What makes a good creature design

Creature design is a wonderful subject. Few artists didn’t attempt at least once to make a creature design work. Be that a hybrid, a whole new creature, or maybe a design that roots into some form of technology. But what makes a good creature design? Surrounded by fauns and mermaids, chimera and centaurs, one may think ‘oh, creature design is easy, we take one part, and add another animal part, maybe even a third and we’re done. But it isn’t that simple. Sure, we can make wonderful creature designs by cutting and pasting animal parts, but true creature design is FAR more than that.

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)

What makes a good creature design

To determine what makes a good creature design isn’t as easy as it may sound. It isn’t a simple cut and paste. But it’s a wonderful and exciting subject fit for anyone that’s up to a solid challenge. Creature design should be considered a profession. So, when you take on creature design, make sure you have your art fundamentals down before anything else. It’s very helpful to have a good understanding of, and a big love for nature, because that is what creature design is drawn from. Always remember that, when taking on creature design, you enter a realm of unknowns. To create a solid creature design you will need to take parts and bits from different animals and effectively put them together. And not only that: You also have to keep track of color, lighting, textures and so much more, to make a consistent piece.

What I’m saying up here is not to demoralize you, it’s just to prepare you for your journey. Be kind to yourself if it doesn’t work out the first few times. And find comfort in studying from life extensively. There is no shortcut to mastering art, and there is definitely no shortcut to creature design. But the rewards from mastering creature design are the greater. Everybody can shoot a picture of an animal. Everybody can dress up and pretend to be of another age or race. But nobody can take a picture of a creature that doesn’t exist. There may be many creature designers out there already, but there is always room for more.

Drawing from life

The first step in ANY kind of specialization is drawing from life. It may seem boring, but what we humans know from life, heavily impacts if a creature design is believable or not. We live and breathe this planet, this is what we know. We know what rules nature lives by and therefore, nature is our greatest teacher. Draw from life like your life depends on it, and you will build up a huge visual library in your head. This, later on, will speed up your workflow significantly, because you will know exactly what works and whatnot. Not to mention the wide range of options you will become aware of.

You can use anything and any kind of variation to get inspired.
Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

Inspiration can be found in your backyard, but it’s good to exploit google images as well. Pinterest is probably even more useful as that is a heavily image-based platform.
Did you know LtL has its own pinterest page with images collected for your use?

Don’t limit yourself to living creatures. Draw ideas from plants too, from machines, mushrooms, the planets in our solar system. Whatever you draw doesn’t have to source back to living animals, it can be anything. Any combination will work if designed properly. A good design blends familiar sources in an unfamiliar way.

A quote from the amazing creature designer Jerad Marantz:
“Unless you create something unique in an educated way, that shows your understanding of anatomy, gravity, and all of these other factors, your design won’t hold up”.

Pro tip: As an exercise, find corresponding body parts (bones, muscles, etc) in different creatures, relative to humans. We all come from early fish that, at some point, crawled on land and evolved. Muscles and bones are still largely arranged similarly amongst vertebrates. They just vary in proportion and sizes.

Drawing from imagination

Drawing from imagination is hard, Don’t be demoralized when your imaginary creature doesn’t work on paper, this is completely normal. Our imagination may feel crisp, but in truth, it’s a vague picture that is not well thought through. Drawing from imagination may start working when your visual library is extensive enough, but until then, expect that you need to modify your creature so it will make sense to the world. It’s completely normal to experience this. See your imagination as a source of inspiration, and start designing from there.

Drawing from other creature designs

This may seem like a no-brainer, but let me ask you this: Do you really want to draw something that was somebody else’s idea? Yes, this is a very important question. Of course, it’s very useful to look at creature designs and study them extensively. But if you want to be unique with your designs, try to avoid using creature design references as much as possible while coming up with your initial idea. Instead, add those to your references in a later stage to draw from textures, lighting, and other small details.

Avoid the chimera

Did you know chimera is not just a creature? It’s also the description for an individual. Specifically: ‘An organism that contains cells or tissues of two or more different species’. A single species can also be a chimera, this happens when two individual embryos successfully merge into one animal. Chimeras’ happens a lot in plants too, with and without the help of people.

So, the actual chimera is just a word applied to a creature that happens to consist out of several different animal parts (lion, goat, and snake). But many creature designs, especially old ones, are designed like that. Think of the faun, mermaids, centaurs, (technically called therianthropes as they are part human), jackalope, pegasus, griffin and so many more.

A chimera as displayed in mythology. It’s very clear what part belongs to what animal.
Source unknown

Examples of chimera’s

We may be very familiar with the faun, or the mermaid, but have you ever thought of how practical it really is for a faun to walk upright the way it does? The animal part goes up to the waistline, the hipbone and the muscles can’t possibly be aligned the way they are in the design of a faun.

