Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Answering a Humanoid Monsters question

I received a question on Monday and I thought I would take the time to answer it on the blog since it was a good questions and one that seems to be ever present in my thoughts.

Alonso asks, "You've seen the current Art Order challenge I'm sure. I was wondering what advice you have for making a humanoid monster feel believable and not just that I'm bad at anatomy and proportion."

Great question, Alonso! If you are not familiar with the challenge, one part of it centers around designing an Orc cook or Shaman. Orc reference was supplied so that everyone could stay on model...

  Not mine - Orcs from the D&D Art Test / Art Order Challenge shown for example.
© 2012 Wizards of the Coast

Let's see of I can get my thoughts together and to have it all make sense... The long and the short of my answer is... if you want something to be believable and not just a product of bad anatomy and proportion decisions, you need to be very familiar with anatomy and proportions AND make sure you have reference for what you are creating. I think this goes for creature design (I definitely know it goes for creature design), vehicle design, environment design, and just about everything else you want to create and design. If you want to make something that is an abstraction of a human, you first need to understand how a human is formed and put together. If you want to make a reptilian creature you need to be aware of animal anatomy as well as the things that make reptiles unique from other animals. Lars Grant-West once told me, the best lie is 90% truth. This goes for art and creating believable imaginary things. Oh look... a silly picture of me and a monster drawing...

 Troll with reference
© 2011 Christopher Burdett

If you want to give something long arms like the Orcs, you need to understand how arms are made and why they work the way they do. I am sure I am guilty of it myself, but I REALLY get irritated when I see an awesome design or piece of art with a cool monster and then realized that the creature has no way of scratching its nose. Looking at those Orcs I know they have the range of movement needed to be living breathing creatures - this strengthens their believability. Look to apes and monkeys to see all the variations in lengths and arrangements of grasping front limbs to get a better fell for what actually works in the real world. You can also get a feel for overall proportions this way too. For example look at the difference in the gorilla, a human and a spider monkey, pretty much all the same parts, the parts are just laid out a little different and the proportions are different. When it comes down to it, a horse and a human have all the same basic anatomical parts, they just are arranged and organized differently. Think I am talking crazy? Get out your anatomy books and really have a look! Oh look... more silliness and monsters...

Plaguebearer with reference
© 2011 Fantasy Flight Games

Keep in mind the more monstrous the monster, the more you can get away with in your abstraction of form, anatomy, and proportion. With that, the more monstrous the appearance the more subtle the abstractions can be as well. You can have something that looks like an alligator man and make the arms ever so slightly longer and the legs ever so slightly shorter and no one will say a thing. You have a creature that looks 98% like a actual human but the arms are ever so slightly longer and the legs are ever so slightly shorter and people will think it is drawn wrong. Some of this I think is ultimately unavoidable, but having the confidence and knowledge of what you are creating will help navigate the gray area of not enough and too much abstraction. In fantastical art, animation,  and comics it is much easier to push the outer limits of proportion and remain successful then to adhere very close to realistic proportions. You may have noticed the silly pictures of me and the accompanying monsters, I always try to start with the real and then begin to abstract from there. Increase the size of the head (if it is a villain), lengthen the arms, shorten the legs, and in general adjust the proportions to where I want them for the desired feel of the monster. I find it funny that the feel I was going for in some of these is the same feel that can be seen in the Orcs. Makes me want to draw some Orcs! Keep in mind, if I was going to, I would start with a photo of me in the desired pose with props to get that 90% truth to add to my 10% of fantastical lies. Oh look... more silliness...

 Strength Challenge (Art Order) with reference
 © 2011 Christopher Burdett

Keep in mind there are of plenty of crazy examples out there in the animal kingdom of anatomy and body parts that just don't make sense. There are crests, antlers, waddles, etc that while serving a specialized purpose (sometimes) also get in the way of movement, sight, clear sinus cavities, and can endanger the animals life. Understanding what works and what doesn't in the real world will allow you the knowledge to bend rules with your designs. I continue to talk about the rules and the real world, in the end don't let this cause you to freeze up in your creativity. If you think a monster really needs to have a massive horn that starts on its face, extends four feet above its head and tappers off down its back, then find a way to make it work! These are our monsters, these are our outlets to express our visions of other possibilities - having the knowledge of the world around us only helps to give these visions better form and believability.

I hope this answers your question, Alonso! If anyone has addition questions on this topic or anything that I might be able to help with just leave the question in the comments section and I will try to get to it as soon as I can!

That is all for another exciting day on the blog, see you back here on Friday! Until then...

For more samples of my work or to contact me regarding my availability head over to my website:


  1. Chris I love how obvious it is that you know exactly what you're talking about. Listen up kids, the master is imparting knowledge. I also highly recommend diagrams of human evolution and zoology. Go to the museum, go to the zoo, go to the library. Research research resarch. It pays off in many ways.

  2. Truer worlds were never spoken! Go look at STUFF! Everything around you and then some. It all adds up and it all helps the end product of your work. Thanks, Chuck!

  3. thanks a lot Chris, that does light a path forwards for me. I'm going to go dig up some Gorilla ref to see long arms short legs in forshortened and twisted poses. That 90/10% is a useful rule as well.

  4. Great post Chris! By the way, you look like you have a blast shooting reference, which reminds me I should do that more :)