Why learning anatomy for creature design is important

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Anatomy is one of these things many people are allergic to. So, why is learning anatomy for creature design so important? The simple answer is: It's an art fundamental. The more complex answer we will discuss in this article. Getting a hang of the why and how will probably make you a bit more excited about this much-dreaded art fundamental. It's fun to learn really, that is if you have a solid grip on what you're supposed to learn and why. Thankfully, anatomy is not repetitive. This makes it really awesome to learn once you put your mind to it.

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 (un)fold)

Learning anatomy for creature design

Learning human anatomy is a challenge in and of itself. It is a big part of creature design too, especially taking into account anthropomorphs. But learning anatomy for creature design is really next level. There are so many creatures out there as life had so much time to evolve and diversify. There is so much variety and so much to learn. So many things that could work if you just apply your knowledge. Then there are impossible challenges, and they

Intentional and functional creature designers

You could say that there are roughly 2 different kinds of creature designers. Intentional and functional creature designers. The latter will create something that would work on an anatomical and biological level. It would also work well in the environment it’s in. This way of creating creatures is a bit more challenging than that of intentional creature designers, simply because there are more things you have to keep in mind.

Intentional creature designers will create creates with a specific purpose. This can be ‘cute’ or ‘terrifying’ for example. A master of intentional creature design would be Bobby Chiu. His creatures may be functional, but may also be intentional. Below is a perfect example. In a way, this could work, if we look at bodyparts in a way they’re not (the ears don’t make sense underwater, so maybe they’re fins The combination of legs and a streamlined fish body doesn’t make sense either). But technically this creature is of the intentional type, to look cute and tell a story. Not one that would be really functional the way it is.

Bobby Chiu drawing an intentional creature design.

Some creature designers are clearly either intentional or functional designers. But more often than not it’s a blend of both. Personally, I lean more toward the functional side of creature design, but I really don’t shy away from the intentional side of it. It’s just another layer of challenges. Either way: It is important to understand anatomy so your creatures make sense at least to a certain degree. And this may be a bit more important for functional creature designers than for intentional creature designers.

Some examples of intentional creature designs

As someone once said: Foals are capable of galloping within the hour. Babies can’t even keep their heads upright without help until at least 3 months of age.
Image made by: Unknown. Please contact me if you are the artist!

There are some very well-known intentional creature designs out there. Although they’re created every day, the best-known ones are part of legends. They are:

  • Mermaids
  • Minotaurs
  • Chimera
  • Centaurs
  • Satyr
  • Griffin
  • Centaur
  • Sphynx etc

The above is also known as Chimera. The Chimera of this list is the most obvious one. A lion creature with a snake and a goat head attached to it. These designs are purely intentional. There is nothing functional about them. Oh, and it can also fly and has bird legs.

A non-functional chimera. I think we can all see why this creature can’t possibly survive being functional. Don’t do this unless you really don’t have a choice! Be sensible when you design intentional creatures.
Image: Unknown – Italian drawing made around the 1600s.

Functional creature designs

There are many creatures out there that actually are functional. They are inspired by creatures that once existed or still exist today.

  • Kraken
  • Dragons
  • Unicorns
  • Jackalope
  • Kitsune
  • Wyverns

They are all creatures that could exist. It may not make absolute sense like the Jackalope (A rabbit with antlers) but it could absolutely exist without being disfunctional. The same counts for the other creatures that are named.

Featured image – The Hurronculus

The Hurronculus, a creature design that’s more functional than intentional despite the strange combination of creatures.
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

This creature is a good example of an intentional creature design. It’s a mix of a scorpion and a naked mole rat. This creature was actually prompted by the creature design prompt generator of Life to Legend. Generators like this may not always come up with a functional idea as the prompts are randomized. That doesn’t mean though that you can’t come up with something that could work.

This design now being over a year old (this writing is of October 2022) I would tackle some things differently. But regardless, this creature could technically work. The different parts are properly blended together, so there is little to no chimera going on. The rat would have had a tail regardless and the scales work their way to the head where we also find mandibles like we sometimes see in scorpions.

Commissions

You may have a client with a very specific idea in mind. However, what you most likely already discovered is: Something that’s in your head may not work on paper. This is because what’s in your head is just a hazy image. Your client may not know this yet. Part of being a good creature designer is being able to explain why something doesn’t work. And then determine what can be sacrificed and what not to still meet your client’s wishes. Coming up with good solutions and alternative suggestions is a really big part of this profession. The more knowledge you have of anatomy, the more solutions you can come up with and the fewer problems you will come across.

Regardless you may still run into a wall because your client’s wishes really are impossible. But at least you will be able to inform your client properly and point out the solutions. If even then you can’t come up with a better design (it keeps being declined) you at least did the best you could and can move on without feeling guilty about delivering a botched-up design.

