The importance of environments in your creature design + case study

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Evolutionarily seen, animals are subject to their environment. There are only a few species that can build their environment around them, like humans, and arguably apes. But even so, we had to climb the evolutionary ladder to get where we are at now. And all that time we were subject to our environment. We even are now to this day in our own artificial environments. It's no different for surreal creatures. so let us dive into the importance of environments in your creature design!

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)

Why are environments so important in your creature design

Why are environments so important in your creature design? We briefly touched on that in the introduction. Of course, you can draw anything you like. Not having an environment set up for your creature, doesn’t mean you will make a bad design per se. But creating this environment, at least in your mind, will set some much-needed boundaries.
The problem with creature design is not so much inspiration, it’s the unlimited possibilities. You can narrow these possibilities down by knowing anatomy and picking your animals you want to build your creature from carefully, but having the environment mapped out in your head makes just as large a difference.
It will give a direction as to what abilities your creature has, what kind of skin or fur it has, what colors or camouflage would make sense, how eventual limbs will look, and so much more!

Even the true creature design experts out there get a brief on what they need to draw from, so it’s really helpful for you to do the same. This can work both ways. You either start with an environment, work out what creatures live around there in the real world, and draw inspiration from them. Or vice versa, you may have a bunch of creatures you have selected for your project. When mapping out your environment you can have a look at the environments your preferred animals live. This way you may be able to eliminate some animals from your list to come to a more solid design.

Have a lack of inspiration, or want to challenge yourself? Use the Creature Prompt Generator! It will challenge you to create something from different animal species, a specific environment, locomotion/action, and special features.

What your environment can dictate about your creature

Morphology, or the form and structure of living animals, is dictated by the environment, causing evolution. That’s technically what we do when creating new creatures. We take our earthly laws, mix them with the environment and creature designs, and create something that makes sense to onlookers.
Therefore it’s important to understand why animals change over time. That way we can truly understand why creatures are the way they are, or how they would look. Because we learned what effect their environment had, has, and will have on their evolution and behavior.

It’s key to understand what creatures can live in which environments, just as much to understand it the other way around. the environment doesn’t only affect animals, but animals affect the environment as well. A mix of large grazing animal species can keep an environment free from large trees. But large trees keep sunlight from reaching the surface, leaving little space for grass and herbs to grow. Something large grazing animals depend on.
This doesn’t mean trees can’t grow where grazing animals are. This also doesn’t mean we won’t see grazing animals in a forest. Some animals like deer can live off of bark if needed, others are very thankful for the shade and cover against wind a forest can give. And some trees are so unappealing to grazing animals that they will leave them alone. But realizing that one thing affects the other and that it works both ways around, is very important.

Building your environment and creature at the same time, an example

The Octherium Sinoii
Creature design by Tessa Geniets

Let’s take the creature design to the right (or above this text if you’re looking on a mobile device). This fellow is an Octherium Sinoii. It was generated by the creature designer prompt generator. This generator is a true challenge as it can pick very inconvenient combinations. You really need to work your brain and knowledge to make something believable out of creatures that won’t naturally meet. The Octherium Sinoii is a great example of that.

The prompt

There are hundreds of thousands possible combinations available in the creature designer prompt generator, it’s very unlikely that you get the same prompt twice. In the case of the prompt generator you get your environment, traits, and creatures served on a golden platter, and off you go. This was the prompt I had to work with:

Arsinoitherium size compared to a human.
Image by Trent Schindler

For those that don’t know what an Arsinoitherium is: It’s a creature that vaguely looks like a rhino with two giant horns on its head. The animal is extinct these days. It’s not a dinosaur, but it’s a more recent megafauna that died out around 27-million years ago. Our ape forefathers may have seen them roam the planet, but none of our human forefathers.

Analyzing the animals and their environments

Obviously, the Arsinoitherium and the octopus wouldn’t naturally meet, but it wouldn’t have been unlikely either, technically seen. The Arsino lived in mangrove- and river-forests. This would naturally bring them close to bodies of water, and even the ocean. The prompted environment. However, a creature like the Arsino and the octopus are not easy to merge with each other. Which made this one a bit of a challenge.
I could either go with the body type of the Arsino, or that of the octopus. I have nothing against the Arsino, but its body type isn’t that interesting, and I can expect to see it frequently in the creature generator. This is because many animals are four-legged and roughly have this body type. So I went with the octopus instead, merging Arsinoi features with the octopus.

Trying to avoid the chimera

As mentioned in the article: What makes a good creature design, you want to do your best to avoid the chimera. Avoid assembling features of the animals haphazardly together as if they were two different puzzles you want to fit together, like the ancient chimera, built up with a lion’s head, a tail of a snake, and the head of a goat protruding from its back. With the Octherium this was a big challenge because both animals were so different from each other. Having it end up looking like a chimera, would simply mean I failed at the exercise.

I’m this kind of person that tends to fiddle on the same canvas in an effort to make a good composition and shape combination for my creature. For me it tends to work, but really: Don’t be like me. Making thumbnails, especially when it comes to creature designs, are the better way to go! Make a bunch, and pick your favorite. Work from there! It helps you generate idea’s.

Picking the features for your creature design

Picking what features to use on your design so it fits properly in its environment and makes sense as a creature isn’t easy. It needs to be functional to be believable. And this is where limiting yourself is very helpful. For the Octherium design, the limiting factors are the environment, the animals, and the fact it’s scavenging on land or in the shallows. My design needs to work around that somehow.

