Monday, April 18, 2011

Proper Use of Reference and Anatomy in Creature Design - Part Three

Habitat, Environment or Ecosystems play a major role in the development of an animal or creature's design.
It's due to the varied terrain that animals belonging to the same family evolve over time to adapt to their surroundings. This is how individual species are born during the process of evolution, branching off from one animal into many different though similar variations. This is why the environment in which an animal lives is an integral part of creature design. It helps if you think of your design in the sense of it being a species. If you're drawing sketches and designing a creature, if you think of it as a species; then come multiple factors to keep in mind during this process. As is the case with a living animal on earth, we need to bare in mind how this creature functions in all aspects of life. How does it interact within its ecosystem, how has the anatomy come to evolve due to its surroundings? Where does it fit within its fictional Animal Kingdom? - Part One and Part Two of this series.

(Note: Artwork below by Raul Martin)
Camouflage is a result of color and pattern adorned by multiple species each for their own reasons. Color and patterns play a major role in an animal's life and the design of its markings are due to the surrounding environment. The spots of a cheetah or leopard are meant to conceal its body and break it up to blend into the environment when hunting. The same goes for the coloration of shark and fish where the underbelly is bright and the top side is a darker blue/grey/green. It's so anything below the shark looking up won't be able to distinguish the white underbelly from the white light shining down above the surface and anything above sees it disappear into the abyss. Larger animals like an elephant, rhino and hippo don't need to worry so much about attacks from predators but their color is a neutral tone in part due to their size. Usually it's a case of keeping the body temperature down especially for an animal like an elephant where a lot of energy is exerted to move such massive weight and bones. If it were too light or too dark, it might overheat or become too cool. In certain times when the heat is overwhelming, elephants will cover their bodies with mud to block the sun and to cool themselves down.This kind of act of using its environment to regulate its body temperature is another thing to keep in mind when designing a creature. Thinking of various underwater and aquatic animals, you may see shrimp and crab species adorning and decorating their shelled exterior with living plants, algae and other aquatic vestigial life. Camouflage isn't always born through evolution or embedded in the design, sometimes it is created by use of the surrounding ecosystem and manually crafted by the animal. So how might your creature utilize its environment? How might its coloration be put to use based on its size, its purpose in life or its environment? ... always ask yourself "why?" Below are artworks by wildlife and paleontology reconstructionist artists Dick Van Heerde, Robert Nicholls, Tod Marshall, John Gurche, Ron Meilof, John Banovich, Jeremy Pearse, Robert Back, Nancy Howe and Raul Martin. All artwork is copyright to their resepective owners. If so many variations of animals can fall under the same class of marine mammals, the family of delphinidae there must be a purpose why each individual species evolved with distinct attributes. The length of the body or a dorsal fin, the shape and length of a tail fin, the shape of the head, length of the nose, the type of teeth etc. So when you're making decisions in design of your creature, make conscious decisions. Once you're done with your concept, go back to it and examine it... learn from it. Whichever species of animal you borrowed anatomy from, they had a specific purpose so it would help to research that animal and its anatomy to better understand the function of your design.

(Note: The montage of dolphin species below is by concept artist and illustrator Tiffany Turill
Below is artwork of a fictional creature designed by Alex Ries aka Abiogenesis. His Barnard's Swordswallower exhibits a similarity to multiple marine species that exist here on earth but it is unique in its construction and purpose. The anatomy choices in design suit the environment as do the markings in the creature's coloration (light underbelly, dark above). Just as we see species and animals evolve over time here on earth, you should build a history and background to the existence of your own creature designs. Writing little notes or a small story or description about the creature will help. Perhaps there are other creatures similar to it that the creature evolved from or species that have evolved from or are related to it. I mentioned once before in part 01 and part 02 of this series that it's best if you think of your creature design as an animal species no matter how bizarre it is. Now of course there are "monsters" or "characters - creatures of an individual personality" but we will discuss that in another topic. Nothing on an animal's body occurs by mistake, it's all developed and designed over time for very specific reasons. Just as is the case with concept design, some of those changes or choices are discarded and the more affective ones survive. The body of one animal and it's differences from another are relevant to the way that animal runs, eats, hunts, breathes, births offspring, mates or courts a mate, how it digs, balances, jumps, hides and survives the weather. Everything in life has a purpose and with that statement, you should implement that reasoning into your own thought process.

