The Art of Creature Design
anything you can imagine, you can manifest…
Welcome back to my lil' blog. Here we will design a creature from myth, for it is the job of fantasy artists to transfigure the pictures stories generate into visual forms! This is such a magical act of alchemy I can’t wait to teach you, for all it takes is the desire and a few tools.
Weapons of mass creation
1. Pencil with an eraser
2. Coffee or tea (for staining)
Here is my favorite type of paper: Arches Hot Press
Another option that’s les expensive and great for starting is: Strathmore 300 series
The hot press paper has less texture than the cold-press, so this allows for more blended, airbrushed effects. Cold press paper is wonderful too, as it can hold more pigment. But for detailed work involving armor I'd stick with hot press varieties.
You do not need to be super picky about watercolors, here is a list of three brands I love from least to most expensive:
I love synthetic brushes, and the brand does NOT matter. Some people love sable brushes, but I have found that for watercolor the synthetic ones work wonderfully and are less pricy too! Find ones that have pointed tips for detail at your local art store, I usually work with a size 4 round brush.
To Make Art there is something that has taken me a long time to realize. It is the secret that lies right in front of all of us, and here it is:
“It’s about the process of making it! Not the end result.”
With this in mind, leave expectations behind, and let’s play in the garden of imagination, where all the blooms are unique and deeply wonderful…
In this class we will be painting a creature using the technique below.
Find inspiration. Whether this is from nature, a dream, or perhaps it is for a story that you've written and want to bring to life via illustrations. This is what concept artists and illustrators do. We are the translators of dream and story. What a job!
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Be happy in your body. I often go for a jog or do yoga before sketching as the exercise simply helps me sit down and concentrate, for my body feels better and my mind is at ease. Eat healthy, and make sure your own body feels up to the challenge of jumping into the realm of art-making, for it is hard work. But the most-rewarding and fulfilling of all!
CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT THAT NURTURES YOUR CREATIVITY
Listen to Music from the world you want to create! I'll prepare myself a nice spot by a window with my paper and pencil. Rested and cozy, I'll put on music that creates the soundscape of the realm from which you want to pull forth a magical being. If a lack of enchantment sits upon my shoulders, simply going for a walk or yoga and making a space safe does wonders to reinvigorate a tired mind. I have to make a safe home for that inner-child who may have hidden after a stressful week in life.
Here's a link to one of my favorite playlists for relaxing and getting into the drawing mindset.
WHAT INSPIRES THAT SONG OF JOY IN YOU?
Find some reference! Once the stage is set, and you're comfortable, find inspiration in nature, on Pinterest, collaborate with a writer friend, or take your own pictures and use them! Creature design requires an understanding of anatomy, so it is important to have a “guide-rail” to aid in the believability of a piece.
It was here that I found a painting called “The recapture of Buda Castle” painted in 1686 by Gyula Benczur. I just loved the power of the main horse in it, and it was simply that made me decide to use it as reference for this piece!
Then imagine the world in which the creature lives. How does the environment shape it? If you’re making a dragon, ask questions like:
Where does it live? A cave? The forest? How will this effect the shape of its wings? The color of its scales?
Is it evil? If so, will it have red eyes to convey rage? Or yellow to convey greed?
These are just a few questions you can ask as you design the creature, for all life evolves to survive and thrive within its environment. Illustrators often make worlds real, so look at the world in order to make a creature that fits within it convincingly. This may seem like common sense, but it has helped me when making work. If you want people to believe in your art, then you must believe in it, and the rest will follow!
STAIN THE PAPER (for the fanciful painter within you, here are few terms used for this one-color staining technique: Grisaille, imprimatur, veneda, verdaccio, or morellone.)
Staining with a light wash is a trick that many oil painters use, and it is just as important in watercolor! This is because getting away from the white of the paper allows for a better sense of value to be gained. Imagine you gain perspective from creating a tan color- it is the top of a great mountain! From this peak one can look down at the ocean of colors and values with a raised perspective. A birds-eye view that can be more informative than the view of a person on the ground. The ground being the extreme contrassless of the paper’s original white. Feel free to ask questions about this via my email or instagram. Both of which are linked at the end of this lesson.
