Making Of 'Jungle Creature'

Matt Dixon gives an insight to his approach to concept painting, as he demonstrates his painting process for a jungle creature!


There are many different ways to approach monster design. It's good to be familiar with as many different methods as possible, not only does this allow for greater versatility when selecting the appropriate solution for a particular design challenge, but employing a range of techniques helps to keep ideas fresh and the process fun.

Other than a jungle habitat nothing about this monster is predetermined. While the idea of having free reign with the design is appealing, such an open brief comes with one very significant challenge: where to begin? To solve this little problem, we'll look at a technique that will spark the imagination and quickly provide a variety of different options to explore.

Before picking up a pen, spend a little time getting into the mood. Refer to appropriate reference material and inspirational sources such as art, photography or even evocative music while you think your design over. Wait until ideas begin to flow before reaching for your pen. Filling your head with ideas before you begin to draw will really help start the creative process and should mean your imagination is already whirring away when the pen hits the paper.

Now the drawing can begin. Sketch out lots of quick doodles, keeping the lines as fast and free as possible. Details are not important at this stage, only basic shapes and proportions. Concentrate on the overall form of each creature as you draw. We want these drawings to be deliberately loose and spontaneous.

This approach is similar to the ‘automatic drawing' employed by the surrealists, where the drawing hand is allowed to move across the surface of the paper in a random fashion in an effort to tap into the subconscious mind. The human eye instinctively seeks to make sense out of chaotic shapes. The idea here is that encouraging random and accidental lines onto the canvas will help to suggest ideas that may not have been drawn deliberately. You can take this technique as far as you wish; completely random doodling can produce very interesting results and is a fun way to try and break a creative block but a more structured approach, inviting some chaos into deliberate sketching, is likely to yield more usable ideas. However it is employed, this is a very effective way to prompt new and unusual designs. Go crazy! (Fig.01)

Stop once you find ideas repeating and review your doodles. Set your imagination to work on each in turn, considering how they might look with different patterns, colors and materials applied to them. Try to make sense of any chaotic lines – are they feathers, horns, tentacles, a trunk or something else? Which are most appealing visually? Do any suggest a story or particular behavior? One or two will usually stand out right away - though they may not necessarily the best or most rewarding choice - take time to explore each drawing thoroughly.

Try to justify the final decision. Just liking the way it looks is reason enough, but thinking through the reasons for making the choice will help give direction to the next stage of development – what appeals to you about your choice? How will you communicate that to your audience?

"I chose the creature in the top right. I liked the idea of a monster with cute proportions – balancing that juxtaposition should be a satisfying challenge as the design progresses. The mixture of rounded and sharp shapes in this sketch also appealed to me and suggested a small, tree dwelling beastie which seems a practical choice for a jungle environment."


The next step is to develop the creature doodle into a full concept design. A neutral symmetrical stance allows you to concentrate on making the anatomy work without having to solve any problems that may be caused by a difficult pose. Begin by loosely defining the proportions of the creature then gradually begin to make sense of the shapes in the doodle. Make use of scale, rotate and distort tools to quickly experiment with different proportions (Fig.02).

With basic anatomy and proportions decided, add details. Again working against a neutral pose makes this easier. Use layers to quickly compare different ideas. Keeping shapes consistent within the design gives rhythm. Remember why you chose this doodle as the starting point for your jungle monster, trying to retain and develop what appealed to you at that stage.

"I focused on the cute proportions which first drew me to this creature, the large eyes, head and ears. A long, thick tail exaggerates these proportions further. Spiky details – fangs, claws, tufts of fur – hint at a nasty side to the monster while also helping to tie all the shapes in the design together. The eyes will be a focal point of the design and are traditionally seen as windows to the soul, so it's here that I need to concentrate the marriage of cute and cruel that I want to show in my jungle monster."
(Fig.03 – 06)

Now consider the colors, patterns and textures of your monster. Again, layers can make changes and experimentation easier – set your sketch to ‘multiply' mode and apply color to a layer beneath it. Use color adjustment tools to quickly see variations on your ideas. Try to make your development deliberate, ask yourself why your monster would have a particular color or pattern. Is your design led by evolution – color for camouflage, courtship, or deception – or to satisfy criteria in your design – eyes as a focal point, contrast with background color – the choice is yours. Remember what justified your design choice - does that give reasons which influence your decision on color?

With a chosen color, your design is complete. Look back at your original doodle to see how it has developed. Have you built on the qualities that attracted you to the sketch?