(Note: Artwork below by adeptka biotechu)

There are species of dinosaurs, raptors, oviraptors and pterosaurs with many similar features and body structures depicted with feathered vestigial limbs or bodies. As the design of these extinct animals came to resemble birds more and more over time, it's not hard to imagine a relation. As certain species of dinosaurs evolved into small bird-like theropods there must have been a reason for the development of feathers and eventually species capable of flight. The same reason that other similar animals like the penguin or ostrich though birds had evolved where flight was not a necessity. It has to do with the living conditions, the environment and the necessity of surviving in such conditions that cause an animal to evolve and adapt to its surroundings. Penguins have adapted to cold arctic winds, they migrate on foot, they swim, catch and feed on fish using their beaks. Other birds like a Falcon or Hawk glide and attack from above with talons for grasping and ripping into the flesh of smaller mammals and other birds or snakes. Then still, birds like the Ostrich run quick and gallantly with long strides, they attack with large powerful legs equipped with large nails and they feed on mostly vegetation of sorts and some insects. We're capable of classifying animals such as a polar bear, a grizzly bear and a black bear to have all developed from the same ancestor. If a polar bear lives in the arctic circle and is constantly surrounded by snow and ice it's by no mistake that the animal's fur coat is white. In this example the purpose is to allow the animal to remain hidden from hunting prey, yet in other examples of the arctic hare (rabbit) its purpose is to conceal itself as a form of hiding/camouflage. So the color of an animal or the color of your creature is also very important. Don't simply choose without reason to make your giant terrestrial arhropod that lives on a red planet like mars to be a bright white just because it looks cool in contrast (Though aesthetics in design are often important as much as the reasoning behind the choice.) make sure you put as much thought into the color scheme as you would the functionality of the body and its limbs. Artwork below by Alex Ries aka Abiogenesis. This is his own rendition of the largest flying animal in recorded history, the Quetzalcoatlus pterosaur. (A 12-15 meter wingspan, standing in comparison to the equivalent of a giraffe.) It's important to understand what was possible to make what doesn't exist believable.Now the difference of the artwork below by artist Adeptka Biotechu is an Oviraptor a small flightless bird-like dinosaur, as scientist have suggested possibly feathered species otherwise known as theropods. This would be more closely related to large flightless birds such as the Ostrich or other Ratites like the Emu or Rhea. Other than the largely obvious distinguishable feature that Pterosaurs flew and Oviraptors didn't, they are both bird-like dinosaurs. Think back to Penguins versus Falcons. It's interesting when you study the body of pterosaurs because it's believed most or all couldn't take off from the ground (generally having to fly off cliffs, and rather than flap much like birds today they mostly glided using wind currents and heat pockets - we see the same tactic used by the largest of birds of flight today). Aside from flying or taking off from the ground, they had to walk as well. You can see in Adeptka's rendition above there is one pterosaur landing from flight and one walking. It's too in depth to discuss in this post but research a bit about Avian Flight and you'll see just how difficult it would be for such large animals or creatures to fly. Action and interaction: Once you start to place your creature into a setting involving an environment, other creatures whether predator or prey and the elements of nature, you'll better understand how it functions. You'll want to consider it's general size, how it's bone structure (if it has one; vertebrates, invertebrates) is comprised, how much it weighs, what it eats..etc again, you need to at least consider these options otherwise it's just a random shape that moves without reason or function. Provide yourself with a starting point. Figure out where your creation lives, does it live on land, or water, underground, in the air, in space, jungles, desserts, cold or hot regions etc..