To stain I make a French press, but any type of coffee or tea will do. Then I use a larger brush to lightly paint-on the liquid. I personally love the random stains this generates. Sometimes I'll dab the wet-paper with a sponge or sprinkle salt to create textures. You can see in this photo there are random stains and personally I love this look!
Next I look at my reference images, and lightly sketch in the design along with my compass and ruler to add-in the geometric armor elements. At this stage, keep the drawing as light as possible, as watercolor is fairly transparent so the pencil is really just there to guide the paint.
*Take time in this drawing phase. I often want to jump right into paint, as it is so fun and fast, yet when creating a more realistic character, the underdrawing really does matter. I love to do free drawings sometimes as well, but when visualizing this medieval unicorn I wanted to make work that had some of the mechanical precision draftsmen like DaVinci imbued into their sketches. By using realism within the realm of fantasy, the subject matter is lent an air of believability that makes the viewer think
"maybe magic is real!"
It is this spark of childhood wonder that fantasy illustration can create that makes all the struggling worth it! Magic is always there for those who want to see it.
Paying attention to proportion, physics,
and light can give the creature
a great amount of truth within its dream-like bones.
STEP 6: BLOCK-IN COLORS
This step is how to achieve that whimsical realism within a painting. With watercolor, keeping the initial layers very light and under-saturated allows for you to add in bright eye-catching details at the end. If everything in a picture is super bright, then there won't be a focal point, so just start with these more muted transparent layers as a way of slowly weaving the web together. I will be working on making process videos soon ( here's a short one from my instagram)! This is such a subtle yet important part of the process. Just practice and be kind with yourself. It took me years of messing around (laughing and crying) to get comfortable with this dance.
STEP 7: BEGIN TO ADD COLOR
In this painting I wanted blue and yellow to be my main colors, so in the armor I used super light layers of blue, that gradually get darker and darker. All the while keeping in mind where I wanted the white to be preserved!
This is the trickiest part of watercolor. For unlike other paints, you can't bring back the light, you must preserve it! I love to think of the paper as a giant window with light coming through. Then the paint is like gossamer layers of stained glass that the artist chooses to lay down in order to block the amount of light showing through. If you choose blue glass, then the sun coming through will appear blue. So the white areas are pure light, and they are very powerful. So choose where you want the focus of the painting to be, and avoid putting water there.
Ironic, as you would think the star of the painting should be where most of the artist’s paint goes, but in watercolor it is the place that needs to be untouched. This is such a fun medium!
In this painting,
I wanted the armor to be
glamorous and shiny, so
I kept certain areas like
the armor and eyes light.
STEP 8: ADD IN THE DETAILS
Once the major areas have been blocked in, use a small pointy brush to add in the sharper details that anchor the watery look of the painting down. In this stage everything is dry, and we’re using thicker paint (ie more watercolor versus water) so it acts more like ink or a dry medium.
If you look closely at the final painting, you can see how my line-work is flowy and airbrushed because I was using more water when doing the initial layers from step 6! Paintings do not need to be perfect, for the little "mess-ups" that happen throughout the process often end-up giving the final piece a charm and uniqueness that makes it human and relatable.
Personally, I love seeing the drafts and sketchbooks of great artists from history more than their polished oil-paintings. These pieces show the thought-process, and the creative that is unbridled and playful. This is where the magic happens, for art is just as much about the panic you find while painting as it is about the end-product. So quest forth alone the trail of your inspiration, have fun, and bring back with you an "art"-ifact of the journey!
Here is a process video I made of this unicorn painting if you'd like to watch a quick recap!
All the art supplies used to make this are available at the top of this lesson.
Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me via instagram or email, as I do love to hear from fellow art and myth fans.
If you enjoy posts like this and enjoy the art, prints are for sale in my Etsy! All funds go towards unicorn conservation and art supplies.