Creature Design Notes: Color and Pattern

I tend to get a lot of questions about general creature design while I Livestream or via email so I thought I'd try to post every now and again to help answer some questions.  I will start with a quick post about color. I've talked about coloration before in regards to creature design but I think I will touch more on reference and how it can aid in color ideas.

Sometimes I like to take my color reference literally. Nature provides millions of creative and beautiful color variations, why mess with a good thing? A lot of times the coloration and patterning you pull from your reference can look completely alien when applied to a fictional creature. The fellow above was sketched not only with color in mind, but also the animal itself.  I had stumbled across a photo of a king eider and I was amazed by the shape of the bird's head and the colors displayed! This bird is gorgeous.

You can definitely see the connection between the king eider's coloration and the beastie I sketched out. While not it's not a completely literal translation, the color and markings are almost exact to the photo I found. Here's another example of literal color reference between this carnivorous creature and the bongo antelope:

Other times I find that taking cues from nature helps in creature colors. For example, I might not take color / marking reference so literally and create a pattern that is more "inspired" by an animal's coloration.

The creature above has a unique coloration similar to that of the cassowary. It's not as literal as before but you can see where the idea came from. The idea of a colorful face isn't exclusive to birds either. Mandrills are known for their brightly colored faces. The knowledge of these two animals makes it possible for me to make the jump from bird to mammal-like in regards to coloration.

Why is color / pattern important in creature design? It helps ground the creature in a reality. Color and pattern hint at an evolution and history that is related to the creature's environment and it's own behavior / survival. Animals here on earth use their whole body to survive. Color and pattern play an extremely important role in the animal's daily life. Color and pattern may be used for mating displays, communication, camouflage or as a result of isolation/breeding. It may seem obvious but there are always hundreds of solutions in regards to color and pattern in creature design. Lots of little choices that can make differences in believability for your work. Note the small discolorations along the lips of the creature I sketched above. This might resemble those of a chimp. Coloration in animals in never perfect. Just like freckles, birth-marks and blemishes in humans, animals have these small imperfections that distinguish them as individuals of a species. Picking up on these clues in nature will help make your creatures seem grounded and more believable as living beings.

When thinking of color for your critters, remember this:

  • The color and/or pattern on the creature should aid in its survival. Color can be used for all sorts of things and not just camouflage.
  • No coloration / pattern is perfect. Add in imperfections to keep the creature unique / believable.
  • Sometimes the best solution for color is a simple one. Every creature you create doesn't need to be a screaming rainbow. Sometimes holding back and keeping it simple is a more elegant and realistic solution.
  • Look to nature lots. It is the best creature designer and will offer TONS of ideas and solutions - some of which you would never think possible.

This is a brief post but I hope this is helpful on some level. I do plan to touch more on the subject of color and pattern again. As I always say, studying and practicing is how you get better with creature design and your work.