Gathering resources for your creature designs

Creature design is a relatively small, bur flourishing field. Up to roughly 20 years ago, you needed a giant library to be able to make effective designs, and information on the subject was very hard to get. That is different now in the age of the internet. We have all the information at our fingertips. But too much choice can be overwhelming too. So how do you effectively gather resources for your creature designs?

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, specializing in wildlife and creature designs. I love to share my passion for nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to collapse)

Gathering resources for your creature designs in the old days

Or maybe a bit the lack thereof. We all have seen the Star wars movies (1977), and maybe little shop of horrors (1960), and the Blob (1958)? These are all pre-internet movies. The official birth date of the internet is January 1, 1983. Two years and 3 days before my own birthday. It didn’t become public until April 30th of 1993, 10 years later. But back then it was a shadow of what it is today.

The first search engine, W3catalog, didn’t become available until September 1993. Meaning you had to know the web addresses from the top of your head to find what you’re looking for. This search engine was very primitive and tuned to measure the size of the internet. Meaning it wasn’t that effective for search prompts. The more effective Aliweb, made available in 1994 required you to let it know that your website existed.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the search engine we still know today came to be. Yahoo! Search. Followed by the greatest behemoth of this day: Google search in 1998. Yes, there were search engines before this time, but none were effective for the public internet users and were either complex to use, or tuned to specific databases or subjects.

Long story short: Finding resources for creature designs were done in libraries and during paleontology and biology studies. Or you were picked up by some film studio because you were good at drawing anatomically correct animals. And there you were, drawing surreal creatures for the next blockbuster with your fellow creature designers!

Gathering resources for your creature designs today

This fellow is inspired by a myriad of bugs like the ladybug and the stalk-eyed fly, and turtles. The gears at its eyes are inspired by the coleoptrasus which developed gears in its rear legs to jump. This fellow however can pull back its head in its chest and turn its eyes up with those gears so only its eyes poke up from the shell right next to each other.
Image by Tessa Geniets

As for any kind of design, be that character design, a futuristic landscape or, a creature design: It’s easy to rely on the internet today. Who doesn’t have boards upon boards on Pinterest with useful reference materials? (Check the LtL archive right here). Or maybe a giant archive on their computers. And if you have neither of those? Google is always your best friend to help you find anything you may need. But the downside of this overflow of information is that it’s hard to make a good pick. And not only that: Every month again we discover more species. In the depths of the Mariana Trench and each year technology becomes better and better, allowing us to peek into the microverse,

Diversity on our planet is almost unending, it had millions of years to develop to this stage. Today there is an estimate of 8.7 million animal species. Cataloging all of those we don’t know yet will roughly take another 1000 years. Yea, that’s how much inspiration we can get from our own planet, with the help of technology. And you know what the great thing is? Even if you don’t have your art fundamentals down yet, you can actively generate ideas for later use. Generating these ideas will help you make great creature designs.

The two main categories in creature design

Of course, there are many different categories. But if you look at the very core of each creature: There are only two kinds. Those that are summoned from imagination into a fantasy world, and those that come from a different world into ours. The first can technically be anything. Dragons aren’t bound by rules. They are the product of imagination from a completely imaginary universe. But when you look at aliëns: They evolved over time in a world bound to the rules of our universe. Both categories require a different approach.

The aliën design

As mentioned before: Aliëns, and especially the intelligent ones, are expected to be somewhat like us humans. When you design them it’s important to take into account the general rules of our universe. If the planet has low gravity: Expect the aliën to have a dense bone structure to make up for the lack of gravity, Abundance of water? Maybe they are aquatic and in need of a special suit to survive on our planet. Battered by radiation they may be more like insects or crustaceans with a high tolerance to lead, which is concentrated in their shells to block the high radiation levels.

In other words: If you decide to take the aliën route, make sure you know their planet, the abundances and shortages over there, and compare that to that of our own all the while taking the rules of our universe into account.

