How to use exaggeration in creature design

Join us on social media!
Using exaggeration in your creature design, or even in character design is a little secret that will help you communicate your idea and add interest to your design greatly. It's that big hooked nose with a mole on it that tells you someone is a witch. The big horns on a creature communicate that it can be a hard hitter. Flashy colors that communicate that the mating season has started or that the creature is toxic. You name it, everything that is 'extreme' in shapes, colors, contrasts, and so on, could be a tool. So, how do you use that properly?

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.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

What is exaggeration in creature design?

Exaggeration in creature design is anything that is out of the ordinary and feels kinda overdone but within reason. In the animal kingdom, we often see these kinds of things. Often it’s a form of specialization within an animal species or group. Think of features like:

  • The big manes of a male lion.
  • The long neck of the giraffe.
  • Patterns on the zebra.
  • Anything and everything the batfish is.
  • The naked mole rat.
  • Or the star-nosed mole.
  • The shoebill with its huge bill.
  • Armadillos, try the Pink Faery Armadillo!

You get the point. They can be features that are unique or creatures that are unique altogether. If you’re working in the game- or movie industry you might want to think of the sounds a creature makes as well.

In creature design, your goal is to pick out these unique features and see if you can utilize them in your creature design. How much you can use this depends on the design and the brief, but I always recommend at least trying because the best designs usually have at least something unique about it.

Most of the time, when you need to design a creature from scratch, you start with the ‘blue sky phase‘. This is the right moment to pick out these features and start playing with them. When you collaborate with your client or art director, you will land on a final design that more likely than not will at least have one of these unique features.

Exaggerating the right features

Any commission should come with a brief. But you’d be surprised how limited the briefs sometimes can be. More often than not it’s something along the lines of. ‘Can fly, has X colors, is a predator, and has this or that size and use’. That opens up a gigantic list of options, and this is why the Blue Sky Phase is SO important. It will help you not only to discover all the options but also narrow down to what your client is looking for. More likely than not, you will be able to ask your client questions that require answers your client didn’t even think of yet. Think of things like:

  • Is it an ambush predator? (Is it camouflaged)
  • Is it built for speed or strength? (Does the creature lay in wait or is made for speed to lash out quickly or do short-range hunts).
  • Can it walk or swim? Or does it something else? Like leaping on land for example? Or dive in the water to catch fish? (Streamlined).
  • How intelligent is it? (Head size)
  • What is its prey? (How big does that jaw need to be). Does it eat bones or only flesh?

Many of these answers and more you will get by simply presenting some concepts to your client. The best customer service would be to pitch your designs as well. Make sure you’re able to explain why you drew a concept the way you did. It will give your client more inspiration as well and will help narrow down what he or she is looking for.

Just in case you’re new to art

If you are just starting out, like many of the readers here on this blog, make sure that you know what concept art is and read through this series where I explain step by step what concept art is and how it usually works. (It may be different if you work for a company). If you have little experience with drawing, do yourself a favor and don’t offer concept art like this yet. Make sure that you have all your art fundamentals down and aim to do concept art in the future. Prices for concept art are usually fairly high because it’s very time-consuming to come up with all these concepts, run through them with your client, redesign them, and finally deliver a full render. You need to be experienced and fast, or this will be a money and reputation drain.

Finding inspiration

Sources of inspiration can literally be found anywhere around you. Just look at the animal kingdom, or plants, mushrooms… Look at cultures, architecture. Take the time to dig into science fiction movies, and concept art made by other artists, or dive deep into the Mariana Trench. There are a million places to go to find the inspiration you need. Just make sure that you know what your creature or character is about so you don’t get overwhelmed by all the options. This is, again, also why concept art is so important: It helps you and your client narrow down what they’re looking for.

Keeping functionality in mind

How not to use exaggeration in a creature design.
Photo by: Jacopo Ligozzi

Having a lot of inspiration is one thing. Exaggeration is just that: Exaggeration. It speaks for itself that legs the size of ancient tree trunks don’t fit on an otherwise nimble creature. A big soft nose on a predatory creature may cause problems too. Bright colors on a predator may not be the best choice when it’s supposed to survive in a muted habitat, and there is a good reason why many scavenging birds have no feathers on their heads.

In the animal kingdom, there are always exceptions to the rule. However, when you create something that didn’t exist before, you might want to favor features that clearly communicate the functionality of the creature. It will help those that will look at it understand its place within its world a bit better.

It is possible that your client is just looking for something weird. It’s known that there are two streams within creature design. Those that make functional creature designs, and those that make intentional creature designs. The first sticks more to functional anatomy and potential habitats a creature lives in. The second creates things with a specific goal, like looking scary or really cute. But if it was supposed to survive, it probably wouldn’t be able to. A good example is a Chimera or the Centaur.

Don’t exaggerate just because you can

Exaggeration is a tool, not something to live by. In every design, there needs to be a certain balance. Just throwing in strange features and hoping it will work out is not the way to go. It again comes down to what the goal is of a creature. Some may need to be subtle and nondescript, so being subtle would be the right way to go in such a case. Throwing in something unique always helps, but exaggerating it is in such a case probably not the right way to go.

Some tips to help you on your way

The Octherium Sinoii uses several features in different animals that are exaggerated by nature. Think of the head shield, the horns, and bio-luminescence.
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

If you’re new to this, limiting yourself helps a great deal. You can do so by picking 2 or 3 animals you will create a new creature from. And when you need more inspiration, you look up animals that look similar to the initial animals you picked. They may have different interesting features that will give your design a little pop. You can also head over to our creature prompt generator and have a prompt ready to go.

This Octherium Sinoii is a good example that is made with the help of the creature prompt generator. It’s a mix of an octopus and the extinct Arsinoetherium, a strange-looking rhino-type animal. I decided to look up other extinct creatures with horns to find a solution for the soft ‘head’ the octopus had and landed on the Triceratops. The head armor of this dinosaur I used to help develop this drawing. I also looked at sea creatures, specifically crustaceans to find a way to make this creature walk on land. You can find a full case-study about the Octherium Sinoii right here.

Understanding your creature on a different level

To be able to properly exaggerate means that you have to understand the creature beforehand. Make sure that you know what category it falls in (Avian, terrestrial, aquatic, or a mix, and predator, scavenger, herbivore, omnivore, etc). This will already tell you a lot. If you can get information on the habitat or what the encounters are like, that will help you narrow it down as well.

Try not only to crawl in the skin of your creature but also its habitat and the world it lives in. Your client will have thoughts on it too, which will be your biggest resource of information next to your own knowledge. From there you can work on something unique.

More reads on creature design

We would love to hear from you!

Sign in on Discord to comment and participate, or use the contact form.

Share on social media