Sam is a professional concept artist & illustrator currently living in Helsinki, Finland. He specializes in creatures and characters and has worked on projects such as League of Legends and Numenera in addition to being featured in Spectrum Fantastic Art. He can often be found in his studio, drawing monsters with a mug of tea in his hands.

1. Study Real Animals (living and long extinct)

Let’s face it, at some point we’ve all wanted to just dive in without a care in the world and start drawing ferocious dragons and majestic centaurs. But we have to remember that almost all mythological creatures are heavily based in some way on real life animals, from the mighty kraken to the simple faun, and it’s only by knowing the structure and anatomy of real animals that we can begin to combine and create fantastic new creatures effectively and believably to our audience.

As you can see, the evolutionary history of vertebrates has a very similar foundation throughout. Early fish created the template for our ancestors and life has adapted spectacularly since then using those blueprints.

Studying real animals and their anatomy will give you the strongest foundation you can get to create truly stunning mythological creatures. Luckily, almost all vertebrates follow a relatively common structure when it comes to the building blocks of their physiology.

For instance, humans and birds look strikingly different to one another, yet we all share muscles like deltoids, triceps, pectorals and gastrocnemii, (similarly arranged, but in varying proportions and sizes). Pectorals and sternums in birds for example, are adapted to be incredibly strong for hefting their weight as they fly through in the air. Whilst humans, who use their chests for relatively little have tiny pectoral muscles and sternums in comparison.

As you can see, the muscles are the same in both. However, the pectoral to body ratio is heavily increased for birds who use them extensively throughout their lifetime.

But don’t just limit yourselves to the animals of the modern world; we have millions of years of creature design right here in nature to use as our monster encyclopedia. Study evolution from ancient fish, to prehistoric dinosaurs, to modern day mammals and you can see just how similar we are, and just how much variation you can get with those few tools limited to us.

I’ll be focusing on Mermaids for this tutorial, so I spent some time studying all manner of aquatic animals. As seen below:

Studying animals relevant to your final product can inform your designs to help improve your mental library both in the short-term, and the long-term.

2. Blend Animals Effectively

Most Mythological creatures are described as very ‘chimeric’ along the lines of: ‘the legs of a goat and the body of a man’ etc. But these traits are more typically portrayed as being simply juxtaposed onto one another with little regard for how they would help the creature function, and thus removes a layer of believability from your monsters.

Mermaids for example, have little use of free flowing hair, or thin separated limbs that cannot help propel them through water. Little consideration has been put into how mermaids would actually survive with typical designs like this.

What makes a good creature design great is knowing the underlying anatomy beneath, and understanding how to combine those traits effectively. By blending animals together (and not juxtaposing them), the creatures take on a more believable stance, a connection the viewer may not consciously recognize, but one that gives your design an innate sense of reality.

The creature above is a moose/elephant hybrid, however, no traits have been left entirely untouched. The nose is moose-like but has been elongated to be more trunk-like, and the feet are hooved, but have fatty pads, just like an elephant, etc.

3. Less is More

One of the pitfalls we can fall into as artists on our quest to make the most eye-catching designs is to keep adding ‘just one more thing’. This can lead to very extravagant creatures, but also create a complete lack of focus, which will lead your design feeling cluttered and poorly executed.

(Using a very old piece of my own work as an example) You can see an effort has been made to have so many different areas that are impressive and extravagant, leading to a messy lackluster design

You have to remember that the purpose of design is to tell a message, and we have to learn to tell this message as succinctly and precisely as possible.

Think of your creature, and what kind of message are you trying to tell with it? Are they defiant, or proud, noble, or even scavengers? Make sure the key elements of your design reflect this, and if anything doesn’t suit fit the message you’re trying to tell, it may lead to having a weaker result at the end of it.

In these initial sketches the theme I’m trying to tell is something majestic, so lots of attention is placed on smooth flowing lines and curved edges. Whilst attention has been put into really trying to merge both human and aquatic anatomy effectively.

Remember; a succinct, well-executed design is better than a messy one with lots of bells and whistles!

4. Have Some Fun! 

The thing I believe we should remember when designing creatures is that for the most part (outside of areas like paleo-art) these animals never have, and never will exist. They’re imaginary, and so some liberties with just how realistic they should be can be taken when it comes to their design.

You may want to create a Wyrm that magically float in the air, or a Pegasus with wings that can’t support their weight, or even Fauns with inordinately large horns atop their heads. You can, and you should! What’s important is having a strong grasp of the underlying foundation of anatomy and personality of your design sell your creature to your audience, so they’ll suspend their disbelief when you start adding more magical touches to these imagined beasts.

In this initial sketch I’ve outlined the basic anatomy of what I think a good human-aquatic hybrid might look like. But I want to push it a bit further.

But I don’t want to push it this far. Whilst it looks smooth and majestic, it’s clearly lost its focus and needs to be drawn back a bit to seem fantastical yet believable.

By blending both the real and the mythological, you can end up with some really lovely designs that have a stronger sense of believability.

And here we have the final result.

Thought has been taken in this design to resemble something sailors might have mistaken for a woman in deep water. Long gills that sailors might have thought was hair, pale skin, but also long tail to propel it’s large body through the water, and fins to maneuver itself.

I believe great creature design straddles the line between fantasy, and reality. Get the fundamentals right, push your designs beyond what would happen in nature, and you’ll have something that’s both believable, and magical.

CGSociety would like to extend a big thank you to Sam for providing this awesome content. Make sure to follow him on Twitter to stay updated on his work!