Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 7, 2015

Illustrator Saturday – Gabhor Utomo



Gabhor Utomo was born in Indonesia. He moved to California to pursue his passion in art. He received his degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in spring 2003. Since his graduation he worked as a freelance illustrator and has illustrated a number of children’s books. His first Children’s book, ‘Kai’s Journey to Gold Mountain’, is a story about a young Chinese immigrant in Angel Island.
Gabhor’s works has won numerous awards from local and national art organizations. His painting of Senator Milton Marks is a permanent collection at the California State Building in downtown San Francisco.

He also created posters for the famous Mountain Play in Marin County.
Gabhor lives with his wife Dina and his twin girls in Portland, Oregon.

Here is Gabhor explaining his process:

Last year I got this project for Chooseco, to create illustration for their new series “Choose Your Own Nightmare”. This series suppose to be a horror series, darker than their regular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. The first title of the series is “Eight Grade Witch”. It is the story of a young girl who realizes she has been passed along a family trait of witchlike abilities, which she isn’t too sure about.  She researches her history and winds up in a creepy haunted house, trying to find answers.

So For the covers They asked for a scene to depict that moment where the main character finds about that she is a witch. Initially I came out with these sketches:



But they don’t think it is scary enough. I have to depart from my cheerful, happy, childlike illustration and came up with a horror image. So I took a couple picture references and change the angle to a high angle. I made the main character more mature, and strip the scene of other objects. Here is the final sketch:


Here is a quick color study of the cover:


After they approved it, I traced the sketch onto watercolor paper.


Then the fun part begins. Painting the picture itself. Normally I would start with a light wash of overall color scheme. In this case dark blue with reddish orange, right in the middle where the witch reflection is. Then I go in to block in the shapes, shadows and darks with the same blue tint. Next I go in with the color of each object. And lastly I conclude with dark to emphasize the form and shape. I wish I had pictures to share of my painting process, unfortunately we have to go straight to the finish painting:

witch in the mirror

Here is the book cover:

eight grade witch

Interior Art

mean dog

from 8th grade witch BW

blood island


How long have you been illustrating?

I have been illustrating professionally since I graduated in 2003. But I have been drawing comic, editorial for my high school newsletter.

stage dancing

What was the first thing you painted and got paid for doing?

First painting that I sold is actually an assignment for Children’s book class. It was a scene from Robert Louis Stevenson poem, “The Land Of Counterpane”. I hanged that painting of a little boy pretending to be pirate, in a local gift store and sold it for $250.

mexican dancing

What made you move from Indonesia?

I moved from Indonesia for College. I did not know what major to take when I started college. I only knew I want a job where I can draw and paint. So When My parents offer me to study abroad, I took it.


How did you decide to attend the Academy of Art University in San Francisco?
I attend Academy of Art University simply because, my aunty lives in San Francisco. It was cheaper to live with relatives.


What classes do you feel helped the most in developing your style?

Children’s book class taught by Diana Thewlis is probably the one class that help me the most in understanding children’s book and the process of creating one. Diana taught me how to develop the story thru illustrations.

playing instrument

What type of work did you do after you got out of school?

After I got out of school I took a job as “production support” in a product design company. It’s basically an office support position. I help them preparing files and designs for production, manage the product samples, packing and sending products for tradeshows. It was fun and my bosses were very flexible with me, knowing that I wanted to be an illustrator, they let me come in and leave when ever I want, and let me take days off if I have a lot of illustration project.

under tree

Have you seen your work change since you left school?

Yes, definitely. I feel it got better. I am inspired by many artists and illustrators. I always tried to incorporate some of their style and art into mine.

The great Catch

Did the academy help you get work?

Yes, I got a lot of freelance job from their online Job listing.


It looks like you have been very successful in the short amount of time you have lived here. What did you do to get your first break?

Perseverance and luck I guess. When I first started I send out a lot of mailings and I religiously search online job boards for illustration projects. I tried my hands on anything from children’s book, advertising, editorial, to product illustrations.

mid east

How many picture books have you illustrated?

I think it more than a dozen less than 20. I don’t really count.

water mirror

Was Kai’s Journey to Gold Mountain your first picture book?

