The Anatomy of a Monster

©Nicola L Robinson
The nights are drawing in, the shadows are getting darker....  As Halloween approaches, who better to divulge the method for making monsters than SCBWI's spookiest illustrator Nicola L Robinson. Sharpen your pencils, connect the power, bring the creature to life!!

Monsters fascinate me. Particularly the scary kind with big teeth and claws who lie waiting under the bed or in the attic and haunt childhood nightmares. They've always been part of my universe and as an illustrator they still make up a decent chunk of my creative work.

With Halloween almost upon us, I've been invited by the lovely SCBWI Words and Pictures blog to share some thoughts (by no means definitive) from an illustrator's perspective about these compelling creatures and consider what makes a monster, and a few guidelines for drawing your own...

Frankenstein - Nicola L Robinson
Monsters are widespread across most cultures and places, both feared and worshipped they have been kept alive through the ages via the arts, through visual representations in paintings and drawings and through retellings of myths and stories.

'Monster' is defined by the Dictionary as - 'A large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature.' A Middle English word from old French 'monstre' and Latin 'monstrum' derived from the root 'monere' meaning, appropriately, 'to warn'.

Behemoth and Leviathan - William Blake
Monsters are traditionally big. From Biblical monsters like Behemoth and Leviathan, to mythological monsters the size of mountains. Being colossal in size, emphasises the strength and power of the monster. Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology, was particularly massive - big enough to wrap itself around the entire world.

Monsters are commonly ugly, which is a little unfair, but generally the uglier the monster's appearance, the more monstrous he/she is perceived to be. Particularly ugly monsters include demons, man eating ogres and big smelly trolls...

Billy Goats Gruff - Nicola L Robinson
Imaginary or otherwise monsters are frightening. Even more so during the time less travelled and enlightened than ours where people could expect to find dragons and other beasties over the horizon. Before Darwin's Origin of Species it is easy to consider how the discovery of a huge dinosaur bone or strange shaped skull could have fuelled belief in monsters. An elephant skull with its large central hole for the trunk could have been the skull of a Cyclops, or a narwhale horn that of a unicorn. 

Monsters invoke fear and sometimes represent it too. If something out there is supposedly big, powerful, dangerous and has a mouth large enough to eat you, it's probably a good idea to be afraid of it. It is no accident that many monster characteristics are closely linked to our innate phobias, both environmental -  darkness, deep water, fire... and in appearance - snakes, poisonous spiders, bats etc...

The Gnarled Monster - Gustave Doré
Monsters, being imaginary, follow no set rules when it comes to appearance, although they are often inspired by nature, particularly exaggerations of it. Sometimes they are illustrated as a muddle of animal parts, like the work of a bad taxidermist, horrifying, but not aesthetically pleasing.
A good example is the Chimera, having the head and body of a male lion, with an extra head of a goat midway along its spine and a snake as a tail.

The Chimaera - Ulisse Aldrovandi
Monsters can be more subtle too. When a monster has an uncanny resemblance to something more familiar and less obviously threatening, it can be particularly frightening, consider the many horror films where a small child or family pet turns out to be more than it seems...

Mythological monsters are often human formed, usually with beastlike modifications, for example Medusa the Gorgon with her hair of snakes, the mermaid with her scaly fish tail, the Minotaur with the head of a bull and the giant figure of the Cyclops, man shaped in form but with a single eye in the centre of his forehead.

Cyclops - Nicola L Robinson
Even in our modern scientific world, where the monsters of old can be explained and written off as fiction, we are still fascinated by them. From literary monsters like Dracula and Jabberwock, to classic film monsters from Ray Harryhausen and our modern CGI incarnations, monsters have established themselves in our world, and they are here to stay.
The Jabberwock - John Tenniel
Obviously it goes without saying that monstrous things don't necessarily come monster shaped and sometimes the most monstrous monster doesn't have big teeth or breathe fire at all.

Drawing Monsters

There are no rules when it comes to drawing monsters, However here are a few guidelines which you may wish to consider -

Monster - Nicola L Robinson

1 - Start with an animal, a dangerous one is good, but if you make it big enough and with enough teeth even a guinea pig can be monstrous. You don't need to use the whole animal, but it can be a useful starting point to develop the monster's overall body shape. Experiment.

2 - Accessorise. Borrow a set of antlers, pair of fangs and a hairy mane, or whatever takes your fancy. Try to blend the elements together rather than applying monster taxidermy and sticking an extra head into the middle of the back ala Chimera.

3 - Texture. By combining hairy manes with a scaly belly, slimy tongue and feathery wings you can add more interest and texture to your monster.

4 - Like creating a character, adding a back-story can help flesh your monster out and make him or her even more monstrous, elevating him from just a big hairy shape with lots of teeth to something a little more sophisticated. Consider things like - where does the monster live? What does he eat? Does he have any special powers?  Etc and adjust his appearance accordingly. For example a pond monster might have gills like a shark and spiky fins, or a cave dwelling monster might have very tiny eyes, or none at all, compensating with his particularly keen sense of smell.

5 - Exaggeration. Think big, think extreme, think monstrous!

I hope this helps a little in your monster making, and continues to keep the traditional monster species very much alive. They may well be out there somewhere, perhaps closer than you think.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monster Listening Party - Nicola L Robinson

Monster Links 

Monsters, Inc - An Interview with Ray Harryhausen

The Lure of Horror - Christian Jarrett, The Psychologist


Nicola L. Robinson is an Artist, Illustrator and creator of monsters...
Nicola's website -
Nicola's blog -
Nicola on twitter - @NLRobinsonart
Nicola's shop -


  1. Very entertaining Nicola thanks. Happy Halloween to you and all your creepy crew too.

  2. Super article Nicola and your monsters are stunning creations! I may never cross a bridge again!

  3. Monstrous thanks! Pleased you enjoyed it :)

  4. Really interesting Nicola - you've set me off thinking about the nature of monsters too.
    Also, I love your monster drawing tips (I'd definitely lump hamsters in with guinea pigs as potential monsters)

  5. Loved this. Btw - I wonder if monsters look ugly to one another?

  6. Thanks so much for reading!

    Oh yes hamsters could definitely be added to the list, along with most small furry rodents... sneaky little critters :)

    I guess monsters would have their own set of aesthetics, an 'ugly' monster to us might well be deemed irresistibly attractive to another monster!

  7. I really enjoyed this article Nicola, it was a pleasure to edit!

  8. Pleased you enjoyed it John! I try my best to dot the i's and cross the t's so to speak, looks great, many thanks!


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