"For my creature design to work as I intend, it's important to get across aspects of both cute and nasty in my monster. I have chosen colors which I think will support this. To establish the eyes as a strong focal point, I have selected a saturated orange / red here – this is traditionally a color associated with danger or warning which should project the nasty side of my creation and will work well against green hues in a jungle setting. A neutral body color will give additional contrast to the eyes, and choosing a bright tone for the fur ensures good contrast with the background which will help to show off the cute body proportions. Accents on the tail add interest and help to maintain a consistent color theme within the design."


How will this freshly-designed monster be used? This will determine how best to present your creation. What you have at this point, perhaps with additional viewpoints and annotations may well be sufficient for a pure concept piece, but the design is only half the fun. Your jungle monster will be far more engaging, more alive, if you show it in a scene.


The first step is to decide on a pose and setting for your creature. Pose can communicate a great deal of your creature's behavior or personality. A background may not strictly be necessary when presenting a creature design, but the setting can be a powerful tool in establishing the mood of the final piece.

The development process should mean you're now well acquainted with your creation – imagine the kind of things it would do and try to choose a pose which will tell the viewer something about your monster. Think about how it moves, what it eats and where it spends it's time. Try getting into the character of your creature and act out movements. Though this may be amusing for any nearby spectators, it can be a very useful way to explore different poses quickly if you keep a large mirror where you work.

Consider a setting which supports a suitable mood for your creature. Hopefully this is something that was considered back in the sketching stage. Jungle environments are rich and diverse; decide if a predictable background of green broad leaves or something more unusual suits your jungle monster best. Try to show scale by including objects or cues which will be familiar to the viewer (Fig.07).

Explore different ideas with loose thumbnail sketches. As in the doodle stage, keep things fast and free – not only will this repeat the possibility of accidental marks sparking new ideas, but loose sketches capture movement and energy very effectively.

"I have referred back to my original doodle for inspiration on the pose for my creature. It looks almost as if it's been disturbed or startled which I think adds to his character and suggests that it's engaged in some sinister behavior which suits the mood I want to project. I intend to keep the background as simple as possible to show off the creature most effectively. The bough along which it creeps together with some surrounding foliage should give a good impression of the scale of my monster."


To begin, build on your compositional thumbnail. Simply establish the basic pose and proportions of your creature along with any background elements. Lay everything out to make sure the arrangement of shapes in your composition is correct. If it works in this simple form, you can be confident that you have a solid foundation to build upon (Fig.08 – 09).

Now add details to your layout sketch. How far you take this depends on your coloring and painting technique and the complexity of your monster design, but it's important to have all the significant elements in place before you proceed to the next stage.

"Thumbnail C was my choice for the final painting. This was closest to my original doodle, though I modified the pose to make the creature appear more confident, less like it has been startled and more like it is about to pounce!"


Next, establish values. Defining the values in your painting before working with color allows you to control the contrast in your image more effectively and to consider form and the basic behavior of light more simply. Place your sketch on a separate layer set to ‘multiply' mode, and lay in values on a layer below (Fig.10).

Begin with basic layout of flat values. Establishing the basic arrangement of value is the only goal here, so keep things very simple (Fig.11).

Add variation to the basic arrangement. Strengthen the contrast where dark and light values meet, and place any significant details. Try to keep forms flat at this stage. Decide where the darkest and lightest values in your image will be placed – be aware that these points will often establish the areas of highest contrast which will become a natural focal point (Fig.12).

Begin to add form to the shapes in you painting, and place any final details. Pay particular attention to edges at this point – soft surfaces should have soft edges, hard surfaces hard. Try to ensure all lines are removed in preparation for painting.

"My values are very simple. I designed my creature's bright fur to contrast against the background, so I placed it against a shadowed area of foliage to make the most of this. The highest and lowest values are deliberately placed in my monster's head to draw a strong focus to this area."


Flatten the final value treatment, then copy it onto a new layer and again set to ‘multiply' mode. Lay in basic colors on a layer below. It's always best to work with a simple scheme, at least to begin with. No more than three of four main colors as a starting point. Begin by establishing the basic colors of your jungle monster as these are already decided, then choose complimentary colors to use in the background. Using a soft brush here will encourage colors to mix which can produce interesting results that you can carry through into your final painting. Different colors may be added on separate layers so that adjustments can be made more easily if necessary. (Fig.13)

The opacity of your value sketch layer may need to be reduced a little, especially if your values are strong, in order for the colors beneath to show through effectively. This is fine as the relative values remain consistent. A positive side effect of this is to reduce the strength of the very darkest and lightest values, which may then be re-established during rendering.

