Analyzing shapes and poses in creatures and characters

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When you work on a design, you will want to spend your time communicating something that makes sense. This could be an iconic bulky warrior or a design for a creature that's not what it seems like. Either way: You won't be doing something random as that's just a waste of your time. Understanding what shapes communicate is one of the most basic skills you need to have, especially when it comes to creature designs.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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Why we’re analyzing shapes and poses in creatures and characters

It’s one thing to understand the basics when analyzing shapes and poses in both creatures and characters. It’s a whole other thing to actually use them effectively so they communicate the thing you want them to. In this article, we’re gonna analyze a handful of different illustrations so you can get a better feel for different shapes and poses.
In case you’re new to the subject, I recommend you read this article first: Shape language basics in art.

Shape language of the Octherium Sinoii

Octherium Sinoii, Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

This bad boy comes with a clear description I will share below. But first we focus on his shapes: We see a lot of triangular shapes and round and cylindrical elongated shapes (the tentacles). We learned before that triangles communicated danger, among other things, In the Octherium Sinoii there’s no question this creature poses a danger. The horns on his head can whack the life out of you and the large shield covering his soft parts is triangular as well. So are the protrusions on this shield and on the end of his tentacles.

Although circles are usually associated with something cute: You can’t miss the resemblances with that of an octopus. We all know that octopi can be cute from time to time, but most of all they are the product of legends and nightmares. Most things with tentacles and extreme elongated limbs (like spiders or crabs) we’re not really fond of. So, although the Octherium’s tentacles have a round form (in 3d) in a 2d world they’re just that: Long freaky arms that are really dangerous when they get a hold of you.

Analysis of the shapes and pose?

So, what can we say about the Octherium when we focus on the shapes and pose alone? Well, we’re looking at a creature that’s obviously dangerous if you happen to get into a fight with it. The horns and tentacles can pierce you, the beak and sharp teeth can rip you apart and the shield on his head will make it very difficult to find a weak spot. We all know that a normal octopus can’t stand on its tentacles on land. Not effectively that is. The angular plates on the tentacles suggest this creature is at least partially covered with an exo-skeleton. This gives him the ability to walk on land.

However, the pose suggests clearly that this creature is startled in whatever it’s doing. It’s turned side-ways and more or less looking over his ‘shoulder’. Animals can have different reactions when they are startled: Fight, flight or freeze. This is a creature leaning in the predatory realm, which makes freezing very unlikely. Depending on the timing this image is focused on, he’s either turning to attack, or he’s really just startled and getting ready to run off to his more natural habitat: The water.


Just by shape and pose alone we can quickly see that this is a dangerous creature. Not something you want to corner. Not on land, and definitely not in the water. It’s quite safe to assume that this creature won’t attack you if it doesn’t need to while he’s on land. He’s not in his element. But in the water he could easily grab small boats or ram bigger ones and make them sink. I doubt you want to be in the water anywhere near this creature either as hes capable of dragging you down in the depths in a matter of a second, or just snap your arm or leg right off.

This creature communicates danger all around. This however says nothing about his behavior around specific animals, his own species, or even humans. In theory, he could be very intelligent and form a companionship with people or live in symbiosis with another animal species. Maybe he’s very aggressive to members of his own species, or maybe they hunt in groups. Who knows! The point is: Shape communicates function. Pose communicates intention. The first doesn’t encompass the whole nature of the creature. The second is just a snapshot in time.

Creature description as required by the design tool

You might have noticed it before: But on Life to Legend we have a wonderful Creature Design prompt generator, focused on creature designs. Part of making an effective creature design is having a narrative for your creature. When you have one upfront you will be able to understand the nature of the creature a lot better and pick design elements accordingly. This is the narrative for Octherium Sinoii:

Octherium Sinoii description
By: Tessa Geniets

Judging by character

Image by: Tessa Geniets

Oke, a different take. Just a simple portrait of someone posing for a picture. This does eliminate the possibility to draw anything from the pose, or does it? This totally depends, but we will get back to that later. First the shapes. Even in such a small frame, shapes can be very telling. But again: This is just a snapshot. A narrative will make a huge difference and help with the nuances, no matter the design.

Analysis of the shapes

What do we see? Despite the limited amount of space we can tell that this guy is very bulky. He looks strong because of his broad shoulders and the fact he stands square in the frame. He looks right at you without turning one shoulder away. This suggests he is very powerful.

