Create Biologically Viable Alien Concept Art in Photoshop

Designing a plausible alien life form represents a challenge for concept artists. The monstrous creatures used blockbuster movies and video games can be relatively easily created, as they don’t need to be functional within a real world context. To design a creature that not only meets with a clients’ requirements, but is also potentially biologically viable requires a careful balance between plausibility and visual impact, a balance aided by careful research into the way real animals look and behave. In this tutorial, Alex Ries will explain how to illustrate an alien life form that could potentially exist in real life. Let’s get started!

Tutorial Assets

The materials required for this tutorial are researched reference images and textures. For this alien life form the following are used:

About This Creature

This creature, nicknamed the Needlejaw by local inhabitants, is a 4 foot tall quadrupedal omnivore inhabiting the dense red-leaved woodlands of a small fertile world. During the forty-hour periods of daylight it divides its time between resting, and tracking down fruits and soft plants with its keen sense of a smell, peircing them with its hardened rostrum and sucking out the fluids.
As darkness descends however, its behavior changes dramatically: Antennae previously held furled against the head are deployed and are able to detect the infrared radiation given off by its warm-blooded prey in the darkening forest. Using its slender legs and light build, the Needlejaw stalks silently until near enough to strike, driving its pointed beak downward with enough force to pierce tough skin and inject potent toxins and enzymes. The wounded prey is then tracked by the Needlejaws’ keen sense of smell, and drained of its body fluids by a strong muscular pharynx.
Powerful, sharp edged claws usually held flat against the chest are used to manipulate prey to facilitate feeding, or to tear open organs and other tough tissues. They are also utilized in carrying prey to a safer feeding location, where it will be protected from other, larger predators.
This ability; to exploit different food resources during both day and night cycles, has allowed the Needlejaws to diversify greatly, and the group is found in large numbers in many habitats across the planet.


This alien creature with its complex mouthparts and skin details requires a large canvas. In this case a new file of 5000×3750 pixels provides adequate resolution, without adversely affecting system performance.
Save this new canvas with a descriptive name and number: The numbering allows backup (iterative) saves to be made as the image progresses: Select File > Save As and increase the number value of the file name by one before each major change. These saves enable the recovery of elements from earlier versions of the painting which would otherwise be lost.

Step 1

Conduct your research by collecting images relevant to the design brief, which in this case is the illustration of a plausible alien life form. To this end, gather references of unusual or interesting earth animals that could inspire aspects of the design.

Step 2

With these references gathered, arrange them on a new canvas with a large enough resolution to display them all without losing detail. Create an image of 4000×5069 pixels and organize the references inside it.

Step 3

To easily view these references while working, the canvas will be duplicated and arranged around the main image. Select Window > Arrange > New Window for References and create a copy of the canvas. Next, resize and relocate both the original and the duplicate, one atop the other, on the left hand side of the screen. Repeat this step to create one more duplicate, resizing and relocating it to fit below the Layer Palette on the right side of the screen. Now, using the Zoom Tool it’s possible to view different areas of the reference canvas simultaneously.

Step 4

With references gathered, take a small Size 6 brush and sketch in the general form of the alien. As the design progresses, keep in mind the hunting style and habitat of the creature and let that inform its anatomy. As the creature hunts in forests, a slim shape will allow it to move easily between dense vegetation. Since it is an ambush predator, small slender legs and feet enable the silent stalking of prey, while a covering of small venomous spines help to protect it from its own predators.

Step 5

With the core body form defined, begin working on the face of the creature. The organism is a liquivore, injecting enzymes into its food and sucking out the fluids. Earth has many examples of such creatures, so inspiration for the mouthparts is drawn from horseflies and other insects which feed in this way.

Step 6

When designing alien life forms, adding eyes can pose a challenge; viewers tend to find eyes familiar, undermining the creatures’ alien nature. In the case of this creature an alternative sensory system is used; taking inspiration from both the biting flies and the infrared pits of the python to design two sensory antennae. Although not providing the kind of resolution traditional eyes would, these infrared sensors allow the animal to hunt warm-blooded prey in total darkness. As these infrared sensors would be of little use during the day, draw a vertical slit down the front of the face; this slit contains two simple, retractable eyes for daylight navigation.

Step 7

With the line art complete, masking the major areas of the alien can proceed: Reduce the line art layer’s opacity to around 10%, leaving it only barely visible. Below this layer create several more for each component of the alien such as Foreground Legs, Background Legs, Body, and Spines. The face, with its multiple small and complex parts, will also need a set of its own layers such as Antennae, Proboscis etc. Color each of these layers with bright hues that allow the individual parts to be easily discerned. At this stage any combination of colors can be used, as they will be changed in the next step.