Fixing the rigidity of the arms

The small segments of the exoskeleton of this millipede make it very flexible.
Photo by Rashid Grey on Unsplash

I knew this creature could live on land, but also in the water. Picking the body-type of the octopus made it more likely to live in the water. It’s specialized to live that way after all. But we all know what happens when they end up on land: They can crawl their way around when the surface they’re on is slippery, but otherwise they get stuck and die. Not really something we would see scavenging on land, like our prompt tells us, right? So I had to work my way around that, and decided that, much like the giant horns from the Arsinoitherium, which I wanted to have in the design because of the unique feature, it could have other bony parts too.

Many aquatic creatures sport an exoskeleton, however, most of these creatures are not really flexible. Think of crabs, snails, sea stars, etc. But some others are, like the millipede and the centipede. They have a very flexible segmented exoskeleton, which could bring flexibility and strength to move on land for my Octherium.

Using the Arsinoitherium’s signature horns.

The crest of the triceratops is an interesting feature for creature designs.
By Nobu Tamura (Website)

It’s only logical to pick the most striking features of an animal to use on your design. And the horns of the Arsinoitherium are more than remarkable. They’re not seen anywhere else in modern day animals. Not like that at least. I placed it on the head, just like it’s placed on the Arsino. I could have placed them elsewhere on the body, but I decided that the segmented arms, combined with the bio-luminescent features, were more than enough. And placing them elsewhere didn’t really make sense. Plus, I liked the unique look and placement of them. We see enough other creatures that have mirroring horns elsewhere. But! And this was the next thing I stumbled over: The soft body of the octopus was gonna be a problem in this design.

Reinforcing the soft body of the octopus.

We all know that Octopi have a really soft big body that’s very flexible and fragile. That of course didn’t make sense compared to the giant horns, the present skull, and the segmented arms. However, I didn’t want to lose that feature. I felt I would end up with a chimera otherwise. A big Arsinoitherium head with an octopus-beak and tentacles protruding from under the skull didn’t really fit my ideal for a creature design. So instead I decided that a protective armor might be helpful in this case, as we had a heavy skull base, and segmented armor present already. Of course I would sacrifice the significant flexibility of the octopus, but I already lost that feature by needing to implement an animal with bones, the Arsinoitherium.

I think we all know the triceratops right? Yes, for this design I once again deviated to an animal species that wasn’t in the prompt! There is nothing wrong with that, when you apply that correctly, it will only complement your design. You just don’t want to overdo it. Less is more, also when it comes to creature designs.
The triceratops has a wonderful crest that could be supported by the enormous skull of my creature, but could also protect the fragile body right behind its head. And suddenly you have a creature that could ram its head right into the hull of your ship, causing significant damage to it, without harming itself.


Bio-luminescence in corals
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Bio-luminescence can be found throughout the world, It’s a feature meant to be used in dark places. For terrestrial organisms this means they’re usually nocturnal, or live in dark caves. For aquatic animals this means they are nocturnal and/or live at great depths. If you know a bit about octopi: Most of the species that are bio-luminescent actually do live at great depths. Their bio-luminescence can be used as counter-lighting, to hide their silhouettes when they’re near the water surface. They use it to communicate, hunt, lure, and more. Many species also have control over when their lights are on and when not.

This was a convenient feature for my creature. It’s a wonderful characteristic to begin with, but many octopi species already use this. Which made it relatively easy for me to implement. But even more important: It told me something about where the creature lived: In the depths. And it told me something about when it would come to land: Likely when darkness set in, at night, or very early morning. Because sunlight is stronger than bio-luminescent light, it would render it useless.
I imagined that the glistening reflection of the moon on the water surface could service as a perfect camouflage when the Octherium would use its lights on land.

However, I did decide to go with a sunset scene. The reds and the blues complement each other nicely, and the relatively light scene allowed me to add more visible details to this ‘first sighting’. It’s good to put your creature in its natural environment, but if that’s night, or it’s dark, you might want to add in a light source and play a bit with colors so your onlooker can make sense of it. This is less of an issue if it’s a movie or game. Your creature will move, this tells a lot about its shapes and nature. This is not the case with 2D images though.

Other planets and dimensions and their rules

We slowly get into the nitty gritty part of it all. What if your creature is not from this world? In this case storytelling and environment is even more important. Your creature may perform an act that’s not possible with our earthly laws of physics. It may fly, or float with a very heavy body because the gravity is extremely low. Or maybe its diet consists out of sulfur-rich plants, and maybe it needs to get rid of this excess sulfur and does so by oozing glands, or sulfur-colored spikes growing on its back, you name it. It’s important that you somehow communicate to your viewer that they’re not looking at a creature that lives on planet earth. The easiest way is to do that with your environment. You need to have a really strong design to make people want to read about it. So environment is your best go-to. If you do it the right way, it takes people only a matter of seconds to make sense of an image.

An example of an otherworldly environment

This is one of my older works. It’s an interesting design. However, the creature doesn’t behave or display in such a way that it could be from another planet. It’s just a well.. A figment of the mind I would say. For this creature I didn’t dig deep into other animal species and its environment was an afterthought. This was in fact my first creature design, it’s cool, but that’s about it. To get the otherworldly message across, I put some time in the background and created an alien world with plants that on planet earth, would be too fragile to be able to stand upright without support. You could take from this image that it’s a planet with little gravity.

More interesting reads on creature design


You have a quite good understanding now of the importance of the environment in your creature designs. Make sure you get to know the animals and their environments on planet earth. If you enjoy creature design, you probably enjoy watching documentaries. Pay a bit more attention to those than you world normally, Take note of how animals move, how they interact with their environment. How their environment looks throughout the seasons. Write your notes down. Maybe you have questions you like to dig into more. Read about them, study them, draw elements. or whole environments. And you will really get a feel of what your briefs, prompts, and designs are about.

If you have any questions or would like feedback to your art, feel free to join us at our Facebook community, or drop a reply down below!

Good luck!

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