Monster & Creature Design 101


Designing monsters and creatures can be a lot of fun but at the same time equally as intimidating. I'm going to try and give you some pointers on how to start, how to flesh out your creature and general things to consider and keep in mind.

How to start

For me personally how to start can often be the most difficult part of designing something new. If you're lucky you already have an idea for the type of creature you want to draw. But don't worry if you don't yet, there are ways to help your imagination a little.

There are different ways that you could try to get inspired. You can start by asking yourself these questions which are also very helpful if you already have a rough sketch or an idea in mind:

-In what kind of environment does your creature live? How does that impact its appearance and behavior?
-What does your creature eat? Is it a herbivore? A carnivore? A hunter or a scavenger?
-Does it lean more towards the supernatural with magical powers?
-Is it undead?

Answering the first two questions is a lot easier if you know a couple things about animals already. I recommend watching nature documentaries, it's really easy to have one on in the background while you draw.
Whatever answers you give to these questions, make sure that your creature's design reflects them. A herbivore is going to have a very different jaw than a carnivore; a creature living in a tropical jungle is not going to look like one living in the cold snowy mountains. These are all opportunities to ground your creature in real life, to make it more believable. Every living thing adjusts to its living conditions, so your creature should do this too.
However, supernatural creatures don't really need to adhere to these rules for obvious reasons.

You could also start by thinking about what kind of creature you want to design visually. I like to simplify the basic types of creatures like this:

-Humanoid creatures
This includes anything that walks upright, maybe on two legs, maybe more.
-Creatures based on animals
A massive category including everything the animal kingdom has to offer.
-Creatures based on inanimate objects
Things like plants and stone but also fire and water etc.

Admittedly these are extremely broad and the lines get really blurry, especially because you can mix and match elements of all these categories into one design. In fact, I encourage you to do that! Give a wolf-like creature scales and wings or gills and insect-like feelers! You just created something completely new.

Turning something ordinary into something extraordinary

Okay enough reading, let's say we want to create a simple monster design. Here are some tips on how we can easily turn a normal turtle into a fantastic creature.

Taking a normal animal and adding additional detail already changes it quite a bit. What if we add additional limbs and unusual body parts, maybe borrowed from other animals? Your creature is already more interesting thanks to these simple changes.

Another thing to consider is size.

Turning something small into something big and vice-versa is a very easy way to help you design a creature. This is especially effective with insects for example. Just imagine spiders as big as dogs or beetles as big as horses.

Though this might not be very applicable in our turtle example, try to come up with different and interesting designs for individual body parts too.

Try out a bunch of different horn variations, maybe look at something other than goat horns as reference. What if an angel-like creature does not have feathered wings but something different? What if the creature’s hands have more or less fingers or don’t look like hands at all? Everything on your creatures body is an opportunity to make it look more unique, so use this to your advantage!

I would recommend combining these tips for more interesting results. If you now take our turtle and consider what I talked about before and add elements of different animals or additional, maybe weird-looking, body parts; make it walk upright; add fantastical elements like a fiery aura; then you’re already well on your way to designing an interesting looking creature.

Walkthrough of my process

I want to walk you through my process of designing the winged monster you saw at the beginning of this tutorial. I did not have an idea to start with so I just opened a canvas and sketched around until I had something that I wanted to take further. This is another valid option to find a design if you’re not designing a creature for someone else or have set criteria it needs to fulfill. Be loose and messy, that way you can stumble on interesting shapes! "Happy little accidents", like Bob Ross might say.

As you can see, I explored different ideas and chose the central bottom sketch. I copied it to a new layer and used the transform tool to make it as big as the canvas.
I liked the pose it was in already, though you could obviously take a sketch you like and redraw the creature in a different pose for the actual illustration. Or you spend some time designing more variations of the sketch you chose. This could theoretically be an endless process.
I also really liked the asymmetrical wing design. Asymmetry is a strong tool to use for interesting designs. Horns are cool on their own but what if one horn was bigger than the other? Or what if your creature had 3 arms, with 2 of them being on one side? Symmetry is essentially a form of order, so giving your monster elements of asymmetry makes it weird, maybe unnerving and even scary but definitely unique!

Insert: Using reference and getting it into CSP

The next step was finding reference for the areas I needed it for. It is very important to use reference if you’re not sure what something looks like or if you just want to achieve a higher level of realism. In my case I looked up reference for horns and wings and also decided that a nose reminiscent of that of a bat would be cool.

Setting up reference images for you to use in your process is easy. You can either use a program like PureRef, compile reference on a second canvas on a second monitor (if you have one) or, and this is how I prefer to do it, have the reference images on the same canvas as your drawing framing the parts that you need it for. I just looked on the internet for the images I needed, right-clicked and selected “Copy Image” and pasted it into Clip Studio Paint. It will appear as a new layer. I recommend putting your reference into a separate folder to keep your layerstack clean.