A good impression of the final image should be seen at this point. All the significant elements have been put in place and all that remains is to refine what is already there. This is a good opportunity to take stock before final painting begins. Note areas which could be problematic during the painting process or which don't work as you intend and try to address them before you progress to the next stage. Similarly, take note of any areas which are particularly successful and make sure you don't spoil them!

"I've chosen a basic color palette. A green background is a strong compliment to the saturated hues in my jungle monster and I've used a blue shadow to add interest to the scheme. The blue shadow and green foliage colors mix to create a bright teal hue where they mix. I like how this ties the colors together and I will aim to maintain that in the final painting."


Now the fun can really begin! Flatten the image and build on the colored value sketch. At all times try and develop the image as a whole, rather than concentrating on small sections.

Use the biggest brushes you feel comfortable with - this will force you to make bold marks and encourages the idea that each mark should be deliberate. (Fig.14)

At each stage of the render, try to build on what has gone before. In the previous section the colors were placed, use the color picker to choose colors from the existing image and begin to refine your painting. Resist the temptation to add new colors at this point. Tidy any loose or messy areas and pay particular attention to edges and texture. (Fig.15)

Continue working across the image, making sure to balance the background elements with the foreground.

"Here I'm really feeling out the background of my painting. I want it to look like foliage, but I don't want it to draw attention away from my monster. My solution to this is to take an almost abstract approach to the background, defining rough shapes of leaves and plants without placing any details.

The goal is to give the impression what's in the background without having to show anything too specific." (Fig.16)

Now is a good time to flip and rotate your painting, this gives a fresh viewpoint on your image and can draw attention to problem areas. Fix any issues you can see. Continue to refine your work, strengthening values and adding detail as required. (Fig.17)

As the rendering process draws to a close, add any remaining details making sure to keep the tightest detail in and around focal areas.

Finishing touches

The rendering is complete. The final step is to add a few finishing touches. Pick out significant details with highlights, strengthen values to give the image plenty of contrast punch, make any final adjustments to the texture of surfaces. Image adjustment tools can be very powerful at this stage, but try to avoid getting bogged down with tweaks and frills. If you've followed these steps correctly, you will have made deliberate, positive decisions about your creature design and presentation throughout the process and major adjustments at this stage should be unnecessary.

Your jungle monster is complete!

"In the final stage, I pushed some darker tones into the shadow area behind my creature and added further bright values to the fur. This really boosted the contrast around the creature and gives the image a satisfying ‘pop'. I drew further attention to the eyes by adding some subtle reflections which, along with hard, bright highlights make this area a very strong focal point. I also added some small details such as the skin texture in the ears, and some floating pollen in the background."

Critique and conclusion

Acknowledging that there will always be some aspect of your work that can be improved means that each piece you produce can be viewed as an opportunity to grow and refine your skills. Take a little time to look back at your work with a critical eye to see what may have been done differently and to review anything you feel you have learned from the piece. This is best done at least a few days after completing the work to give a better chance of casting an objective eye over the image. For a concept piece such as this, pay particular attention to the development of your ideas. Compare your first sketches against your final image. Does your finished creation remain true to your original concept? Does it successfully answer any design brief? Was the process smooth and deliberate? Do you like the end result?

"I'm generally pleased with my jungle monster. It's good to look back at the very first doodle which inspired this creature and see a direct connection with the final design. I think the design criteria, a quirky mix of cute and nasty, which I set myself is successfully met along with the intention of having the monster's eyes as a strong focal point. Perhaps the design could have been more original or unusual; though presenting a creature with some similarity to familiar animals (in this case a small primate such as a lemur or capuchin) can help the viewer to accept the design as plausible. The finished painting works as I hoped, I like how having small parts of the creature obscured behind the foliage and bough helps to give the impression of a secretive, skulking nature to the beast. Some elements, particularly the monster's hands, could maybe stand out a little better but that might interfere with the strong focus on the eyes so I'm happy that there's a good balance to the picture overall."

Designing monsters is always fun. Hopefully the techniques that we have looked at in this example will have been interesting to explore and will prove useful in the future. Introducing an element of ‘automatic drawing' into the early sketches in not always easy, especially if an artist has been trained to produce neat and tidy drawings, but it's an approach worth persevering with even if it does not feel natural at first. Few other methods have the potential to produce such varied concept ideas as quickly as this, and remember that your unused ideas can be saved for possible future use!

If you've enjoyed the process, why not go back to your concept doodles and develop other monsters?

To see more by Matt Dixon, check out Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 7

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