Building up a visual library

Building up a visual library is really important to do when you work on creature designs. As I mentioned before: The animal kingdom is so incredibly diverse that it’s hard to get the hang of all of it. Include the plant kingdom and well, I guess you get my drift. The more you know the better. After some time you will come up with ideas and solutions you weren’t even aware of. You might not even have known where they came from.

The beauty is, the more you practice, the easier the practice becomes. You also subconsciously start to build up your visual library which even keeps working while you’re not occupied with creature design at all. In the end, you will be able to draw creatures from the top of your head without the need for many visual reference images.

Dividing animals in groups

Dividing animals into groups is really effective to get a good creature design. This counts for both functional and intentional designs. The first is a bit more than the latter. It’s always good to aim to use body parts of creatures from different groups but to make this look like it makes sense you’re up for a big challenge. I do not recommend doing that early in your creature design practice.

Some groups you could consider:

  • Terrestrial animals
  • Aquatic animals
  • Avian animals
  • Crustaceans and insects
  • Prehistoric animals

Some groups are fairly easy to combine. Terrestrial animals can easily be combined with avian animals. Terrestrial tends to go well with aquatic creatures too, the same counts for prehistoric land and sky dwellers. They don’t do well with crustaceans and insects though. This last group however works well with prehistoric creatures.

Combining different groups together

When you start combining different groups, it serves you well to keep the following things in mind: (Note that these are more important for functional designs than intentional designs).

  • If you decide to use 1 part of a specific animal group, make sure it returns again somewhere else in the body. This can be the shape, the texture, the function, or the color. It helps to keep the design together.
  • When you combine more challenging groups or animals, blend their anatomies together, don’t just ‘cut and paste’ body parts.
  • If your creature is big and bulky and it flies, make sure its wings are gigantic. Or make it a bit more slender. This counts for all extreme combinations.
  • Check which parts of anatomy you can exaggerate to make a more interesting and/or functional design. A dragon for example should really have a chicken breast design because the muscles for the wings need a lot of space to attach to. Something with a big bite force might have a skull with a comb so the muscles can attach to something solid as well. And there are a million more examples like this.
  • If you combine avian and aquatic animals, for example, decide for yourself which of the two it’s primarily. Then learn about the behavior, habitat, and anatomy of the animals that resemble that the most. Additional research for the secondary animal species can be really helpful too.

Become conscious of relationships and evolution

You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that a whale is a mammal. So I put it out here. This means that its anatomy and biology are more similar to that of mammals than that of fish, even though it solely lives in the deep blues. Being aware of these things opens up more doors and will give you a lot more inspiration.

  • Marsupials are a very rare group of animals on our planet. They are unlike anything else.
  • Coral reefs are not plants, they are colonies of animals.
  • Jellyfish are mobile when they’re born, they become stationary polyps. The polyp then releases clones that are jellyfish.
  • Some creatures, like the horseshoe crab, actually do have blue blood.
  • Some animals listen to vibrations with their feet or trunk like elephants. Others have ears in weird places or have lopsided ears to help them hear better.
  • Symbiosis is a thing, it’s when two different animal species work together to survive.
  • And much more!
Illustration by: L. Shyamal

Understanding functionality

Understanding the functionality of different animal features is extremely helpful as well. We don’t only learn about diversity, but also about why for example specific shapes are associated with specific specializations.

Bird beaks are probably one of the best examples out there. Birds are easy to observe and well-documented. Starting with birds to study will give you a lot of inspiration. If you’re really interested in creature design and nature, doing this will probably spike your curiosity even more.

Plants, fungus, and more

Creature design doesn’t stop at humans or animals. Next-level creature designs can be based on plants, fungi, or even elements. There are many simple designs you could think of to make creature designs from. You won’t be the first. Think of leaf or stick insects, moths, and more animal species that mimic plants. You can use them, or actual plants and fungi to get your inspiration from.

Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is a subject on its own. It is the art of creating something that is human-like. Anthromorphs are creatures that have human-like features. In a way, this also includes humans with creature-like features. These creatures obviously require a lot of knowledge about human anatomy, but also about emotions, cultures, and so on. They too are great sources to draw inspiration from. Creature design doesn’t stop at the natural kingdom. It can dive deep into cultures and technology as well.

Conclusion

When it comes to creature design, the options are truly unlimited. Don’t stop at things that move around within sight, look further, deeper, back in time, and straight to the future. Be inspired by movies, the clouds, and a rusted door-knob. Think of the minds behind Belle and the Beast, that of the Sci-fi movie Avatar or the old of age but still futuristic Star Wars. There is inspiration to be found everywhere, and nature and the human mind together provide an unlimited source of it.

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