Creature design in depth

Introduction: Unicorn

A popular icon in heraldry, the unicorn is typically understood to have the body of a horse with a single horn protruding from the middle of its head. Ancient Greeks believed the unicorn to be from India, although early references to the beast also come from China and Mesopotamia. These older sources vary in their description of the creature, some referring to features of goats, boars, oxen, stags, narwhals, and lions; once thought to have cloven hooves, more modern recollections of the unicorn stick more strictly to the image of a horse, with single-toed hooves. These days the unicorn is a familiar icon throughout the world. Some believe unicorns to actually be incorrect interpretations of real-world creatures, such as the elasmotherium (an extinct relation to the rhinoceros) or single-horned goats. Some descriptions report the unicorn to be a fierce, wild animal, only to be tamed by a female virgin. The unicorn’s horn is believed to possess magical properties, including the power to heal sickness and disease. Its white appearance reflects the beast’s association with purity, as it is also known to be able to clear poisoned waters by dipping its horn into them. Indeed, cups made from unicorn horn were highly sought after in the Middle Ages.

Field Notes

Horses' manes

The unicorn is a seemingly simple character to draw because essentially it is a horse with a horn; however, in order to make it look more magical and not simply like a dressed-up horse, there are a few things to consider, including the design of the horn and mane, the influence of gravity, and what to hide and what to show. My main gripe with a lot of modern unicorn designs is that the animal looks too perfect, like a doll. In my design, I want to focus on making the beast a more feral animal that is messy, imperfect, and wild. With enough research and attention to detail, each element will be designed to fit that description and be grounded in reality.

As I research different types of mane, I stumble upon a horse whose hair is exceptionally wavy, shiny, and elegant. I study the light reflection of the hair with a few strokes. What I like about this design is how graceful the animal looks just because of the texture and placement of the mane. In some ways the hair is what determines the first look, and even personality, of the horse.

Impala

I want to avoid the narwhal type of horn for the horn design because it is overused and I don’t think it will fit well with a land mammal. I research various horns in the animal kingdom that will enhance the wild look I want the unicorn to have. The impala has a gorgeous set of horns that have a minimum curve and an interesting ribbed texture.

Giant eland

The giant eland is another animal whose horns I study, this time because of the complex twist in the design of the horn. The beautiful shapes within that design look perfect for my vision of a unicorn horn while keeping it grounded in reality. It is also straighter than other horns I look at, so it will not be too removed from the viewer’s expectations of what a unicorn should look like.

Nubian ibex

What I love about the horns of the Nubian ibex is how massive they are compared to the animal. I don’t plan to make the unicorn’s horn huge, but I like both the texture and amount of detail I can observe on the ibex’s horns. The animal feels very muscular and powerful, which is another element that I note down for the final unicorn design.

Unicorn horn

I start designing the unicorn’s horn by determining how large it should be compared to the size of the creature’s head. I roughly mark out its shape and direction. My preference is for the horn to point in the same direction as the eyes look, and not upwards. It makes it look more menacing and practical rather than something from a children’s fairy tale. This direction of the horn should also complement more poses as it will not clash with the flow of motion as much as an upward-pointing horn: a simple choice like this will go a long way.

considering the placement and direction of the horn

Next I focus on designing the general shape of the ribbed texture of the horn. I use the giant eland’s twisted horn for the base of the horn; even though I keep the horn straight, I use the impala’s textured horn surface for the rest. Combining two horn types provides enough variation to demonstrate that this horn is not simply a prop but an actual weapon for fighting and defense. It also creates something unique and original.

using different types of horn to inform the shape

Finally, I texture the whole structure based on the ibex’s horns, which have a lot of definition and little imperfections. The more imperfections I add, the more true to the wild character it will become. I like the lack of sheen on the surface; it almost looks as if it is made out of stone, which gives it a heavy look and suggests it is not easily broken. The horn should accentuate the feral aspect of the creature as much as possible.

adding imperfections to suggest the beast's wildness

Horse mane

I want to use the unicorn’s mane as one of the most significant design elements. While the unicorn is feral, I still want it to have a magical aspect to it, so gravity should not play too much of a role in the way the hair behaves. I would like the mane to almost float in mid-air, as if blown by the wind or underwater. It could also be used to partially hide the unicorn’s face so that the creature looks more mysterious and otherworldly. I mark out the basic shape of the hair to begin.

marking out the basic shape of the "floating" hair

I then lay the main light and dark shapes with a blending stick to define the untamed, wavy nature of the hair. I continue to think about the overall mane design. I push for that permanent “windy” look, which adds a lot of motion to the design with minimal effort. While wild horses’ hair is not as sleek as that of groomed, domesticated animals, I still want it to have a lustrous appearance.

adding light and dark shapes

I keep the mane rather shiny here but will add further kinks and imperfections within the overall shape of the mane later to make it feel more unkempt and wild. At this stage, I am still in exploratory mode, so my focus is to capture the textures of the hair close-up, and not worry too much about the overall look of the animal. I want the mane to complement the muscular face of the horse, and also to play a part in the flow of the neck and head. I reference a few horse sculptures where the shape of the mane added to how dynamic the pose felt. I add a simple horn shape in so that I can consider how the hair will work with it.

working in more details and textures

Design Process

Thumbnails

These thumbnails are quick, one-minute poses that are loose and aim to capture the flow of motion and overall silhouette of the unicorn. They vary from dynamic running poses to still views of the unicorn standing, kneeling, or sitting. I tried different types of manes in a few of these, just to see what would eventually feel best for the final design. In most of the thumbnails, the hair flows to accentuate how majestic the creature is and to help convey the idea that there is a supernatural force involved (that the hair is always flowing, even if there is no wind).