Note: I can't show you the actual reference images I used so I replaced them in the following pictures but I am sure you get the point.

Alternatively if you have the images saved on your computer, simply "Import" the images and rasterize them if needed.

Once you have your reference in your file, use the Free Transform tool to resize and arrange it however you need.

Walkthrough of my process continued

With my reference set up how I wanted it I proceeded to draw a refined sketch on a new layer. The initial sketch is way too rough to go straight to lineart, at least for me.

I thought it would be interesting to have feathered wings on this mostly demonic looking monster, following my own advice on variation of body parts in a way.

You can see my two reference folders above my sketch layers here too. Once I don't need them anymore I can just collapse the folders and set them to invisible.

After the refined sketch was done, I made another new layer and finally drew the clean lineart. Even now I am thinking about details I can include or parts I can modify. In this case I changed the head design from the refined sketch during the lineart process and now have a more interesting head thanks to that.

Clip Studio Paint has this very useful feature that lets you set your sketch layer to a blue color. It really helps me when doing my lines since the blue is not as distracting. On a non-white canvas like mine I like to set it to "Multiply" since the blue is very bright by default.

Walkthrough of my process: Coloring

Flat colors are next. I set up my layers in a certain way for them. First I created a folder for colors and mask the area outside my lineart so I can easily work within its bounds. I prefer masking a folder; using a bunch of clipping masks on a base-layer is too restrictive in comparison.

Here is a closer look at my layers.

As you can see I give every main color its own layer. This is very useful later on, stay tuned for that. I also add several layers that are responsible for detail colors or subtle variation of the main colors. All the layers set to "Multiply" or "Screen" fall in the latter category, being responsible for the soft gradient on the tips of the wings and horns or the darker color on the tail. Notice also that I lock the transparency of each of these layers.
And please name your layers. It saves you some headache when you want to find a specific layer later on and especially with what I'm about to show you later.

Shading is the next step and it's very simple.

A combination of two layers set to "Multiply" is enough. One layer is responsible for the hard-edged shadows while the other handles the soft gradients you can see. Use an airbrush or any other soft edged brush for those. I removed the colors for this example image for you to easily see what my shadow layers look like. Some people actually prefer setting up their shadows on a solid grey-ish color, you'll have to experiment to figure out what works best for you.

The eagle eyed of you may have spotted a third new layer set to "Screen" above everything. This is what it does:

It’s a really easy way to add more depth and shine.

With a subtle "Overlay" gradient and a "Tone Curve" adjustment layer I was done.

What makes all the tedium in setting up your colors like this worth it is that all the shading is handled automatically, which means that it is incredibly easy to change the flat colors and create a different color scheme quickly. You only need to change the colors on layers that are set to "Normal".
This is where you will thank yourself for naming your layers too. You will know instantly what each layer does thanks to their names and therefor you can quickly decide which colors you want to try for those areas.

It is very fun to just experiment with colors at this point and see which work the best. I started with the black version on the left but actually ended up liking the white version with blue blood the most. Try it for yourself and choose colors you maybe wouldn't usually, you never know what you might find!

Closing thoughts and tips

I want to end with some additional tips and things that can help you develop your skills in drawing monsters and creatures:

There are a number of online monster generators you can use that give you a random description of a monster. Simply search for “monster generator” and you’ll find several different ones. It takes away all the difficulty of getting started, you don’t need to come up with anything yourself and it’s really good practice to generate a description and draw a monster based on it to train your basic design skills.

Another similar way to train the same skills is to take a written description of a creature from folktales and legends, preferably something that you’re not already familiar with, and design it. Once you’re done you can compare what you’ve drawn with its actual depictions.

When designing a monster, a real powerful way to make it feel believable, like it could actually exist, is to reference real animals. Using your knowledge of animal physiology and anatomy; mixing different parts of different animals into a single creature design can give it a sense of grounded realism that you might be looking for. Again, having nature documentaries on in the background while you draw is an easy start to build a base of knowledge for this.
Games like Monster Hunter use this approach to design their monsters and if you want to learn more about it look up “Imaginative Realism” by James Gurney.

With all that said though, don’t shy away from using existing monster designs as reference either! There are so many designs out there, from video games, movies, comics, etc. Obviously don’t copy them, but get inspired! There are bound to be design decisions here that you would have never thought of.

All in all though, don’t forget to have fun. And remember that in theory anything goes. You’re designing something that doesn’t actually exist so it doesn’t have to adhere to nature’s rules at all. Who knows what aliens or supernatural creatures might look like? We don’t even know about all those weird things at the bottom of the ocean (another great source for inspiration and reference) so go wild.

If you liked this tutorial why not give my Twitter or Instagram a look? I'd really appreciate it. Feel free to message me too, my inbox is always open.


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