Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Proper Use of Reference and Anatomy regarding Creature Design - Part Two

Check here for Part One. In part one you'll find a great deal of links to books for research on animals and extinct mammals and dinosaurs. I'll include a few extra online resources for this type of subject matter here in part two.
Proper use of Reference - What is correct and what is counterproductive?
Photo reference is important, but there are many ways of using such reference, some of which are more productive whereas others are counterproductive. I'll explain a couple reasons why this is so important to designing a more effective creature design. As a note to the drawings and imagery below, it's important to fully understand how real world anatomy is constructed, how it reacts to the functionality and daily purposes of the elements in regard to the creature's surroundings and life style.
(Note: Artwork and Photos copyright to their respected creators/owners where not appropriately credited or otherwise noted)
(Note: Artwork by Zhao Chuang & Xing Lida)

I'll often refer to an animal as a creature as there is no real distinction between the two nor should there be. A creature in a film or a game is simply an animal that is other worldly or of a different reality other than our own. If we can't relate to a being as having derived from our own world and in regard to its intelligence or lack there of, we determine it to be a creature, alien or extraterrestrial. If we had never seen a Hippopotamus or other large mammals such as the Rhino and Elephant, they would seem so alien and strange as each have such distinct and unique physical designs IE; the long flexible trunk, the long sharp horns, the enormous tusks and wide jaws. The Hippo oddly enough is an aquatic mammal or semi aquatic mammal and then there are marine mammals like the dolphin. If the Hippo thought of in regard to other classifications, it might seem that it is a large amphibian considering its life style. The Hippo is more at home in the water than it is on land and this is where it's capable of maneuvering with little effort whereas its weight hinders its mobility on land - though they are much quicker than they would appear in short spurts.
(Note: Artwork below is by Mauricio Anton)
(Note: Artwork by (c) K.J. Hayler)
(Note: Image Copyright (c) Photographer unknown)
(Note: Image Copyright (c) Photographer unknown source)

When you take a second to think about various animals on Earth, we have birds that don't fly and spend more time in water than they do in the air, and mammals that fly and spend more time in the air than on land IE; Penguins & Bats - We have mammals that without scientific evidence and observation might at first glance be considered a species of fish IE; Dolphin or species of Whale. With such odd diversities even in regard to what seem to be simple classifications, would it be so hard to conceive of mammalian-like creatures with more than 4 limbs? Most large mammals on Earth are quadrupeds or bipeds, but this is only due to the restrictions of environment or our laws of gravity and the affects of evolution in reaction to such rules. Although it's important to recognize these rules when designing creatures it's not necessary to abide by them. However, understanding the rules is what makes for more believable designs. What might a mammal like a Hippo look like if it consisted of an exoskeleton and a chitinous shelled body similar to a beetle?

Blending Anatomy of Different Species
(Note: 5 Artwork images below are by Mike Corriero)
The biggest mistake artists make when designing a creature is the Chimera effect IE; A lion's head on the body of a goat with bat wings and a snake tail. Sowing together various animal anatomy in a cut and paste process to design what they perceive to be a creature. It's true, if you slap together various elements of multiple species that in the end you're creating something unique and it could only be considered a creature. In the most simplest of explanations it IS a creature but it's a poor excuse to the misunderstanding of how to blend anatomy. As I mentioned before, think of the process of evolution and think of the creature as a species rather than an individual monster. The Chimera is a creature and it is possible to make one that looks aesthetically pleasing and even quite plausible, but you need to fully understand anatomy to pull that off. There is a game aptly titled Impossible Creatures which in my opinion is a perfect example of how NOT to use reference for designing a creature and it perfectly reflects the poor use of the Chimera effect.A great online resource for high res. animal photo reference is Igor Siwanowicz's Photo Gallery another one for Invertebrates is the Southeastern Regional Taxonomic Center and you might also like to check out photos by Marina Cano & The Smithsonian National Zoological Park Website. It's important to study reference so that you really observe and learn from it instead of just copying it line for line or stroke for stroke. It's like reading a book, if you just skim through the pages at a rapid rate, you're not really soaking the information in. Well in this case, if you're trying to copy a photo down to the very last detail you're missing what's truly important. It's more productive if you focus on the key elements in design and incorporate what you have learned into your next drawing instead of over detailing and "copying" what is right in front of you.
(Note: 2 Artwork images below are by Mike Corriero)
A well designed creature will often blend anatomy together so it's hard to distinguish that any single limb or element was simply redrawn from photo reference and slapped into place.
(Note: Artwork below is by Mike Corriero)
You're better off conceptualizing a creature design and bringing that design as far as you can go with your imagination first and only referring to relevant references later, once you have taken a design as far as it can go on your own. The reason for this is because most artist when starting out at an amateur level will simply "copy" what they see in front of them and they tend to neglect the actual learning process. The extreme details and copying of a photo is completely unnecessary if in the end you learned nothing from it, you'll just waste your time. In order to understand how the anatomy functions and is designed based on photos, it's best to keep your studies to simple line work and simple shapes. Research as much as possible about the animal as well, studying photos of it in movement, from different points of view and reading up on its living habits, diet, mating rituals, reproduction etc. It will also be to your benefit to find photos of the animals skeleton and various stages of life cycle IE; infancy, young adult, fully grown adult. I can't stress enough how important it is to stay away from over-detailing a drawing while you're learning. It will do no good to render eyelashes and nose hairs if you don't understand how the skull or abdomen are constructed, spend your effort on the dominate forms and structures that comprise the animals most basic silhouette. Playing around with various proportions at thumbnail scales is quite helpful.
(Note: 2 Artworks below are by Heinrich Kley)

