Character and Creature Design Notes

The use of Silhouettes in Concept Design


Silhouette thumbnails are among the most helpful and productive methods of design when it's necessary to produce a large quantity of variations of concepts within a short period of time. It's not a method used by all concept artist and it's certainly not a necessity to design a creature or a character purely based off of a silhouette shape. That doesn't go to say that all designers don't subconsciously focus on shapes and designs that make a strong impact on the viewer. We often refer to a silhouette as a black outlined shape, much like a shadow. This doesn't always need to be the case, as a simple line sketch or simple shades of value can still provide the same effect and are just as efficient..



Whether consciously or subconsciously we are always designing through the use of interesting dominate shapes that work well together. One of the best ways to go about this is through the basic silhouette.

(Note: Artwork below is by Feng Zhu) Feng's work can be found at


Typically the use of this type of design is a pre-production phase of concept art that is generally only seen by the artist or art director if working on set or in-house. A lot of times when freelancing this stage of design isn't shown to an art director and is merely a quick process of finding solutions and multiple designs for the artist eyes only. The silhouette doesn't need to be as clean or clear as the ones seen below in order to achieve the same desired effect. We might often find more chaotic and textured shapes easier to identify with and productive in letting loose and having fun.

(Note: Designs by Ben Mauro, copyright Sony Pictures Animation) Ben's work can be found at The Art of Ben Mauro


It allows a designer to produce striking iconic shapes that will stand out among multiple characters or creatures. The purpose of finding a strong and interesting silhouette is so that it becomes easily recognizable from a distance to the person playing a video game or watching a movie for example.

You can see more of Ben's work here:

(Note: Designs by Ben Mauro, copyright Sony Pictures Animation)



Silhouettes can be used in multiple methods of design from the abstract to the symmetrical and beyond. Whether you have it in mind to design a specific type of creature/character or something more abstract, you can begin the silhouette process by pasting down large black shapes on a 3/4 point of view or by mirroring shapes to be used in terms of a front, back or top down view. One of the best things about this quick design method is you don't need to focus on hands, feet, fingers, eyes and all the little intricacies that take up time. As seen below in some examples, you can produce broken shapes and ghost line effects while you let your mind fill in the gaps. You can worry later and work out the missing elements once you have chosen a strong dominate shape.

The mirroring of such shapes is the quickest and simplest solution to producing a huge array of variants in your original design. These symmetrical shapes as mentioned can be perceived from a front, top or back view to be used as a reference point and then produced at a more 3-dimensional angle at a later point in time.

Note: The image above shows the final concept design in detail along with the chosen silhouette thumbnail. Artwork by Mike Corriero. The image below was a rough 3/4 sketch designed based on the thumbnails beneath it.


It's important to recognize that your design needs to provide a striking impact on the viewer from multiple angles, so although a silhouette shape may appear strong and iconic from the front or side view, you need to continue to play around with multiple angles to really come up with something memorable and recognizable no matter where the camera's POV(point of view) appears.


Orthograph sheets or "turn around" design sheets such as the image above and below show the designs from multiple angles IE; front, back, side (Ortho's or turn around design sheets are used by the modeler to produce the CG model)


(Note: Artwork below is by Feng Zhu)


As a matter of importance, you should be capable of recognizing one design from the next in the same manner of picking out any existing animal on earth in a profile line up by a mere silhouette. Most of the world's population is capable of recognizing an animal by a simple outlined shape, so it's important to try and incorporate this same iconic principle within your conceptual creatures and characters.


(Note: Artwork below is by Feng Zhu)


Inanimate objects as well as living animals and other imagery can be used to begin this phase in design. You never know where the most interesting of shapes will take form, so play around with all the tools and tricks of the trade that are at your disposal. The use of photography and icons can often help kick start the beginning of a unique and original design that the vast majority of the public can relate to. As per example, you might take the shape of an animal's skull - reduce it to a black silhouette and begin the process of using that shape as the body for an original creature design.This method of design can also be applied to structures, weapons, vehicles, robots, spaceships etc.

