I promised Rebecca a tutorial and I always mean to keep my promises. I hope you like it. It’s from my latest book - “Creature Sketches”
As a professional artist, you will probably be called upon at some point to design a fictitious creature or character. You might be given a few adjectives for guidelines (menacing, cute, funny, etc.) beyond which you can paint or draw whatever you want.
This is a scary thought to a lot of artists because it can feel like being stranded in the middle of a desert with 360 degrees of free movement but no destination in sight. Where do you begin? Where do you end? And what goes in the middle?
Before you go randomly designing a creature, think about what youre trying to accomplish. Just because your creature is fictional doesnt mean you are free to throw down anything that crosses your mind. Consider this: the most compelling creatures have a purposetheyre compelling because, even though theyre not real, they MAKE SENSE. A polar bear-type animal with thick fur living in the desert wouldnt make much sense. The creature would be JARRING, not COMPELLING.
So heres your first consideration: real life animals typically look the way they do for a practical, evolutionary reason. Every detaillike a leopards spots or a chimps opposable thumbsexists for a logical purpose. So keeping this in mind, imagine that youre not so much CREATING your creature so much as you are watching the results of its natural evolution.
Lets begin with its habitat, since how a creature has evolved is often dictated by its environment. So, where does it live? Maybe its a cave-dweller. If this is the case, how does that affect its appearance? Its skin might have minimal pigmentation due to its lack of contact with sunlight, leaving it very pale and pink in color. For the same reason, maybe it has tiny eyes but large ears because sound is more important to it than sight is as it navigates through pitch black caves.
If your creature lives in a cold environment, how does it stay warm? Is it extra furry or fat? Or on the flipside, if your creature is from a hot environment, how does it stay cool? Is it hairless? Or perhaps its body is long and thin so that it doesnt retain heat?
Does its coloration help to camouflage it into its surroundings? Or is its coloration very bright and eye-catching in order to serve as a warning to predators? Maybe the creature has a distinctive pattern that serves some other special purpose, such as markings that look like eyes to keep predators from trying to sneak up on it while its sleeping.
This creature, for example, wards off predators because the combination of its colors and its folds gives it a tiger-like appearance to confuse and intimidate other animals which might otherwise try to attack it.
In addition to color, also consider texture. Does your creature have tough skin like a rhino or possibly a shell like a turtle?
Do they mate? If so, how do they attract the opposite sex? Do they have long manes like lions do? Or colorful spots, stripes, or other body parts (the bright blue snouts of mandrills comes to mind) with which to attract a mate?
Once weve brainstormed some ideas about its basic appearance, lets consider structure and function. Think about locomotion: how does your creature get around in its environment? Does it have claws to climb up trees? Does it have large fins to help it swim?
How and what does it eat? If its a plant eater, it might have predominantly large, flat teeth for grinding. If its a meat eater, its teeth would most likely be pointed and sharp so that it can cut and rip through a carcass.
How does it get its food? Does the creature hunt its prey, and if so, how does it do this, by chasing it down, sneaking up on it, or by lying in wait? Or perhaps the creature is a specialized forager with a body (or body parts) suited particularly for its favorite food. For this, consider the long neck of a giraffe, which allows it to reach the tender leaves at the tops of trees, or anteaters, which have long, specialized tongues, which they can reach into anthills.
When you are standing in the desert with endless possibilities before you, every question you ask yourself about your creature is a signpost to your final destination. Come up with your own questions, the more the better.