone throws a funny thought at you, or you happen to come up with something because of it. Or you watch a movie and think ‘if only….’ and you get to work. But you can also ask friends and family to come up with prompts, maybe even ask different people for an animal species and try to effectively merge them together into a logic design.
Maybe you can’t be bothered and rather have a nice prompt with just one click of a button. Let me tell you: We have a nice prompt generator made for you! And it’s just one click away from here! It will give you a location, two animals, an action, and a feature. Feel free to try it out!
Don’t stop at the animal kingdom
Think of autobots and decepticons and you know exactly what I mean. You may find the greatest inspiration in things that aren’t alive. From rocks to modern technology and from water to fire. When it comes to creature design there are no limitations. All you have to do is make sure that it makes sense within its story or environment and you’re set.
For example, you may want to use lichen and mushrooms in a cave environment or a dense murky forest. Bio-luminescence, which is actually a common thing in the animal kingdom makes sense in dark areas, like the deep sea and caves. Extraterrestrial life may be like the transformers: A lot of technology in play. Or maybe your futuristic story has heavy tanks come to life. No matter your interests, or your narrative: Look beyond what makes sense biologically and evolutionary and challenge yourself.
Keep storytelling elements in mind
Storytelling comes in many ways, shapes, and forms and it greatly enhances your illustration. In fact, the greatest creature designers know how to combine an insane design with storytelling elements. These elements can be the environment, props, parts of the creature, the pose, facial expression, or a combination of those.
It’s safe to say though that storytelling is a science on its own. Some people have a natural feel for it, while others struggle to learn the mechanics of it. The best way to go about it is just to learn about the fundamentals first. As you grow in your art, storytelling at some point will come into play automatically. If not: You might want to start working on it when you feel your art is not as challenging as it used to be!
Storytelling is very important, but if that doesn’t come naturally, it’s advisable to develop that at a later stage.
Stick with your plan! (But don’t overdo it)
This one is a bit controversial. You first need a good plan before you should stick with it. Else you’ll just be polishing the famous turd. Make sure you have a nice idea you’d like to work on. This can be something from your dreams, an idea someone came up with, a prompt, you name it. Whatever it is, make sure you run it through the checks mentioned before, and know that even if you have the best idea ever: It may not always work out. That can be annoying, but that’s the nature of being a creator of things that never existed before. And that’s also its beauty.