But we see circles too, from his armor. Although the design of armor can be very telling: The simplicity in a design won’t tell you if somebody is kind or not. It just tells you the armor has been designed in a functional way. So there is little to derive from it. The only other circle we can see right off the bat is the ‘buckle’ from his cape. This one is round as well. As this is a decorative feature, this could be used to communicate intention. Its roundness is suggesting we’re looking at someone that might have a kind nature. However, as this buckle is part of their armor, this might also be a functional shape. If we could find more circles in the design of the armor you can safely conclude that this is intentional and is communicating something to you.

Now just have a peek at the bow: The metal parts of it are angular but also rounded. If this guy was a villain, the triangle shapes would dominate, but its design is intentionally rounded, which is yet again a hint about his nature. The armor on his left side: Has large spikes on it. Does this make him dangerous? Well, yea. But does this make him a villain? No. Most people are right-handed. This means inconsequently that they can protect their right side better than their left. It’s not uncommon to have additional armor on the left side for this simple reason.

Analysis of the pose

It’s a portrait, one this guy clearly posed for. Just look at your family picture, or school picture for example. People that are proud or confident will show their ‘frame’. Those that are uncertain, introverted, dislike pictures, or have a low self-esteem will make themselves small unintentionally. They usually do this by turning away from the photo-camera, looking down, chucking in their chin to their chest and pulling up their shoulders to hide their throats, which is a very vulnerable part of the human body.

Our guy does none of that. You can tell by the way he’s standing that he’s confident, probably a warrior of some kind and likely even a leader. He is probably someone that is up-front with you and at the same time is a serious threat to his opponents. His self-confidence amplifies that.


Even in small frames like portraits and bustes you can put a lot of information, Even when whatever you draw is posing intentionally, It’s a bit easier to do with human characters because you can add a lot of bells and whistles. You might want to opt for full-body illustrations on creature designs though, because there is a lot unknown about their nature to begin with. But it does give an opportunity for a very effective design to only focus on the head, if only for a little while. We people always focus on the head first, it gives us the first hints and if the design of the head doesn’t communicate what you want to get across: You design usually already failed.

Anylasis of a swamp? creature

Image by AJ Ramos

You may have seen this before in earlier articles. The professional artist AJ Ramos was so kind to release this image to me for me to use in my articles. I know nothing about this creature, and that was completely intentional. I meant to make this article for a while and wanted to use this image for analysis. And that’s what we’re going to do today!

*Let me add that this very well may be a creature from the D&D realm or inspired by another game: If so: I’m aware that it might be, I’m just not aware of what it is. But let me know if you do!

Analyzing the shapes

What we’re looking at here is a mostly rounded creature. Covering the length of its body is a frill (Excuse my English) which has rounded shapes too. These shapes are suggesting that it’s not really an aggressive creature, but it is an extremely powerful one, so what do we know?

When we look a bit further we can see that this creature has sharp teeth or horns around its head. The holes on its face are rounded off triangles as well. This creature could be a scavenger, or hunt specific prey which it could devour effectively, but they might just be a defense mechanism of an otherwise benign creature. Maybe they’re just mandibles like we see on ants. They are good at dissecting anything and they can be deadly, but many ant species are omnivores and opportunistic. Maybe it uses these protrusions to tear apart thick leaves, or scrape off moss from rocks.

Analysis of the pose

We analyzed the Octherium Sinoii earlier in this article in a similar setting. The difference between the Octherium and this creature is that this one already turned around. It’s frills are showing as if it’s trying to look larger than it really is, which is a defense mechanism. Its mandibles (if they can move that is) are wide open. They are clearly visible and could be seen as a defense mechanism as well, and probably even a threat. Its pose strongly suggests that he was startled or cornered and turned around. This creature is ready to attack and you better leave or be ready to take on this massive beast.


All we can say about this creature is: It very likely is deadly when it wants or needs to be, but considering that it seems to live in the dark and feels like a creature that comes from a swamp or bog-like environment, it’s very likely that it won’t be bothering anyone unless disturbed or cornered.

Analyzing shapes and poses in creature and character designs, a conclusion

Shapes are key to character- and creature design. We can conclude a character type from it, or the nature of a creature. But also in what state of mind they are. In the sketching stage we first search for shapes, sometimes even in combination with poses. The form, contrasts, colors, textures and all the other details come later. This is why it’s so important to have a solid understanding of shapes. You are nowhere without.

It’s good to note that there are way more shapes out there, like spirals for example. But they can always be translated back to circles, triangles and squares. However, these other shapes can have significant meaning in cultures for example. Or they make a serious difference in your creature or character design. Just take your time to analyze artworks made by other people. Look at their shapes, try to determine the nature of this creature or character, and start applying that in your own work!

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