Or think of the mermaid, what is truly practical about a mermaid having human arms and broad shoulders? The powerhouse is in the tail, the arms and the shoulders just stop a mermaid from being streamlined in the water. The same counts for their hair. It will just be in the way. A nose the size of that of humans is technically useless too, as marine life tends to breathe with the help of gills. Especially considering the fact that mermaids spend the majority of their time underwater in their city’s. They have no incentive to surface for air like a dolphin or whale and therefore have no need for a human nose.

Drawing chimera’s

But any design has its pros and cons. The point here is not to tear down designs that have been out there for hundreds or even thousands of years. They work, in a way, because they are still around. And to have something be called a ‘mythological creature’ is very powerful in and onto itself.
The point here is that these days, we are surrounded by the most wonderful games and movies. We live in an age where nothing is impossible, and this counts for creature design too.

In the dawn of the digital age, creature design has been heavily exploited, as creatures speak to our imagination unlike anything else. They lurk in our dreams, in our imagination… They can literally be anything. That is the power of creature design. It’s nearly unlimited! Just make sure that, when you do draw chimera’s, you do it with purpose. Make sure it blends well, and make sure you make a point of it being a chimera, so it can’t be mistaken for a poorly thought-through idea.

Limitations are key

Creature design may have unlimited options, but limiting yourself with your designs is key to an effective and believable design. With nearly all art, ‘less is more’. Paint a clear picture in your design, overdoing it will just confuse the viewer. And remember that nature selects on what is functional, and what is functional to a species is usually limited to just a few features. Because of that, we have such a huge diversity on our planet. Make sure your design doesn’t get crowded with details. Take your time and think through your creature.

How to limit yourself

  • Do research on real-life animals
  • Determine the habitat of the creature
  • Determine the behavior of the creature
  • Does it look proportional?
  • Does it look believable?
  • Draw with a rock-solid goal
  • White your creature a narrative

Do research on real life animals

You have an idea in your mind. Try to dissect the creature in recognizable animal parts and find animals that not only can represent these parts but can also represent the transition between one part and the next. If you are unable to make an effective, and believable transition, look up other animals who may fit the bill. When it comes to creature design it’s very important to stay open-minded. More often than not, the initial idea simply doesn’t work. Don’t give up on your design in this stage, research is key. Don’t expect one creature after another to fly from your brain. They won’t.

In your first designs, stay close to the original animal you’re taking parts from. Creature design is hard enough as it is. Once your visual library is extensive enough, and your confidence has grown, you can become bolder in your designs. Creature design is really a profession on its own, it may take years to master, don’t become demoralized because your first designs aren’t as flashy as you’d like them to be. They will come, in time.

Determine the habitat of your creature

All life evolves because of their environment. There are millions upon millions of examples on our planet that display just that. We humans only evolved as much as we did because we learned to take advantage of fire. Our food became more easily digestible, so more energy went to our brains, and here we are, making up creatures that never existed before.

Beaks

We take beaks as an example. Ever had a look at hummingbirds? Their beaks are shaped in a way that corresponds to specific flower shapes. Some are extremely curved, so they can enter the flower of a plant without destroying it. Or even enter it at all. While others are more straight, so they can fit their beaks into different flower species, or catching insects.

Different beak shapes and sizes amongst hummingbirds. Use features like these in your creature design, to enhance your artwork.
Images by: Zdeněk Macháček x2, and Shaun Bell

Diffrent beak shapes for different feeding patterns in Darwin’s finches.
From left to right and top to bottom: Geospiza magnirostris, Geospiza fortis, Certhidea olivacea, and Camarhynchus parvulus.
Image by Kiwi Rex

Have a look at Darwin’s finches, they are all finches living on the Galapagos Islands and they are very closely related. It’s very likely that at some point, they were one and the same species that ended up specializing because of their different habitats or to avoid competition with other finches. They basically specialized towards specific ecological niches.
They all look different from each other, but the most significant thing about these finches is their beaks. Some specialized in eating big hard seeds and grew huge beaks, while others specialized in eating small seeds and insects. They, therefore, had no need for large beaks.

Other things to keep in mind

Camouflage can be key to your creature design.
Photo by Hans Veth on Unsplash

But it doesn’t stop here. Think of potential camouflage, the way they need to move around in their environment, the pros and cons of specific colors or types of skin (fur, feathers, scales, etc), and so on. Add props, maybe it’s an intelligent creature that works with tools, or has some form of crafted armor, or even clothes. You have to understand the creature like you had one as a pet for years.
You can see these adaptations happen all over the world, it’s so embedded in our knowledge, and what we consider as normal and familiar, that real-life features are applied in even the most otherworldly creature designs.