Step 8

Now with the masking layers in place coloring can begin. When selecting colors consider the aliens’ environment: The forests in which it hunts are dominated by plants with red leaves, so in order to camouflage itself a similar skin color may have evolved. Select the main body masked layer, excepting the mouthparts and spines, and depress the Lock Transparent Pixels function from the top of the layer palette; this will prevent any brushstrokes from leaving the body layer. Take a soft brush and paint in a bright red color, repeating this procedure for all other layers except the mouthparts and skin spines.

Step 9

Note from the Python reference that many animals have a dark upper surface with a lighter belly: this is an evolutionary phenomenon called ‘countershading’, and is a method of camouflage. Apply this to the alien by selecting the main body layer and, using a soft brush, painting in a light cream undersurface to offset the uniformly red body. Repeat this procedure and add countershading to the inner surfaces of the limbs.

Step 10

To define the form of the aliens’ body shadows need to be added. Create a new layer folder above the body and set its Layer Blend Mode to Multiply. Within this layer folder create a new layer and paint in a shadow on the torso. To keep the shadow within the torso layer, hold Command/Ctrl and click the preview window of the aliens’ body layer in the layer palette: This will form a selection boundary around it to keep the brushstrokes inside.

Step 11

With the shadow in place a dark boundary is added to help define its extent. Double click the Shadow Layer to bring up the Layer Style palette.  Select Inner Glow and change its Blend Mode to Multiply. Alter the color and size settings until a harmonious aesthetic is achieved. With the shadow fully established, use it as a color guide to paint in shadows on the inner surfaces of the legs.

Step 12

Next, add definition to the body spines by using the zoom tool, and with Lock Transparent Pixels selected add a dark base to each spine, helping visually separate it from the skin.

Step 13

Select the various skin layers and use a soft brush to add in highlights and shaded areas of skin on the legs and head. Minor redesigns are made as the painting progresses: The head was too narrow and so is flared to give more visual interest, while the rear leg is repositioned to balance both the creature and the composition more effectively. With the legs in their new positions, add in the basic shape of the tree roots sketched earlier with a dark brown.

Step 14

Zoom in, and with attention to the reference images add detail to the mouthparts. Keep the colors subtle for the most part, and harmonious with the rest of the aliens’ coloration.

Step 15

Merge the Shadow Layer with the main body layer by selecting both in the layer palette and pressing Command/Ctrl + E. With this operation complete refine the shadow boundaries and forms of all body parts, paying particular attention to the way the highlights help define the muscles and ribs below the skin’s surface.

Step 16

Add more spines to the limbs and head, and zoom in close using the Magnifier tool to add small simple shadows beneath them. Along with various general refinements correct the unacceptably shaped torso using Edit > Transform > Warp and distorting it into its new position. With this complete add fine hairs around the mouthparts to add detail and keep the creature in line with its real life inspirations, particularly biting flies.

Step 17

Now confident that further leg revisions will not be required, the roots on which the creature is standing can be refined using your references. Use a combination of soft brushes to achieve an effect similar to the Eucalyptus image. At this stage the line-art layer is disabled as it is no longer required.

Step 18

As more detail is added to the general body surface, spend time analyzing the references and develop the feet. Take care to visually link them to their contact points with the tree roots using dark shadows where they meet.

Step 19

Add some final refinements to the face, and add a colored border to the eye slit to help give the head a point of focus. Further detail the body by adding small spines across the skin surface.

Step 20

Correct the perspective errors on the torso and spines to bring them more in line with the direction the head is facing, and reposition the near-side antennae with the same perspective in mind. This alteration reveals issues with the positioning of the larger back spines as well, and so they are brought in line with the new, more refined perspective. As the colored border to the eye slit attracted too much attention away from the rest of the design, repaint it with a more neutral hue.
Now on a new layer paint in the forelimbs, which will be used by the organism in gripping food or subduing prey. Paint them the same red as the body to break up the plain white chest.

Step 21

To give an aged, textured appearance to the image, several methods are employed to give the illusion of the illustration being made by a traditionally trained naturalist. First, take a large rough edged or soft brush and paint a subtle varied texture onto the background layer. Next, apply the provided Paper image, pasting it in place on its own new layer at the top of the layer stack. Set its Layer Blend Mode to Multiply and alter its Brightness/Contrast settings until a subtle aging effect is achieved.

Step 22

To unify the color palette, effects layers are used to enhance the contrast, coloration and mood of the painting.
To create these effect layers, select the Solid Color option from the divided circle icon at the bottom of the layer palette. This will create a new layer of solid color, which should be moved to the top of the layer stack. Once in place, repeat the above steps to create a second layer. Now, set their Blending Modes to Overlay and choose colors for each that tint the painting below in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Step 23

When ready to export the image, flatten all the layers using Layer > Flatten Image and change the image size to the dimensions required for publishing. In this case 600X800 pixels is ideal.
Use the Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen tool to fine tune the final appearance of the piece: Keep in mind that the settings used will work different at different resolutions.
The image, now complete, can be exported into any file type required.

Final Image

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