Yes it was my first picture book. A fun fact about that project was, the author, the art director, and myself as illustrator, we all have twin children.


How did you get that contract?

I got that from the Academy of Art online Job Boards. I applied and send them some samples of my work. Then they asked me to do a sample page from the manuscript that they have. I did a painting for them that turns out to be the cover for the book.


It seems like you illustrated 12 picture books during 2011 and 2012. Was it difficult to illustrate so many books in that short amount of time?

Are you sure? I don’t even realize that. They were busy years. It was difficult meeting the deadlines. I am more selective now. I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the artwork, and my sanity.


How did you connect with Storybook Arts Inc for representation? How long have you been with them?

In 2008 I have to move back to Indonesia for family matters. I needed a rep to help me promoting my works while I’m there. So I contacted a few, and found Janet DeCarlo from Storybook Art Inc.

in the trenches

What is your latest book?

Most recent one I worked on a book about Sergeant Stubby, a World War 1 Hero Dog. It was a project for Learning A-Z, an online educational company that provides teachers with reading material. So is that count as a book?

hero dog

Do you do any other types of art to make money?

Besides children’s book I do poster design, product labels, I submit paintings to competitions and shows. I used to do portrait paintings also.

dog salute

Would you be open to working with a self-published author at this point in your career?

Yes, of course. I still work with a lot of self-published author. They’re like indy movies, may not have a lot of funding and marketing channel, but it does not mean they’re not good.


Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?

I do, just haven’t had the right idea.

stepping in school


Do you have a favorite medium you use?

Watercolor. I experimented a lot with other mediums when I was in college, and found watercolor to be the one I am most comfortable with.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Sometimes. I took photos for references when I feel I need a little more help establishing the right angle or composition. I also do a lot of research on the internet for historical references.

the rat

Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

All the time. I need photoshop to punch up the contrast and color after I scanned my painting. I use it also to correct mistakes. It saves me a lot of time.

the street

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

Yes, I have this old Wacom tablet that I bought after I graduated from school.

fire fighter

Have you done any illustrations for educational publishers?

Actually most of my clients are educational publishers. I enjoy working on story about historical figure or event. And educational publishers have a lot of projects like that.


Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

I have done work for Cicada, Highlights. I also did a number of covers for local commonwealth magazine while I was living in San Francisco.


Have you ever tried your hand at a wordless picture book?

No I have not, but I wanted to. I think if I write and illustrate my own book its probably wordless picture book.



Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, I convert one of the bedroom in my house into a studio/home office.


rat packcropped

Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?

My computer, scanner and wacom tablet.

swimming with manatee

Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

Yes, I like routine. My wife used to tease me, saying that I have some kind of OCD, because I like to do things a certain way in certain order.

chicken attack

What kinds of things do you do to promote yourself?

This is my weakness. I don’t really like to promote myself. I maintain and update my own website and facebook page, and I gave the rest of promotion responsibility to Janet, my rep.

christmas tree in woods

Any exciting projects on the horizon?

No not really, still waiting for that one.


What are your career goals?

Currently I’m pretty content with my career. I just try to improve my art. But maybe in the future would like to go into fine art field.


What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on an educational program for McGraw Hill.


Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

Tips not really. But I want to recommend this book “Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor” by Joseph Zbukvic. You can really understand watercolor thru this book.


Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

As illustrators we are artists, we create works of art. Sometimes that art does not translate into money. My advice to illustrators who are just starting out is: “Make sure your spouse support your career…”crater lake

Thank you Gabhor for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.

Art Agency:

If you have a minute, please leave Gabhor a comment. I am sure he would love it and I enjoy reading them. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Beautiful work, thanks for sharing!


  2. Very inspiring! Gabhor, you are a hard worker indeed! Beautiful illustrations!


  3. Your art is beautiful. And I enjoyed hearing about your journey as an artist–thanks!


  4. I love your work, Gabhor, and I think we have a lot in common.


  5. Gabhor, your work is just stunning! And I’m so impressed by the wide array of subject matter! Wow! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Kathy, you keep finding the most amazing illustrators! 😀


  6. Your work is amazing! I’m blown away. Thanks for sharing your talent and experience with us.


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