Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 26, 2016

Illustrator Saturday – Gary Hanna

large_GH_photo(1)Gary Hanna is a prestigious talented realistic, fantasy, historical and wildlife illustrator. For over 18 years, he has been a noted worldwide freelance illustrator who specializes in 3d Illustration, Concept art for games and films, High end 3D models, textures and books. His work has been used by the advertising, publishing and games industries. He has extensive experience in traditional media but now use digital tools as his primary medium. His focus is now on publishing, but has a consistent games industry clientele.

He, also has worked on many Books and Publications as well as serving all the leading Film/Entertainment studios on the West Coast of the U.S.

His illustrations have appeared in books published by Scholastic, Penguin Group UKLlewellyn Worldwide – Macmillan – Weldon Owen Publishing to name a few.

Here is Gary discussing his process:

Step 1 – Reference and Research

Because this particular type of art work requires scientific accuracy, I have to rely on the experts to provide me with both written, oral, and visual reference material on the latest in dinosaur research and discovery. Using this information, I can begin what is called a Model Sheet.

Step 2 – Model Sheet

The model sheet is basically a blue print of the dinosaur I am modeling. It shows a side and top view of the animal. Sometimes, it includes a front view and details like feet and teeth. Using this image as a background in my 3d modeling software (Modo and Zbrush), I begin to block out the basic shape of the dinosaur. In this example, we will be using the T. Rex.

Rough Model in Modo

Step 3 – Rough 3D Model

I begin by creating a simple model of the T. Rex in a passive pose (standing straight with out any posing). I use Modo for this. It is a powerful 3d software program that allows you to create, color, render and animate 3d models. This initial rough model will focus on T. Rex’s overall proportions and basic muscle structure . The experts can then inspect this model to make ensure that I am true to the T. Rex’s overall look. Once I receive approval on this rough model, I move onto the Tight Model.

HeadDetail-BaseModel-Zbrush part 1

Head Detail Base Model with Zbrush Part 1

HeadDetail-RoughModel-Zbrush part 2

Head Detail – Rough Model – Zbrush part 2

HeadDetail-TightModel-Zbrush part 3

Head Detail – Tight Model – Zbrush Part 3

Rough Model brought into Zbrush for Sculpting

Rough Model brought into Zbrush for Sculpting

Step 4 – Tight 3D Model

Now I begin the sculpting of the final 3d model in a software program called Zbrush. It is also a 3d modeling tool but unlike Modo, I can “sculpt” on the model. Almost like it is clay but in a digital form. Instead of a computer monitor and mouse, I use what is called a Cintiq Digital Tablet and stylus. The tablet is basically a monitor you can draw on. Using a stylus, a pen that has no ink, just a plastic tip, I can draw on the tablet and it senses my motion and pressure. In this way, I can “sculpt” the T.Rex in 3D space. I also use this hardware later for the final 2d digital painting.

I now work on details like wrinkles, tendons, teeth, claws and eyes. Because Zbrush is like working in clay, I can get very fine details into the 3d model. When the experts approve the details I have added to the T. Rex model, then it is time to pose him.

Tablet Stylus - sculpting in Zbrush

Tablet Stylus – Sculpting in Zbrush

Step 4 – Tight 3D Model

Now I begin the sculpting of the final 3d model in a software program called Zbrush. It is also a 3d modeling tool but unlike Modo, I can “sculpt” on the model. Almost like it is clay but in a digital form. Instead of a computer monitor and mouse, I use what is called a Cintiq Digital Tablet and stylus. The tablet is basically a monitor you can draw on. Using a stylus, a pen that has no ink, just a plastic tip, I can draw on the tablet and it senses my motion and pressure. In this way, I can “sculpt” the T.Rex in 3D space. I also use this hardware later for the final 2d digital painting.

I now work on details like wrinkles, tendons, teeth, claws and eyes. Because Zbrush is like working in clay, I can get very fine details into the 3d model. When the experts approve the details I have added to the T. Rex model, then it is time to pose him.

HeadDetail-Posing Model-Zbrush part 4

Head Detail – Posing Model – Zbrush Part 4

HeadDetail-Posed Model-Zbrush part 5

Head Detail – Posed Model – Zbrush Part 5

Step 5 – Posing T. Rex model

With the 3d model completed, it is now time to pose him for both the spread and cover artwork. He has been in a passive pose during the previous steps, but now it is time to make him look alive. Using Zbrush again, I can select areas of his body and twist and move them into a new position. For example, I an select an area on his leg (lighter area of the model). while the rest of him is locked (masked). I can then use tools within Zbrush to rotate and move his leg into position. Using this method of selecting a small area on his body, rotating/moving, I edit the entire body into the pose we need. In this case, hunting for his next meal! With the pose complete, it is time to light and render him. Still in Zbrush, I can move a virtual light around in 3d space so that it lights his body how I need it for the final artwork. I can then render a still 2d image (rendering is just pressing a button and the software calculates all the math needed to create a 2d digital image. The rendering can take a few seconds or a few hours depending on the complexity of the model and lights). In this case it takes about 15 minutes for T. Rex to render. With this approved, I can now use it as the base (underpainting) of the dinosaur in the final painting. Now, it is time to give this guy some color and more detail like feathers and scales. And a place to live, the swamp. For this, it is time to move out of the digital 3d world and into digital 2d world of Photoshop.