How does it behave?

Behaviour is probably the most useful aspect of your creature design. Behavioral patterns dictate the diet and therefore the environment it needs to live in. Look at the long-extinct Argentinosaur, this giant long-necked dinosaur would need to eat from large trees to sustain itself, these trees would need to be dispersed enough to have the dinosaur move around. Add its weight (80 to 100 tons) and you can’t have that stroll around in a densely forested marshland.

Suspected size of the Argentinosaur. Think of all aspects of your creature to ensure a good creature design.
Image by: Slate Weasel

If your creature is a carnivore, you know it will have to hunt. It needs something to latch on with onto its prey, so you can expect claws or sharp teeth. Maybe have a horn impale its prey if you want to go a bit more ‘out there’.  Or have a look at the Komodo dragon. They simply bite their healthy prey once and follow it until it dies from the poison from the lizard’s saliva. This is a process that can take days, so most of the time, when the prey is down, but not dead, they just start having their first servings.

Does it look proportional?

This is the question about the design itself. We tackled the questions regarding its environment and behavioral patterns, now we have to look into its proportions. Does it have large wings? Make sure the chest is big enough to support muscles for those wings. Does it have huge horns on its head? Give it strong neck- and shoulder muscles. Is it a small and bulky creature? A tail may help it out to find balance. Just look at all the individual parts of your design and how they correlate with each other. Tweak where necessary, without losing its initial idea.

Does it look believable?

Creature design by AJ Ramos
Note how contrast, pose, point of interest, and all the other elements come together in a wonderful design.

This is an answer you need to get as soon as possible. That is why drawing thumbnails and sketches are key to your design. It will give you a lay of the land and it helps you spot problems early on. If you don’t believe in your own design, you can count on it that anybody else won’t either. We know what we know from life because we grew up with it. This gives us a sense of ‘normal’.

We don’t see four-legged animals walk on their back legs, so don’t put the back legs of a horse on the body of a bird. It is wonky and it will be received as such. Nature always has some sort of flow, if this flow isn’t there, the species won’t survive, or won’t even have the chance to become a species at all. Keep this in mind in your designs. If you want to create more than a hybrid (chimera), a design that meets the standards of the 21st century, every-single-part of your design has to make sense! Not only as an individual creature, but also within its habitat, behavioral pattern, and the world it supposedly lives in.

Draw without a rock-solid goal

Do you remember how I said before that you should be open to ideas and adjustments? You can take that to the next level with a few simple tricks while drawing thumbnails.
You know the overall shape already of your creature design, maybe some of the features. But you want to stay open-minded. To help you on that quest you can do that easily with the following little tricks:

  • Use an oversized brush, this will stop you from adding details early on.
  • Pick a jagged brush to make your thumbnails. A jagged brush is hard to control and may accidentally add interesting features to your creature design. Let the ‘happy accidents’ happen.
  • Use a tiny brush and just roughly scratch in your design. Make it so small that it feels like you’re trying to draw something with a sharp knife on a piece of metal. This way it’s easier to play around with shapes, without the need to erase.
  • Avoid colors in this stage. It will just be added noise to an already complex subject.
  • Only use contrasts after you decided on the shape. These contrasts will help you create depth, form, and confirm features.
  • Don’t stop after a few thumbnails. Fill your page with it, you will get some great ideas from that. Pick and choose what features you like and end up with something even better

Write your creature a narrative

Sometimes you will be represented with a rough description or even a narrative for a creature. If that’s not available, it’s still very useful for you to write a narrative for the creature you want to draw. Like that, you can wander along with it within its environment and solidify in your head what it possibly can or cannot do, or what features it needs to have to live in an environment you imagined for it. But also think of its body-type, the type of skin, the type of eyes, and all of its other features and behavior patterns. Look at what real animals would do, or how they look, within the environment you like to place it in. Or vice versa: Look for a fitting environment for its behavior and features, and you are well on your way!

Having a lack of inspiration

We all know that feeling. You look at a blank page, and well… What now? That creeping feeling of inability to make anything useful can be really hurtful. But really, this can be a very useful thing. Just grab your oversized brush, or start scratching around with an undersized one, and see whatever you find within your scribbles. Maybe it’s a great idea for your next design, or maybe it’s a body part that would fit perfectly on an unfinished artwork. Having a lack of inspiration isn’t an obstacle, no matter how it feels. It’s an opportunity you can grab for the benefits of your designs.

If you rather have some reference by your side, don’t limit yourself to animals. Be inspired by plants, mushrooms, mythology, machines, abstract figures, etc. The best designs are born from things we know, that are morphed into things we don’t know. These ideas can come from living and lifeless things.