I quickly outlined each silhouette, and then layered the lights and shadows with a blending stick. I find this is the fastest way to map out surface textures and decide where the light is coming from. Clarity is key for thumbnails, since they are so quick and rough; the clearer the thumbnail, the stronger the final pose will be. This is especially helpful if you are pushing the story element in your illustration. A good thumbnail is a great starting point for building complex pieces that have multiple layers and need a solid silhouette.

I like the thumbnails where the unicorn is standing on two legs, as it adds movement to the design and emphasizes the beast’s power. I decided to use single-toed hooves rather than cloven ones because I think they look more elegant, majestic, and fit for speed.

Further exploration

To work towards the final design, I chose a unicorn whose legs are a bit shorter: one with a powerful body, a stout physique, and a darker head and mane than the rest of its body as a distinctive characteristic. Working from the front, I hid the eyes to make the unicorn appear mysterious, even in close proximity. The mane is messy and drapes onto the body and head as a design element.

From behind you can see the powerful back legs and a tail full of kinks, because, as I have already established, this is a wild beast. With both of these views, my goal was to create a strong silhouette that reads well from afar, so I kept the snout and horn clear of the flowing hair locks. From the rear angle in particular, the dark mane and hidden eyes give the unicorn a more sinister appearance.

Poses

The first pose shown here presents a fun action view that shows the dark head leaping forward. Once again, the goal was to produce a strong pose with design elements that include both the hair and the large shaded shapes within the design. There is a lot of speed suggested with this pose with the legs shown mid-gallop and the hair flowing in one direction to indicate the movement. With slightly more of the face revealed the unicorn looks less intimidating and sinister from this perspective, although the sense of wildness and power is still evident.

The second pose shows a back view with the front legs up as if the unicorn has met an unfriendly creature; if it dwells in a wild environment this is a scenario that is likely to happen, especially with human hunters in search of its valuable horn. This pose is therefore an intimidation stance, warning before an attack with that twisted horn. The horn is a little lost in the untamed hair here though, so this will be something I need to keep in mind as I move forward with the pose of the final design.

Even the most powerful creatures can have moments of fun and leisure. In this final pose the unicorn scratches his back in the dirt, gets some much needed rest, and is just being playful. I love drawing foreshortened poses and limbs, and this pose has a bit of that in the hind legs. This removes any sense of majesty from a more common view of the unicorn being an almost regal creature; it is a primitive animal.

Subspecies

Unipony

This distant cousin of the unicorn lives a quiet, peaceful life and never has a need for long-distance traveling and fast-pace galloping, thus the short legs and less statuesque physique. Its spiky mane and tail give it a much cuter appearance than a unicorn, although its horn and character are equally as threatening and ferocious when the creature is challenged. When treated with respect however, the unipony is known to form lasting relationships with humans. More social than their distant cousin, they are occasionally spotted in groups on British moors.

Mountain unicorn

This unicorn subspecies has a more linear appearance, giving it an almost ice-like look reflective of its natural habitat. Its mane is completely straight and the fur coat is extra shiny. As the name suggests, this type of unicorn lives in higher altitudes, where the coarseness and weight of the mane prevent the hair from curling up, allowing it to act like a protective cover against strong winds, snow, and heavy rain. Just like many other animals living in similar conditions, it changes its fur coat during the year to match the color changes of its environment.

Ghost unicorn

This type of unicorn is found in deep caves where very little or no natural light permeates. For this reason the creature is blind, using its horn to detect vibrations caused by the eerie, low-pitched sounds the beast emits, which then reverberate off the cave walls. The white mane and eyes and jagged horn give the creature a ghostly appearance, hence its name. The ghost unicorn is domesticated, however, as indicated by the regimented hairstyle on its back; the subspecies is in fact used by miners to navigate pitch-black tunnels.

Final Design

Here you can see the final design of the unicorn. The side view displays the full anatomy well and is also the optimum vantage point from which to observe the most distinctive feature: the horn. I chose a pose with the front legs raised based on a couple of the thumbnails that I thought successfully displayed the power and potential ferocity of the unicorn. The locks in this final drawing are much more defined and shiny than in my exploratory sketches, but are still tangled in bundles with kinks. I actually removed a lot of the shine in the mane and added it to the body and head musculature instead after studying various wild horse types.

Adding definition to the face is one of my favorite stages when drawing horses, so I paid special attention to the unicorn’s facial features. The mane and tail are dark rather than a more perfect-looking white; however I decided against hiding the eye with hair as I did not want the unicorn to look too sinister and evil, just a little wild. The movement and gesture of the mane and tail suggest it is an untamed beast, which was what I wanted to portray. The hint of green color enhances the magical, ethereal nature of the creature.

Key facts

Name: Unicorn

Taxonomy: Horse, narwhal or horned ungulate

Region: Worldwide

Habitat: Various

Mythical abilities: Healing powers

Threat to humans: 2

Final image © Eliza Ivanova

Find this tutorial and more stunning creature concepts in Mythical Beasts

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