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Painting Mythological Creatures in Photoshop

By Matt Dixon

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Date Added: 30th June 2015
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Matt Dixon demonstrates how to turn a brief into a cool creature concept!


In Greek mythology, the Charybdis or Kharybdis was once a beautiful naiad and the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia. She took the form of a huge bladder-like creature whose face was all mouth and whose arms and legs were flippers, and who swallowed huge amounts of water three times a day before belching them back out again, creating whirlpools.

First Thoughts

This is a well-balanced brief. It provides some background for the creature, a partial description of her physical characteristics and explains what she does without giving unnecessary detail. Everything needed for a solid design is there, but there's plenty of room to be creative and have fun.

Before picking up a pen or pencil, it's a good idea to take a little time and dissect the brief. Identify the different elements provided and how they might impact on the design of the creature.

Naiads are graceful and beautiful water nymphs. Perhaps some aspect of this past form could be evident in the final design? This could manifest physically or maybe as a mood or emotion - for example, sadness at her lost beauty or anger at her transformation.

Poseidon and Gaia are significant figures in Greek mythology. Though Charybdis is more obscure, her parentage would suggest a powerful character. 'A huge bladder' does not immediately suggest a particularly interesting creature. A giant balloon with fins stuck to it would be a very lazy design, so care must be taken to avoid this route.

Some indication of whirlpools and Charybdis belching or swallowing water should be seen in the finished illustration. This also poses a possible problem as large amounts of water entering or leaving the creature’s mouth could obscure large parts of her body.

Getting Started

The first step in any design is always to find a starting point. Choosing where to begin and why will set the tone of the entire design process. They key visual attribute of Charybdis seems to be the idea of her being a huge bladder-like creature and this will need to be obvious in the final rendering. It seems that there are two ways to approach the design; either to start with a bladder-like shape and try to add design elements or to use other elements of her description as a starting point and try to develop the design from there.

Though some kind of bloated beast is inevitable, I'm concerned that using the bladder shape as a starting point will limit design choices and result in an uninteresting creation. Beginning at some other point and finding a way towards a final design forces intelligent and deliberate choices, which tend to give more depth to a concept. That seems the more appropriate choice in this case.

Rough Ideas

To me, the most appealing element of the description of Charybdis is that she was once a naiad. This sharp contrast to her current form is interesting, and the transformation from beauty to beast seems an important part of the creature's story and possibly suggests her personality. Narrative elements, however subtle their manifestation in the final design, are always fun to explore and tend to suggest greater depth in a design than visual cues alone. They also help an artist to connect with their creation as a living thing rather than a collection of two-dimensional shapes. With this in mind, I'll begin my design of Charybdis with a rough sketch of how she may have appeared as a naiad (Fig.01).


Using this image as a starting point I can start to consider how she may have changed into the creature described in the brief. I can explore different ideas by mutating her humanoid body. This evolutionary approach to design will generally spark more interesting thoughts than leaping straight towards the end result and, in my opinion, is much more enjoyable!

Initially I'm just concerned with the principle shapes and establishing an overall form that is pleasing to the eye, while satisfying the requirements of a bladder, flippers and a face which is all mouth (Fig.02).


First sketches should be quick and loose. A speedy exploration of ideas is more important than detail at this stage. Consider how the transformation to sea beast may have occurred. Did her legs fuse together into a tail? Which part of her body grew to become bladder-like?

Analyze the first sketches. Even if the designs are broadly similar, one or two will usually feel more successful than the others when viewed side by side. Try to understand why a particular design is appealing as you choose which to develop further, as those aspects should be built upon in the final image.

Rough C is my choice to work up. I feel it has the best balance between the bladder-like shape and humanoid elements. The suggestion of shoulders and the indication of an upper torso above the bladder are familiar anatomical elements that help to make the connection between this creature and a naiad.


Now the rough sketch can be worked up to add definition and details. Again, keep things free and fluid. Try to justify all decisions and keep shapes consistent so the design has a consistent flow. Choose a neutral pose for this stage of the process: a clear view of your creation makes it much easier to concentrate on the design without the distraction of foreshortened limbs or obscured body parts.

In keeping with the evolutionary theme of humanoid to beast, I'm imagining Charybdis as an aquatic mammal similar to a whale or walrus. That suggests a tough, blubbery hide, which seems a suitable match for her bloated shape. Adding damage and texture to her body will give an impression of age and make her appear more monstrous (Fig.03).


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