The fantasy creature route

Fantasy creatures can come from any world and any dimension. This means that you don’t need to play by the rules of our universe. You can make up your own from scratch and go from there. This allows for a larger diversity in designs. Think of magical creatures, firebreathing dragons, flying whales, and I mean… Who doesn’t want to live in a world of swimming kittens you can ride down into the abyss, showing you the magic of the underwater world? Just saying… Do you see my point? You can break the rules of what we know in a fantasy world.

But, and this is a big but: people are extremely visually oriëntated. There are reasons why people perceive things the way they do. Shape language is no less important in fantasy creatures than they are in aliëns (a practical explanation about shape language in creature and character designs right here). The same counts for colors, textures, and so on. If you want to create effective fantasy-based creature designs it really pays off to play by the rules we humans are familiar with. Maybe not considering the laws of our universe, but at least taking into account human nature and the way we perceive things.

About human perception and creature designs

Humans evolved in this world for roughly 2 million years. First, we diverted from the apes, to evolve into different human-like species and finally become what we are today, This means that we have millions of years of natural behavior stacked in our DNA. This causes us to have ‘natural’ responses to specific events which date back to the times we still lived on the great planes. Later in our evolution culture became part of that as well.

Shapes

‘Natural behavior’ still gives the greatest response as they are part of our survival instincts. They warn us of danger, like a cheetah charging your way (speed and texture combined). They tell us that creatures with triangular shapes or features (teeth, fangs, claws, stingers) may be deadly predators or are poisonous. And they tell us that that cute rounded thing in your lap is your baby (or a kitten, a kitten!) and is of no danger to us. Instead, these shapes can trigger a nurturing response.

Colors

The same counts for color, although this is a bit more muddied by our cultures. We see a very unique and broad spectrum of color. Only some animals can see more than us, like birds, and the mantis shrimp. Most other animals see a much narrower spectrum of color or a completely different one like infrared, ultraviolet, or polarized light.
Despite the fact we got a bit disconnected from the natural meaning of colors, there are a few rules we still know very well. We know for example that green represents nature and we still hold a very strong connection to greens, even in our concrete cities. A mix of dirty greens, yellows, browns, and whites represents decay. Red means danger (think of heat, traffic signs, and yes, poisonous animals).

Textures

Regarding textures: Smooth surfaces tend to represent youth, wrinkly ones age. Rough textures are often associated with strength or things that are maybe not that nice to handle. Combine them with specific colors and shapes and you communicate a very clear message to your audience.

Picking the right reference

A mix between a zebra and a lionfish, two completely different animal species with similar features, was effectively applied in this design.
For a lack of a better name we now call it the Lionbra.
Illustration by Jade Jez
Generated with our creature design generator.

As you can see: Picking the right reference is hard. We may have the world at our fingertips these days, but that only makes our job much more difficult. It helps to narrow down our search by finding keywords for our creature designs. We have a good example in this article, specifically the creature description of the Octherium Sinoii, created by our creature design generator.

Especially when you’re new in the game you want to keep it a bit easy for yourself. Look for similarities between related species and create something new. Then proceed to combine unrelated species, like, for example. a mix between a lionfish and a zebra. Only to continue to combine organisms that have nothing in common, like an ancient rhino-like species and an octopus, or a mouse with a mushroom and a deer. Or parts derived from your favorite monster creation.

Your ultimate goal is to be able to create something that’s nothing like anything on this planet but does make sense because whatever you manage to create by that time, is derived from a lot of knowledge about the animal kingdom and the rules they live by. Combine this with our human perception and the world these creatures come from, and your audience will be in for a treat.

Your checklist to gathering resources for your creature design

Having a checklist helps you channel all the possibilities and eliminate any that prove to be irrelevant to your design. It helps you get rid of the clutter and pick from a myriad of organisms that do fit the bill. This way, creating your creature design will be less of a massive task, and more one that makes sense.

