by Caleb Goellner

Tips on Getting Started Designing Creatures

Terryl Whitlatch knows creature design inside and out (literally).  Her creatures have appeared in movies, books, video games, and merchandise, including the Star Wars prequels and Men In Black.  So when you want to learn creature design, she’s an industry expert.

Learn Real Animals First

Whitlatch taught a popular fifteen-week course on creature development where she focused on the scientific basis for creature design.  “We dealt with backboned animals, because anyone can draw an amoeba!” Whitlatch laughed.  By starting with real animals, students learned how to work their way toward more fantastic creatures. 

Whitlatch made simple assignments for each type of real animal.

1.Choose an animal group.  (During the course, they studied fish, canines, felines, equines, bovines, avians, dinosaurs, and more.)  Learn about that animal group and their shared basic anatomy.

2.Choose a specific animal from that group to illustrate.  Gather reference material on that animal.

3.Draw a side view of the animal, including separate sketches for its skeleton and musculature.

4. Create a cartoon character based on that animal and write a paragraph about it. 

Creature Design Second 

After students completed their studies of real animals, the fun began.  Whitlatch asked them to choose four different animal groups, then mix the characteristics of those groups to create a new creature.  The creature drawings were comprehensive, with a side view that included the creature’s skeleton and musculature.

“Lots of people think they can just draw monsters out of thin air,” Whitlatch explained.  “But any animal, imaginary or real, has to have some basis in reality.  The more you know about anatomy, the more you know about the animal.  If you can do animals, you can do any kind of creature.”  She estimated 95% of her creatures are based at least in part on real animals.

Ready for More?

Whitlatch now teaches an online course, Tales of Amalthea -- a master class in creature design.  With separate sections to cover foundations, drawing, and coloring, it provides many of the professional details that bring creatures to life.  Whitlatch hopes to help artists find the creativity to develop their own properties and brands.

“Instead of chasing after this movie and that project,” she said, “be creative and develop your own ideas.  Shop your portfolio of the things that make you stand out.  Then you can make a living at the same time.  Fantasy, animals, dinosaurs—whatever you like, there’s probably a market for it.  Take the bull by the horns and see if people like it.”

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