Create original fantasy beasts
Illustrator Emily Hare passes on her key advice that will help you design and paint original fantasy creatures, using pencil and watercolours
Emily Hare reveals how to design and paint your own original fantasy creatures.
There are many ways to approach creature design and ideation, and it all depends on what you want your end result to be. Recently, I’ve had a leaning towards more humorous beasties, as opposed to the darker and more gruesome kind.
However, this doesn’t mean that I won’t look to the natural world for inspiration (for indeed, this can help me come up with some odd-looking creatures), and one of the best places to spark off ideas is with a Google search. Try exploring deep sea fish, unusual birds and bizarre insects!
I always have in mind where this beast’s habitat might be, what it might eat, whether it’s nocturnal, and prey or predator. All these things will influence the final design.
For instance, if you had a large herbivorous animal, ask yourself what does it eat? Who hunts it? If it has natural predators then what – if anything – has it evolved to protect itself? Speed? Armour? Poison? All these questions should go through your mind at some point. They’ll ensure your creature feels like it might exist in real life, and that’s when the magic starts to happen…
Get those ideas down on paper. Usually it’ll take me a while to create any shapes that I like, or even anything that I’d want to take further. Sometimes they appear fully formed and others will never make it into a painting. I use my heavy blunt mechanical pencil to make loose designs and then refine them with a sharper point. For these thumbnails my thought process was ‘enchanted forest’ – and anything that popped into my head that may exist in such a place was extracted from my brain.
2 design with logic in mind
This is a tarlak, one of the inhabitants of the world that I created for my upcoming book Strangehollow. This bristly, hairy chap has been influenced by warthogs and wild boar. I wanted a forest-dwelling vegetarian that was pig-like and used his tusks to dig the ground for delicious root vegetables of some kind. He also needed to be able to look after himself if he was attacked by one of the local predators. His tusks would make formidable weapons against even the most persistent of carnivores.
3 depicting the fine details
Once I’ve sketched the design in watercolour (more on this overleaf) I make a pass with a darker wash and figure out which areas I want lighter and darker. With watercolour you need to work from light to dark. The process is time consuming, but well worth it for the final result. I’m a big fan of detail so I use very fine brushes for this. It also enables you to go steady with the value range, which in this instance I hadn’t decided on until I started the painting.
4 mix ‘n’ match with care
To help fill my brain with future creature ideas, I’ll spend a lot of time watching nature programmes and looking through wildlife photos on Pinterest or general Google searches. There’s nothing quite so strange as the natural world and you can combine aspects of different creatures to make a completely new one. But try to avoid making a chimera, which is to take the body of one animal and the legs of another and the head of yet another: it doesn’t really feel like it’s something that could exist. Instead, imagine what would happen if two of those creatures had babies. What would they look like?
With watercolour, work from light to dark. Time consuming, but worth it
6 Is it a Plant? animal? Both?
Another fun way to make something new is to combine flora and fauna. For this craggle (a cannibalistic fairy caterpillar) I wanted a creature that could hide in plain sight to ambush his prey. His prey, the wiffle, are fond of psychedelic mushrooms, so the craggle hides among these mushrooms, and is able to do so because there are fungilike growths on its back. The wiffles don’t have a chance! Have fun with thinking up what it is that your creature eats, whether it’s predator or prey. These concepts will help you to imagine your creatures living in the real world.
7 take the random approach
Throw out all your plans. This is another valid way of coming up with an interesting creature. Eventually you’ll start to see something appear among these shapes and you can then start to refine it. For this piece I started by soaking the illustration board (Strathmore 500 wet media board). I did this by using a misting spray bottle filled with water. I then mixed some paints and started dropping the colour onto the paper. This made for some wonderful accidental shapes, as we’ll see…
8 interesting shapes
For my magical being here, I saw a face, so I started to build on that. I used the interesting shapes that the watercolour made as it dried (a very handy tip is to have a small hair dryer at your desk so you can speed up the drying of each wash). Once I’d started picking out a nose and some eyes (plus an extra one!), I could continue working around the painting and further develop the face more. The great thing about using watercolour paint, particularly into wet paper, is that it’s very unpredictable. It’s the perfect setup for generating those happy accidents.
