Concept artists imagine and create tons of creatures from video game bosses to in-game enemies and even sci-fi creatures for movies. Many concept artists choose to specialize in creature design because it’s such a fascinating field.
I’ve already covered some of the best books for character art and environment art with many great options. So in this post I want to share the best creature concept art books to improve your skillset and get you moving on the right path to a job in the industry.
I may be making a big assumption here, but I assume some people reading this post aren’t amazing at digital painting. Some may even have zero experience with a tablet or paint program like Photoshop.
In this case I always recommend the Beginner’s Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop because it’s so detailed and easy to read. You can pick up this book with just a tablet and work your way through the exercises with confidence every step of the way.
Creating imaginary creatures is not an easy task. The actual idea creation process is very difficult. But if you don’t know how to render or start a painting that’s another big problem.
This book will guide you through the whole setup with Adobe Photoshop to get you started with rough paintings and sketches on your digital tablet of choice.
If you’re already comfortable with painting then you won’t get much from this book. However everyone needs to start somewhere and if you’re feeling a bit lost then I’d pick up a copy of this book ASAP.
Principles of Creature Design
This relatively newer book published by Terryl Whitlatch shares techniques and tips for creating believable creatures from your imagination. Terry is a skilled illustrator with decades of experience and also a big sci-fi lover.
In her book Principles of Creature Design Terry shares examples of her own artwork along with tips and diagrams along the way. You’ll learn about the anatomy of mythical creatures and learn how to craft your own creatures based on constructed anatomy.
Terry does not spend much time teaching in this book. You don’t get any how-tos or step-by-step posts guiding you along the way.
But you do get tips for realistic paintings and tons of fun illustrations to inspire your own creature work. It’s a fairly short book with 224 pages and it’s definitely one of the best you can get for seeing creature concepts in action.
Science of Creature Design
Here’s another book by Terry Whitlatch where you actually get to see her process along the way. This book Science of Creature Design has less of an artsy-fartsy slant and more of an instructor’s angle to the writing.
You’ll learn about tips for thumbnailing and brainstorming new ideas from scratch. She also shares examples of realistic renderings and unique tips to help you get the same realism in your own art.
She gets into lots of detail regarding anatomy from skeletons to muscles and how each animal moves. Since these are mostly fantasy creatures you’ll be building on top of real animals to construct their behaviors.
But Terry is a master at this and she’s happy to bring you along in her process.
I would recommend both of her books to intermediate-level artists who already know the fundamentals and want to get into detailed creature work.
Beginner’s Guide to Sketching: Characters, Creatures and Concepts
Sketching is one of the most important skills that you should train and practice every day. By frequently sketching animals and objects you’ll be able to quickly replicate them from your imagination at any time.
Beginner’s Guide to Sketching teaches warm-up exercises and valuable tips for sketching anything you want. This can include drawing in the city or at the park. But it also includes sketching from imagination by creating unique creatures from your mind.
The book features a handful of professional artists who share their own tips and tools of the trade. This is easily one of the best resources to get you into a natural technique of sketching from your mind.
Creature art often starts with thumbnailing which is nothing more than quick sketches. I would highly recommend this book to everyone from beginners to advanced professionals.
There are so many fun exercises and helpful tips that apply to all forms of concept art from characters to creature and even costume design.
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist
The masterful James Gurney is a legend for illustrators and digital artists worldwide. His techniques have stood the test of time and they apply to all forms of digital art.
Imaginative Realism is one of the best books for learning to render creatures with realistic techniques. James shares tips on everything from dinosaurs to vehicles and he talks about minor details like flesh, materials, and anatomy that just doesn’t exist in real life.
By studying this book you’ll learn how to construct an idea and build it up into a lifelike concept very quickly. James doesn’t pull any punches so this book expects that you already have a solid understanding of digital art.
If you’re ready to go from an intermediate-level artist to an advanced artist then pick up Imaginative Realism along with the next book by the same author.
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
While both of Gurney’s books lean towards realism they’re also powerful resources for illustrators and fantasy artists. When working from imagination you still need to conform to realist principles such as form, perspective, and lighting.
Color and Light teaches the fundamentals of lighting for artists including how lights falls over forms, how shadows are cast, and how light reflects off certain materials. This helps when you’re designing creatures with different exteriors like scaly skin or slimy ooze.
Light works differently across different surfaces. As a creature designer you’ll need to master this concept to make believable creatures.
Some of the later chapters get into mixing pigments and putting different types of paint together. If you’re working digitally you can skip these chapters, although they do come in handy when you’re mixing colors digitally.
Overall I highly recommend both Gurney books to all concept artists. These should be two staples in every painter’s toolbox and I guarantee you’ll grow as a painter from everything Gurney has to share.
Animal Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form
Finally we get to a detailed anatomy book for animals. At 256 pages Animal Anatomy for Artists can feel a tad light. But it covers a wide variety of creatures with different body sizes, skin types, and even aquatic creatures.
To envision and paint creatures from your mind you’ll need to be able to create realistic creatures first. This is part of the design process and it’s one reason I love this book.
Each chapter covers a different part of animal design and the book helps you further understand how different animals are structured. This is vital for any professional creature concept artist because you’ll often rely on this fundamental knowledge to build believable concepts from scratch.
I prefer this animal anatomy book because it’s much easier to read and it’s a bit longer than Atlas of Animal Anatomy. But both are great choices and you can’t go wrong either way.
Just be sure to pick up at least one animal anatomy book to get you started. Creature design relies heavily on existing anatomy so you’ll want to learn that topic inside & out.
Fantasy Creatures: The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Digital Painting Techniques
You’ll learn to paint a variety of creatures like fairies, vampires, demonic entities and alien creatures(to name a few). The step-by-step process is very easy to follow and it offers powerful insight for aspiring creature designers.
Each chapter includes tips from the artist along with exclusive interviews only found in this book. It offers a great way to improve your creature design skillset and help you build up your visual library of fantasy creatures.
You should already have digital painting experience before picking up this book. Each tutorial starts simple but gets detailed rather quickly. Intermediate-to-advanced artists will learn the most from these lessons and the workflows will be easier to memorize if you already know how to paint digitally.
Fantasy Art Creatures: Drawing Your Favorite Fantasy Creatures
This is one of the most recent books in my list and it’s also the shortest book at 96 pages long.
The author Jong Mac teaches you how to create wizards, pixies, fierce tundra creatures, dark vampires, and other similar creatures popularized by Hollywood productions.
I would recommend this to anyone who’s not a complete novice with digital painting.
But this book is really only useful for a limited time based on your skillset. It can help a beginner learn the ropes and help an intermediate artist solidify their work. Beyond that it’ll probably just sit on your bookshelf so be sure you can get value from this book before grabbing a copy.
The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures
Lastly we get to this incredible creature art book written by children’s book illustrator Emily Fiegenschuh. With this book you’ll get 25 unique tutorials teaching you how to create fantasy creatures from scratch.
Emily has a way of writing natural prose that feels colloquial and easy to follow. The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures bridges the fundamentals of perspective and lighting into this book with live examples for real creature paintings.
She gets into detail about skin types, bone structures, and even joint movements with different creatures.
If you’re an aspiring illustrator or concept artist this book has a lot of great tips. You’ll need to be able to make up creatures in your head and Emily’s writing style can help you reach that level of proficiency if you follow her exercises and do your own work on the side.
Not all of the books in this post will be valuable to everyone. Creature design is a complex subject that involves digital painting, animal anatomy, and a bountiful imagination.
But if you start with the basics and move along slowly you can quickly increase your skillset and prove yourself as a talented creature artist.