Rough Comp 3 variations

Rough Comp – 3 variations

Tablet Stylus - Painting in Photoshop

Tablet Stylus – Painting in Photoshop


Zbrush Render Base for Painting

Step 6 – Painting Comp in Photoshop

This is where I create the foundation for the final images you see in the books. It is where I bring all the details, color, mood and setting that makes up the final 2d image. Photoshop is a software program where you can edit photos but also paint in. Just like real brushes, pencils or pens. Except it is all digital. I use the tablet and stylus to do this work just like I did with Zbrush earlier.

I start by bringing my Zbrush rendered image into Photoshop. Using this as a starting point, I begin to rough in what is called a Comp. This is a quick black and white painting that shows the overall mood and composition for the final artwork. In this example I created 3 variations for the client to look at. Once a comp is approved, it is time to start the final painting for print!

Photoshop with layers

Photoshop with Layers

Step 7 – Final Painting

Now it is time to make T. Rex look all pretty and dangerous in his new swampy home. Using a combination of painting, photo collage, and what are called “textures” (detailed photos of things like rocks, plants, grime, etc. They are used to add very small details into my paintings. I may use a texture of a rock surface for an area of the scales because it adds “roughness” to them). All of these techniques work together in creating the final digital 2d painting.

Using the rendered image of the 3d model and comp, I start painting in layers in Photoshop. I can have as many layers as I like (see image) and this allows me to paint different parts of the T. Rex image separately from each other. For example, I can paint the T. Rex on one layer and the background on another. But, I use the layers for much more detail then that. For example, in the final painting, I have his eye on a single layer. The same goes for all the elements in the scene that make up the entire painting.

T. Rex has his eyes, scales, claws, teeth, feathers, many other details all on their own layer. This gives me control on all parts of my painting so that I can make adjustments to color, size, shape to any them along the way. Think of the whole 2d painting as a machine with parts that I can redesign or fix as I work. This is the power of working digitally even if I want a painterly look.

The actual painting is done with a variety of digital brushes within Photoshop. I can have hard edges or soft edges with my brushes. I can change their size, shape or color at any time. I can even make my own brushes to paint clouds or plants with a single stroke. I can bring in a photo of a fern, move and scale it into my scene. Adjust it’s color and brightness, and then paint over it to work it into the painting. This allows me a ton of creative options and helps me work quickly. Which is always important for a professional illustrator.

The final image is always finished with just plain old brush work. Lots of painting to get things looking correct both artistically but scientifically accurate. A complicated but enjoyable task.

In the old days, I painted on illustration board (a heavy duty paper on cardboard) with airbrushes, paint brushes and acrylic paint. Once a job was painted back then, it was down for good. And if you needed to adjust something, sometimes you had to start all over. Yikes, I don’t miss those days.

Once I am happy and more importantly the client is happy, I take my 2d digitally layered Photoshop file and “Flatten” it. It is the Photoshop term for taking all the layers, sometimes several dozen, and combining them all into one layer. A file that use to be 1.5 gigs in memory is now only about 75 mbs in memory. You need a powerful computer to do this kind of work!


 Here are a few of his book covers.



What was the first piece of art where someone paid you for your work?

My first paid commercial job was during my 6th term in college. It was an illustration of the cross-section of snow skies for a company called Patagonia.


I have found reference to you living in California, Seattle, and now the UK. Were you born in the states?

I was born in California. My parents moved us back to my father’s home state of South Carolina for 5 years. We then moved to Portland, Oregon, my mother’s home town where I basically grew up. We lived in a town outside of Portland called Beaverton.

I moved to Pasadena, California to attend Art Center and lived there for a total of 7 years before moving to Seattle, WA. I met my wife here and we now live on the Olympic Peninsula in Sequim, WA.



What made you decide to attend the ArtCenter College of Design?

By my sophomore year in high school, I knew I wanted a career in art but wasn’t really sure where to start. I was fortunate to have a very good art teacher by the name of Niles Marten who introduced me to the world of commercial art and illustration. He had a file cabinet full of art schools and Art Center was one of them. A former student of his went there and Niles had a lot of good things to say about it. It was my goal to get into Art Center from that point forward.


Can you tell us about some of the classes your took at the Art Center College of Design?

Your first year is really about fundamentals. Figure drawing, composition, and design.  But mostly drawing and a lot of it. Drawing is the foundation of illustration.


Do you feel College helped develop your style?