9 the eyes have it
I chose a contrasting colour for the eyes of my green man so that they instantly pop out from the greens and purples. Eyes are possibly the most important thing to bring a creature or strange being to life. The final dots of watery reflection in them can make or break a painting. Make sure you study lots of pictures of eyes – consider finding some eyes that don’t belong in a human face and put them there, such as the eyes of an octopus! These are the things which can create an unusual, original creature.
10 here be dragons
Dragons. Who doesn’t love them? I like the idea of a dragon that’s evolved to live in forests and so has developed growths that look like branches – the ideal camouflage for an ambush predator! For inspiration for dragons you can look at all kinds of creatures. The usual ones to study would be komodo dragons, crocodiles and other lizards, but check out less-obvious creatures that will leave you with an unconventional dragon, which hopefully will have more variety. Birds are great for that dead-eyed, carnivorous stare – even a chicken has that…
The great thing about using watercolour, particularly into wet paper, is that it’s very unpredictable
11 mammalian features
Another way to make your dragons more interesting is to take aspects of mammals and other toothy creatures and add those to your dragon. For this red beast I used inspiration from animals with tusks, wild boar and particularly the crushing jaws of a hippopotamus. I used to live near a natural history museum in Brighton that was filled with the most amazing animal skeletons. If you have anything like that near where you live, take some time to go there with your sketchbook to gain inspiration for your creatures. The hippopotamus skull was particularly amazing to see and definitely influenced this dragon.
12 techniques to create interesting-looking skin
Have fun with patterns and shapes to give the impression of scales or knobbly textured skin. I used reference from the mouths of lizards and also crocodiles for this dragon’s jaw and then mixed it up a bit. Furthermore, don’t hold back on splashing paint around and letting it dry in various textures. Then use the patterns from those dried splodges to guide where you might make marks. I like to keep things fairly organic looking, and try to steer clear of classic dragon profiles. Here, I wanted this guy to have a big, blunt nose, I’d imagine he could fit quite the meal inside those jaws!
The rigger is a wonderful brush for keeping control of fine lines and they hold a fair amount of pigment
13 big eyes are shorthand for ‘cute’
For creating something super cute, I always go for big eyes because they’re a sure-fire way of conveying the ‘awwww’ factor. This little chap was inspired by squirrels and pugs. His snub nose and big wide eyes give the impression that perhaps he’s not too bright, and most definitely a little highly strung, too. I used a fine rigger brush to create the very fine long hairs all over him. The rigger is a wonderful brush for keeping control of fine lines and they hold a fair amount of pigment, which is always useful. The brush’s name comes from the brushes that were created to paint the rigging on paintings of tall ships.
14 painting shiny eyes
The eyes have it. Glossy eyes are essential, especially in a mammal. Once I’m ready to add highlights to an eye I bring out the Acryla gouache. This medium is permanent and behaves much like acrylic, except it dries completely matte – just like watercolour. I use this all the time for highlights in my paintings, and it can be mixed with watercolour to tint it (or you can buy other colours in the same medium too, of course). As well as the main highlight on the eye, I always add tiny spots of light around the lids of the eye to give the impression of wetness.
15 what’s the story?
Create a story. If you’re not sure where to start, think of the story behind the creature. I created this dragon who eats dead trees. I started with the idea that he would go around eating the dead wood in the forest, then I thought, well, what happens when he’s eaten it all? He then hibernates! Sleeping for years at a time while grasses and plants and small trees grow all over him, camouflaging him while he’s away in dreamland.
16 remember to bring the fun
Add humour. When I was designing my brownie, I imagined them as very annoying little beings who try to distract you as you’re walking through the forest, in order to lead you off the safe path to where they can rob you of all your belongings. I imagined them leaping about, maybe yelling compliments (of a sort) to you as you went on your way through the forest. This is the creature that appeared as a result! If in doubt, adding a nude pink bottom is highly amusing.