(Note: The 1st image below is by artist John Gurche, other paleo works are by Raul Martin and Todd Marshall as well as others mentioned at the top of this post)
An observation of life in the wild. A sketch of Hesperornis below: By artist John Conway (An Extinct flightless aquatic bird, much like the penguin) shows this species engaged in hunting for food. This is something that should be constantly studied and examined when watching series like Planet Earth or Life or any other show on The Discovery Channel and Animal planet that document animals and their living habits. These are all things you can put to use in your creature designs. As we see in the drawing below by artist Virgil C. Stephens, we have 3 species from 2 different classes (The Mountain Lion and two Buck Deer as well as a bird flying in the background - the Mountain Lion also known as a cougar or puma and the Buck Deer fit in the class: Mammals and the bird in the background though unidentifiable fits within the class: Birds) The most important thing about this drawing is the interaction of 2 species of animal and how they fit within the surrounding ecosystem. This is a classic scenario of Predation (Predator versus Prey), in which the Mountain Lion is giving chase to two male deer. Things to note when glancing at this drawing:
1:Notice the difference in strides of the Mountain Lion and the Buck Deer as well as how the muscles and bone joints of each animal differ from one another.
2:Note the difference in size of the Predator in comparison to the prey. What allows a predator such as this to hunt prey that is larger and heavier in size? (Predators: Often armed with anatomy meant for attacking, grasping, breaking bones, piercing skin, ripping flesh IE; Sharp Incisors and Claws.) These are all things that are important to remember when designing your own creature. Where does it fit within the food chain of its own ecosystem? Is it a predator or is it prey? Does it hunt for its food or does it scavenge or eat flora (herbivore); Flowers, Plants, Fruit, Grass, Berries and Trees/Leaves? What enables your design to be capable of hunting in a similar chasing down fashion as the Mountain Lion? Is it capable of agile speed, is it equipped with the ability to grasp, slice, tackle, tear, rip or attack its prey and how does it do this? Ask yourself these questions while designing and it will help create something more believable with more meaning, even if it's only a winged mutli-eyed creature with tentacles and talons. The sketches below by artist William D. Berry are a perfect example of what every aspiring creature artist should be doing in their sketchbooks. Visit a local zoo, or study birds, squirrels, rabbits and any other indigenous wild life that live within your area. Take notes, jot them down in your sketchbook as you draw quick sketches in observation of how the animal interacts in the wild. Study the movement of an animal, watch how the joints bend, how the muscles contract and expand as it jumps or climbs and how they twist and stretch. Every animal is different so it's important that you at least try to cover the main classes: Mammal, Reptile, Amphibian, Birds, Fish, Arthropods. They'll each provide enough of a varying degree of movement and use of limbs that is distinct from one to the next.When it's possible, study the muscles and bones beneath the surface. Whether you fully understand the complexity of the muscular system or not it's always good to know the basic functions. The same goes for the skeleton, which if you were to take note of a Moose Skull or any other similar animal such as a Deer, Horse, Cow or Goat it may appear quite different from the animal itself because of anatomy constructed of cartilage, tissue and muscle. An elephant skull is a perfect example because of the lack of ears and the trunk. The skull itself appears almost alien compared to the animal itself. This is why appendages such as the trunk are so flexible (it's all muscle/tissue, the same goes for the lips of various animals which are prehensile and serve as an additional way to extend, grab and tear off foliage, leaves, fruit and grass (the lips and tongue of a giraffe). After studying real world animals, their habits, how they function in the wild, what their purpose in life is and how they fit within an ecosystem you'll understand how to combine all of these factors when producing something imaginary. It will help ground your concept even if it's an alien life form from space or another dimension. You may want to check out a few additional art books if you can find them: The Best of Wildlife Art - Painting the Drama of Wildlife step by step - National Geographic Dinosaurs. Also be sure to check out RAUL MARTIN 's website where the majority of this paleo artwork came from, he's an amazing paleo reconstructionist. The possibilities of design are endless because life and evolution are endless, it never stops evolving and changing. If you have so many resources, references and information to study from you should be capable of coming up with an infinate amount of ideas. I'll leave off by including some art studies of the evolution of prehistoric and extinct ancestors of the crocodile by artist Todd Marshall.

I hope this was instructive and insightful, please share your thoughts and provide feedback.
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. Thank you for sharing the knowledge , It helps a lot.I have started the habit of reading then merely looking at the images and replicating it.Picked up few Animal encyclopedia books to start with.

  2. This stuff is way awesome! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Great stuff, though there is a minor issue with saying that Pterosaurs are dinosaurs (they're not) and that they could not launch themselves into the air from standing on the ground--they very likely could do this: (scroll down to "Too big to fly? Giant pterosaurs and Launching" for the details, but the whole article is worth reading).

    Awesome article, though!

  4. Brilliant article. This is possibly a bit pedantic, but not every feature of an animal serves an adaptive purpose. Some features are selected for as a by-product of selection for other traits. For example in the domestication of dogs, the primary trait selected for by early humans was probably tameness (i.e. lack of aggression towards humans). Since this is generally a trait of juvenile animals, other traits of juvenile wolves were also selected for including common features of dogs like floppy ears, shorter snouts, and different coat patterns. Evidence for this comes from experiments on domesticating wild siberian foxes, who when selected purely for reduced aggression, also started to retain puppy like features.

    There are plenty of examples in internal anatomy too, for example the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe:

    These features that occur due to functional or historical constraints are called spandrels after the often highly decorated spaces between arches on many old buildings. Spandrels aren't put there by design, or for their intrinsic aesthetic value, but because the arches need to be there to hold the roof up, and so the spaces between are simply a by product of that. This doesn't stop architects from decorating and embellishing them however, often to the point that they become features in themselves.

    Sometimes these secondary features, later become useful for other purposes. One you touched on was feathers in therapod dinosaurs. It's thought they originally evolved for temperature regulation, but their structure later made flight possible.

    It would be interesting to think about how such factors might affect creature designs. I think the idiosyncrasies of many animals could be equally interesting as design features as those features that are obviously functional.

  5. These are gorgeous! Thank you for sharing.

    I had a question: Do you know how to contact or email Terryl Whitlatch? My Deviantart is here: and I've been really wanting to promote Terryl's books and prints, but I'm not sure where to link anyone to. I am a long time amateur fan of hers, and I believe the people who follow me would adore her. Do you think she'd ever be interested in joining Deviantart?

  6. that was lovely,, what shouls I say about this art,, god bless you,,

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  7. i love this kind of work... i saw and heard some about Raul martin, im from argentina... i got a blog, im getting started to publishing on there some of thhing im doing, but i really like to invent creatures.. not as monster, like awesome post!...
    (sorry about my really reelee bad english)

  8. I think you achieved your usual standard this image will be shared all over the net. I love these creatures!


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