  • Ask yourself where it lives. (Another planet, dimension, or specific habitat)
  • Know what it behaves like. (Is it a predator, scavenger or prey, does it live in groups or solo, is it nocturnal, etc.)
  • Does it have any significant features? (Manes, colors, remarkable shapes, patterns, textures, etc.) It is recommended to have one significant feature to catch attention right away. More can follow, just make sure it doesn’t get cluttered, remember: Less is more.
  • How does it move around? (Take into account its habitat, planet, or realm it lives in).
  • You should have a clear view now of what your animal is like. You can now select animals in the same family, or animals with similar features to combine it with. If you’re in the field for a while already, try to pick completely unrelated animals that don’t have similar features at all to challenge yourself!

Pro tip: Have a look at our article with 11 useful tips for creating your own creature design.

Resources for references

There are many resources available, not only on the internet but also in your backyard. Maybe your friend makes a typo, or you think you see something that can’t be for real. And there you are! You just made up a new creature in your head! But what if that isn’t enough for you? Where do you go?

Search engines vs. Pinterest

Google is your best friend, obviously. But any search engine is, really. It’s even argued that Pinterest is a better place to find references than regular search engines are. This is because Pinterest is actually an image search engine ánd it allows you and every other user to create boards that create connections no machine could ever make. It will provide you with inspiration and relevant information at the same time. We made life a little easier for you by creating an LtL Pinterest page filled with boards that will help you find inspiration in a heartbeat.

Creature design generator

If you lack inspiration or like to be challenged by randomly combining creatures, habitats, and special features: This is your place to go. The LtL creature prompt generator will help you find inspiration with a simple click. It is up to you to make something out of it! When you do, please don’t forget to share it with our Facebook group as well!

Wander into the big wide world

It’s sometimes that I get my greatest inspiration just by wandering around somewhere. In my case, mostly in nature. I love making pictures as well, and sometimes use them as references. It’s that I’m not a very quick illustrator, else I would have had many examples of creature designs simply based on my strolls in the outdoors. Don’t hesitate to do so yourself! Pick up a dead tree branch and see what critters live underneath. Pull off some bark and see what made a home there. Look at the sky for the birds, and go out at sunrise or sunset, just to spot larger animals before they hide again, or just came out of hiding to feed. And maybe make it a goal to combine whatever organisms you come across during this stroll. And remember it doesn’t stop at animals.

Watch documentaries

This is probably a no-brainer, but yea: Watch documentaries! Curiosity stream is a great service to do so. But Youtube offers many interesting documentaries and channels as well. Your local tv-service likely provides channels like Discovery Channel and National Geographic too. And don’t forget to follow initiatives like that of the Nautilus. They frequently discover new species, giving you boatloads of inspiration!

Follow your favorite creature designers

I’m pretty sure you’re already doing this one. You didn’t just think of becoming a creature designer all by yourself, did you? I know I didn’t.
Many creature designers have Youtube channels, explaining and showing their process. Many others do interviews about their work in the field. Take your time not only to understand their work but also their thought processes!

Why creature design is so hard to master

There is a reason why creature design is a niche. You NEED to have a deep-rooted love for animals and nature. Creature design is as much a science as it is a passion, and if you don’t want to do the research or nature is not your passion, just don’t even try to specialize in this field. There is just so much knowledge required in this field, and it’s so incredibly broad, that it’s hard to get a hold of, even if you are passionate and are up for doing the research.

This is also the reason why I can’t give you clear directions on how to do your research for your designs. There are so many possibilities, and combined with your mind: The whole universe isn’t even the limit. The most important thing is to know how to properly build up your design by asking yourself questions about its behavior and environment. If your knowledge is large enough and/or know how to do your research, you will be able to find interesting organisms that fit in your design neatly.

Conclusion

So, no matter if you go for the aliën approach or the fantasy approach, we still have to keep the same thing in mind: We are human beings. The way we perceive things determines what works for creature designs and what does not. If you bide by the general rules and, when you’re used to them, bend those rules, you are well on your way to become a great creature designer.

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