Creature Design Notes - Pinterest Smashup Exercise

When I sit down to work, I tend to warm up by sketching around a bit. If you follow my work, you might be aware of my Tea & Creatures project and I've talked about the importance of warming up before. I thought I'd share a fun exercise that I employ often when I need to warm up quickly and don't have lots of time to spend looking for ideas. 

I'm sure everyone knows what Pinterest is at this point but in case you don't, Pinterest is an organized image bookmarking website. You can bookmark or "pin" images of anything into customized groups called "boards". I find it quite useful for gathering inspirational images, recipes, and gift ideas - it works for many different facets of life. One thing I really enjoy pinning is animal reference. Because these images are seldom high resolution, they aren't really suitable for intensive reference. However, they are great for ideas, inspiration and quick reference! My board, What Inspires Me Most, contains images from science and nature with about 97% of it being animals. I tend to pin images when I'm drinking tea in the morning, at lunch, or when I'm riding the bus - anytime I have a spare moment. 

This particular board isn't really separated into different groups or kingdoms of animals, they are all just sort of tossed together. I did this on purpose. What I end up with is a collage of all different sorts of animal images, right next to one another. It really shows you the differences and the similarities between species at random. It can be fun to just scroll through every now and then.

How does this relate to warming up? I've found that when I just doodle, there's a tendency to incorporate some of the same traits into my designs. I'll always go for forward facing eyes and a leathery hide. It's what I like the most and I think all artists have certain "pieces" of subjects they like to draw over and over.

I use Pinterest to give me a fresh set of traits. It not only switches things up aesthetically, it keeps things exciting and challenging. It's almost like slots. Scroll down on your mouse fast and where ever the webpage lands, pick a few animals in that space and smash them together! I've sketched out two creature portraits below. This can easily be done with quick head concepts like these or full body concepts as well. You can see this particular set of animals came up:

What's fun about keeping your animal reference board sort of unorganized is that you begin to pull from different families and groups of animals for your design. For example, you could combine different birds with fish or reptiles with all sorts of mammals. It begins to open things up and you can begin to find ideas quickly. In the image above you can see four highlighted pins - a mammal, an amphibian and two birds.

You can see I pulled a lot from the tiger in terms of facial structure. I liked the cheek waddle on the pheasant and the cockatoo feather display so I incorporated those into the design. The poison dart frog inspired the color choice and application a bit as well. 

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Here's another example. you can see I pulled a lot from the turtle in terms of head structure. The iguana played into the neck spines and the rams horns showed up too. The creature's coloration was inspired heavily by the cassowary. 

Smashing up different animals is essentially the essence of what creature design is. You're taking what you know about the natural world and using those traits to create something new and exciting. Using Pinterest is a quick and convenient way to collect inspiration to help fuel new ideas and warmups. Give it a try! It's a lot of fun and a good challenge. 

The Importance of Warming Up

In working as a freelance illustrator and concept artist, I've learned that warming up is an invaluable part of my day. Recently, I've been talking about this when I visit classes and when I answer emails but I can't stress how important it really is. When I was in school, I'd have days where I'd hit a wall. I felt like my art-making powers were gone and everything I made just looked horrible. I went through this a lot growing up and my parents, in an effort to make me feel better and to be supportive, would call it a "block". They'd tell me to walk away for a while and then it would pass. So I did. I'd just take it as part of a cycle and wouldn't draw for a few days. Then, suddenly I'd get an idea and I'd rush to my room and draw something out. It worked! This was my understanding of art making: You make art when you feel like it or when the inspiration strikes you. (Now, this is true for some modes of art making, however, working as a concept artist and/or illustrator is a non-stop deal and sometimes you have to work on a deadline even if you don't want to.)

When I signed up to go to college to learn how to make art for a living, I wasn't sure how my way of thinking would fit into something that required hourly wages and such. How could I always produce art? What if I loose my art making powers during a deadline? Do clients understand what an "art block" is? It seems a bit ridiculous now but I didn't know anything about working for myself or as a creative professional then. Part of getting through art school is learning how to solve these problems: working through the dreaded "art block" to meet class deadlines. I remember I'd be up late, having a staring contest with a blank board, stressing out about what I'd turn in the next day. Everything I would start wouldn't come out right and I get angry at the first line I'd put down. I just wanted to stop time so I could "re-charge" or something. I'd like to think I wasn't alone in that feeling but we never talked about it much as students. Instructors talked a lot about sketching and making work everyday but as a student I never made the jump into thinking that I could actually have my sketches work for me. I always thought sketchbooks were supposed to look "finished" and be filled with expert thumbnails, highly rendered studies and figure drawings that could hang on a wall somewhere. It wasn't until after school that I finally figured out that I needed to add a step to my day.

You have to stretch. Just like athletes, you must stretch your muscles - your art making muscles. When I left school, I suddenly realized that I had no schedule. I needed to make my own. At first, this was really tough. I still had this problem where I'd sit down to make something and I'd have no juice. I just didn't know where to start. So instead of making finished works, I started to sketch again. I figured that if I sketched something, at least I'd have that to show for my day. I started sketching everyday and in doing so I began to realize that after sketching I felt inspired to keep working. This is what warming up is all about. You push through that initial muck that comes out at first so you can really begin to work!

Now, let me be clear, warming up is different for everyone. Some artists like to render finished pieces in between assignments little by little, some like to make collages out of magazines and some like to draw repetitive circles on scrap paper. We're all different but one thing that rings true for all warmups is: It needs to be for you and it needs to be fun.

Your warm-up time is your time to let loose and have fun doodling, sketching and creating the things you like to doodle, sketch and create. So maybe the deadline you're working on isn't getting you excited or you've been working on it tirelessly. Reward yourself for a minute. I've found that taking some time at the start or end of my day to warm up and play really helps put me in a good mood. Honestly, I work better when I'm in a good mood. I love drawing creatures and animals - so that's what I warm up with.

Remember this:

  • You don't need to share everything. You know I only share the good stuff. Most days my warmups really are muck and that's fine. They can stay hidden away as a lesson and another notch in my belt.
  • Warming up is really fun but you have to be disciplined with it as well. Give yourself a time limit. Maybe you can take and hour or two or maybe just 15 minutes. Whatever you find is enough time to get you ready for work is good. This is usually around the time you want to finish up the sketch - put it down and move on to the next warmup or to your work.
  • Make it a habit. If you warmup everyday, you'll crave it. It's a good way to start or end your work day because it offers a bit of structure. Being a freelancer is so free-form, sometimes it can help to have one solid thing to frame your day.
  • Make it count. This is something I'm learning now in my own work. Why not warm-up with an anatomy study of something or some quick gesture drawings at a cafe? Use the time to multitask and learn something new as you're getting ready for your work day.

I hope this helps you as it has been helping me. Being creative everyday is hard and sometimes you have to run on autopilot. While warming up has helped me tremendously in being productive, sometimes the answer is simple. Put down the pencil, walk around outside and get some fresh air. ;)