Using pose references for your creature design

Finding a suitable pose for a creature that doesn’t exist can be a pain in the arse, this is one of the reasons why it’s so important to understand the bodily structures of the animals you used in your design. Because when you understand that, you can use any pose from any correlating animal to apply to your creature design. If you draw a two-legged creature, learn how to use human poses to benefit that of your creature. If it’s a four-legged powerhouse, check out poses of rhino’s, elephants, and hippos.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking it’s not an exact representation of what you’re trying to draw. Because really, that’s the nature of creature design.

Point of Interest (PoI) and the use of contrasts

The antlers clearly angle towards the head, but this is not the main subject. Within this artwork, the PoI is the deer itself. This is emphasized by having the landscape roll towards the deer and having nothing contrasty in the background interfere with the deer’s silhouette.
Art by: Tessa Geniets

The point of interest is the point you think is most important about your creature design. The PoI, most of the time is the face or the hands. But, in an environmental design, this could also be the place the creature is looking at ~Maybe a prey for example.
No matter the place, it’s absolutely worth emphasizing it. You can do this by adding contrast.

With contrasts, we usually mean the difference between light and dark. But contrast can be anything. It can be two contrasting colors, color intensity, textures, and contrasting shapes and sizes, or even line thickness if you use line-art in your designs, amongst other things. But it can also be very helpful to use so-called directional lines that point at your point of view. This can be a leaf hanging from a tree, pointing to the face of your creature, or maybe a hill in the background that disappears behind the head of your creature. Maybe your creature is fishing. The fishing rod will point to the creature too at one end.
No matter the tools you use, twist and bend them to support your design. But always make sure you don’t overdo it.

Next level creature design

You have your art fundamentals down, you are comfortable with drawing from life, and you have quite some creature designs on your name already. But there is a lot more to it if you want to create something engaging.
Don’t worry if you’re not there yet, with persistence, you definitely will get there. But start doing the following steps actively only after you have your art fundamentals down, and have some believable creature designs on your name. Else you will make things way too complex for yourself and that will only demoralize you.

Storytelling

Storytelling is important in any design. To be able to story tell, your creature needs to do something within its environment. It has to interact with the environment in one way or another and/or with the viewer. Maybe it’s feeding. Maybe it’s in the middle of jumping out of the bushes, ready to attack its prey or to scare the hell out of the viewer.
Storytelling is almost a profession on its own and is dictated by the message you want to get across to the viewer, but also by the creature and its environment. It’s a hard thing to achieve, but when you manage to do that, your art will become ‘next level’ right away.

Atmosphere and storytelling are key to to an effective design.
Art by: Tessa Geniets
Inspired by art from: AJ Ramos

Atmosphere

The atmosphere tells something about the environment the creature lives in. But also about the time of day and maybe even the time of the year. Even more importantly, it can tell something about what is going on. Adding a gloomy atmosphere may not only tell the viewer that the creature lives in a marsh or a cave, but it may also add the feeling of impending doom.
At the other end of the scale, a sunny environment can benefit your cute creature design a lot, but will likely break that of a badass creature of nightmares.

Body language, expressions and dynamic poses

Dynamic poses create interest.
Photo by Ali Johnson on Unsplash

Body language and dynamic poses add character to your creature and adds dynamics. However, understanding a creature in a 3D space and adding character and body language to it is a huge challenge. But when you get to this point, your designs will rock, even without a background. For poses, just look at poses of real animals and see what fits for your creature and the situation it’s in.

Adding expressions is probably even more challenging as these facial expressions usually come from micro changes within facial muscles. But studying facial expressions from humans and primates always helps. But don’t forget to check out the expressions from animals you used in your design. Animals have a wide range of facial expressions too.

When applying dynamic poses and body language, make sure you avoid symmetry. Repetitive shapes may be very helpful for your design, but avoid making them symmetrical, as symmetry is considered to be boring. Symmetry can be avoided by showing a ¾ view of your creature, or having it in the middle of the action of turning around. Perspective can help you out greatly too with this matter.
In some cases, symmetry may be preferred, but if you apply it, make sure it’s very intentionally applied.

More interesting reads on creature design

Conclusion

We live and breathe this planet, this is what we know, and life is what makes this planet so unique. The inspiration we get is that of this planet. The sense of normal is determined by what we learn early on. Nature is our biggest teacher, and our greatest designer. It should be your biggest inspiration. Fly high, dive deep. Travel the Himalaya and visit the great tundra’s in the north. Enter the caverns of Crystals in Chihuahua Mexico, and be amazed by the Waitomo Glowworm caves in New Zealand. Nature will never cease to amaze. Embrace it, and you will never run out of wonderful designs.

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