(Note: Different stages in a species life cycle: Photo (c) copyright and by Marina Cano)
(Note: Artwork Copyright National Geographic - Artwork by Kennis and Kennis)
(Note: Artwork by (c) K.J. Hayler)
(Note: Image Copyright (c) Photographer unknown)
A Few Exercises to Improve Memory and Understanding of Anatomy
In the first part of this exercise you're going to draw an animal based off of a single photo (keep it rather simple, in terms of line work, focusing on the basic dominate structures IE; Head, Body Construction and Limbs). Then try to redraw that same animal keeping in mind the proportions in relation to one another and the basic elements of anatomy that make the animal unique from any other.
(Note: 3 Artwork images below are by Mike Corriero)
Next up, you'll want to take two reference photos (you can find anything online in google images) of the same animal, make sure at least one photo is a profile view and the other can be anything in motion, frontal or three quarter views. It will also help if you take a look at a third photo of a full body image of the skeleton in order to better understand all of the joints. If you study animal skeletons and try to reproduce the animal based on the skeletal structure you'll begin to learn how to construct the muscles and anatomy that cover the bones. It may help to look at a lot of prehistoric mammals and dinosaur references; reconstructions, artwork and skeleton photos. Composing categorized reference folders for such purposes will come in handy at some point.
(Note: Artwork and Photos copyright to their respected creators/owners )
In this process of observing and learning you're going to draw this animal based off the 2 new reference photos. The only difference is this time, you'll focus on the references and your drawing should position the animal in any other stance, point of view or action other than what you see in the two references. Only use those two reference and nothing else. The point of all of this is to take what you learned from the first step, having drawn the animal from one photo source, and again from memory.
(Note: Artwork Copyright National Geographic - Artwork by Kennis and Kennis)
(Note: Artwork below is by Mike Corriero)
This second step is to help you learn to better observe what is truly important from the two photos and try to produce this animal in a pose that is unique to the two in front of you. In the process of drawing the animal from a different point of view or action, you'll almost be forced to pay better attention to the anatomy without relying on simply copying the photo detail for detail. The images below by Heinrick Kley show a masterful understanding of anatomy, so much so that he is capable of drawing an animal like an elephant in elegant dance and caricature poses that in reality would be impossible while still retaining the initial body structure. This is a great example of the manipulation and understanding of anatomy. Note the lack of fine details, he is drawing distinct elements of anatomy and producing quick gesture poses.
(Note: 4 Artworks Below are by Heinrick Kley)
Rendering minute details, shading and skin textures should only be produced after you grasp the understanding of the basic body structure, proportions and pose gestures.You may want to continue these exercises a few times, with various types of animals from different species to different families, vertebrates & invertebrates. Once you have fully grasped the understanding of the anatomy of at least 2 different species and how to put it to use in an original point of view, you're going to design a creature from memory directly after all of these studies. The conceptual creature design should be pushed as far as it can be pushed, until you feel it is completely necessary to refer to photo references that will then be used to refine and hone the details and functional designs of what is relevant to your creature's anatomy.
(Note: Artwork below is by Heinrich Kley)

In the third portion of this series, we'll conclude by discussing how environment, habitat and ecosystems affect an animal and what affect that would have on why a creature is comprised of various choices in anatomy. You'll see this question "Why?" quite often as it's always best to have an answer for why you chose to design a creature with distinct types of anatomy and how that relates to its history. - Mike C

Guest blogger Mike Corriero is a character, creature, and conceptual designer and illustrator living in New Jersey. Since graduating from Pratt Institute in 2003, Mike's client list has included Breakaway Games, Fantasy Flight Games, Allied Studios, Kingsisle Entertainment, Radical entertainment/ Vivendi Universal Games, Liquid Development, Zynga Inc, Challenge Games, Paizo Publishing and Hasbro Inc, among others. Mike's book "PLANET to PLANET creatures and strange worlds" includes hundreds of his sketches of creatures, robots, alien life forms and their environments. I recommend it for students focusing on visual development for games, or anyone who loves creature design. - J. G. O.


  1. Real Nice! Keep up the Good Work!

  2. A super thank you Mike for greater insight on the process at a professional's level :)

  3. What I find hilarious is that the "Chimera" example is almost exactly what was used in "Dragon's Dogma".

  4. To funny! The turtles got my laughing!

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