(Note: Artwork below is by Feng Zhu)



When producing designs at this stage of development, it helps to line them up or scatter them all out on the same page at a thumbnail scale. At this point, you're looking for a shape and a design that you can relate to and something that has the most potential for a unique idea. Often some of the more simple shapes become some of the more easily recognized. This is the case of using dominate and iconic shapes that blend well together. Proportion of shapes play a major role in this stage of silhouette design, so although it's not always important to know what's what during this phase you may want to keep it in mind for the next step.

(Note: Artwork is from "The Skillful Huntsman" Copyright 2011 Design Studio Press & Scott Robertson - artwork by Mike Yamada.)



(Note: Artwork is by Khang Le)


(I also recommend checking out another book by Design Studio Press called "Alien Race")

"Body proportion variations: Within a silhouette the basic elements from the abdomen, upper torso, head, arms and legs can easily determine the size, height and general appearance of a character. Everything from the width of the chest to the size of the forearm compared to the size and length of the bicep are ways to distinguish from one concept to the next when involving human or humanoid designs. It's those little differences of the dominate shapes and appendages that can help identify one concept from the next concerning designs with similar body structures.

(Note: Artwork below is from "The Skillful Huntsman" Copyright 2011 Design Studio Press & Scott Robertson - artwork 'left' is by Felix Yoon - artwork 'right' is by Khang Le)


(Note: Artwork below is from "The Skillful Huntsman" Copyright 2011 Design Studio Press & Scott Robertson - artwork is by Khang Le)


(Note: Artwork below is by Mike Corriero)



(Note: Final Product based off of a quick thumbnail, chosen to be one of the stronger designs in silhouette)

After choosing the best silhouette for the job at hand, you can take that shape and lower the opacity to begin the process of sketching a rough base of anatomy within the shapes. It's fine to modify a few things here and there at this point, but the ultimate goal is to make sense of the shapes in such a way as to retain that striking iconic silhouette you began with. This can be done in two ways. You can either lower the opacity of the silhouette and begin sketching in the form of line work, or you can keep the silhouette as is and begin blocking in forms of lighter values.

(Note: Artwork below is from "The Skillful Huntsman" Copyright 2011 Design Studio Press & Scott Robertson - artwork by Mike Yamada.)



(Note: Artwork below is from "The Skillful Huntsman" Copyright 2011 Design Studio Press & Scott Robertson - artwork by Khang Le)


(Note: Artwork below is by Mike Corriero)


When you begin to work out the details of the design and anatomy within the silhouette in the method of values and form, this opens up a lot of options for variations of where you can push the anatomy hidden within. You may even want to make some minor adjustments to the outline of the silhouette for some additional distinction.


I hope you find these examples and the information helpful and give this method of design a try for yourselves. It may help you open up to new ways of thinking and alternate methods in generating ideas. As is always the case, remember to use reference when necessary. Once I finished the "Landmine Crustacean" rough silhouette I referred to a photo of a crab's claw instead of guessing how it's constructed. Photo reference and research is always important no matter what the job or project involves. - Mike Corriero


Guest blogger Mike Corriero is a character, creature, and conceptual designer and illustrator living in New Jersey. Since graduating from Pratt Institute in 2003, Mike's client list has included Breakaway Games, Fantasy Flight Games, Allied Studios, Kingsisle Entertainment, Radical entertainment/ Vivendi Universal Games, Liquid Development, Zynga Inc, Challenge Games, Paizo Publishing and Hasbro Inc, among others. Mike's book "PLANET to PLANET creatures and strange worlds" includes hundreds of his sketches of creatures, robots, alien life forms and their environments. I recommend it for students focusing on visual development for games, or anyone who loves creature design. - J. G. O.



Log in
Ask a Question
By filling out the form, I agree to the processing of personal data.