It certainly helped me get started in developing a style. But, I believe a style is something an artist develops over time and the more work you do the sooner you find it.  Art Center introduced me to many different ways of working based on the old masters, the first american illustrators, and current illustrators and fine artists.  More importantly, my fellow students really opened my mind to different styles.


Did ACCD help you get work when you graduated?

Art Center did and currently has a job’s board for current students and alumni. But back then, they did not have any kind of job placement program.  For illustration, it wasn’t really practical as the business of illustrating was mostly freelance based. We had business classes but individual instructors were more important to me when it came to finding work.


Several of my teachers were working illustrators and they gave me insights into their own careers that really helped me out later on. Mostly importantly, the program helped me develop a strong portfolio, the bases for finding any form of freelance work. The harder you worked in school, the better portfolio you graduated with.  This was very important. (cont.)


At the time I graduated in 1988, making a living as an illustrator really meant going freelance. There were full time opportunities in some of the animation studios like Disney or Warner Brothers, but if you wanted to do illustration for editorial or advertising, you needed to be a freelancer and your portfolio was everything.  Today, there are many more options for an artist to make a living with a full time employee but you still need a strong portfolio or reel.


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

Pretty much anything I could find at first. You end up doing a lot of cold calls to ad agencies, design studios, and publishers.  Hard and punishing work.  But, in the end you, you build confidence in yourself and your portfolio.  Eventually, someone calls you back with a job.

My first jobs were usually for really low pay or no pay at all. Just getting you work printed was helpful even if you weren’t paid.  My friends were all illustrators to.  We bonded at Art Center and because you spent so much time working at school and the huge amount of homework assigned to you, you really only knew other students.  At least that was how it went in my circle of friends:)

So, you would often get a job based on a friends recommendation or a project that needed several artists and so you shared. I worked on video covers, small print ads, corporate and trade magazines, and the occasional catalog cover.


Have you seen your work change since you left school?

Yes. When I graduated, my entire portfolio was created in traditional media.  Acrylics, brushes, airbrush, and the like.  When digital tools became practical, I switched over to 3D and digital painting.  While my style has always been realistic, it has developed in a certain look based on my process, color choices, and finish.

big fish 2

How did you get involved illustrating for the gaming community?

When I switched over to 3D tools, the software was way too expensive for a freelancer. The best software packages at the time (Softimage and Alias PA) were over $30K US and that didn’t include the workstation that was about the same cost.  So, in order to work with these tools, I looked for contract work in the then multi-media companies.  The games industry was still pretty small dominated by Atari and Nintendo.  Computer games were just getting started but there was more work doing media for CD’s and that sort of thing.  I did a lot of work for Microsoft titles like Magic School Bus and Encarta.


Eventually, more and more game studios started popping up in the NW and so my work steered in that direction. I did a lot of art direction and concept art for games and eventually formed a company with some partners called Beep Industries.  Working with Microsoft Games, we created a single title called VooDoo Vince.  A platforming game for the Xbox.  I worked with a great team of people, including my wife Barbara, and we put out a great product.  After the game was launched on time and under budget to good reviews, MS Games went through one of their re-orgs and we ended up closing Beep.  It was a sad time but I was glad to be back freelancing full time.

So, in addition to getting back to illustration for print and advertising, I had a full skill set in game production and was able to add that service to my business.


Did your work with films come before or after your gaming work?

My work with film was before the games work. It was for corporate films and I did mostly 3d animation and motion graphics.


Is that when you incorporated in digital art to illustrations? Or were you self taught?

I was self taught. I bought my first computer and just put in the time.  There were very view learning tools back then and the internet as we know it now didn’t exist.  Just a few bulletin boards here and there.

Just a lot of trial and error.


What software do you use to get that 3-D feel?

I have worked in most of the 3D and 2D packages out there. Currently, my tools are Modo, Zbrush, Keyshot, and Photoshop.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for books?

Once I returned to freelancing full time, it was hard to think about focusing on advertising illustration as much as I did early on in my career. This is because the games industry allowed me to create much more interesting images. Images that told a story and that is very fun.  So, publishing was the obvious choice for me.


What was the first book you illustrated?

The first major title I worked on was called Oceans Insider’s. A young reader’s educational book by Weldon/Owen for Simon and Schuster. It’s a very well done book about the oceans’ many components.  Their history, legends and science.  I did several spreads and supporting images from sunken ships to sea monsters.  It was a very rewarding job and really opened up the children’s book market for me.



How did that first book contract come about?

If I remember correctly, I was following a job posting sight and contacted them. I don’t think the sight even exists any more.


What is the title of your latest book? How did you get the contract to illustrate that book?

I have 4 books that were just released this March. They are each focus on a specific dinosaur and that offer kids a fun yet scientifically correct education on dinosaurs. They are called the “What’s So Specail About” series.  The first of many more are about the T. Rex, Ankylosaurus, Stegosaurus, and the Coelophysis.

I was contacted by a former UK rep of mine, Peter Kavanagh, who asked me if I would be interested in working on a series of dinosaur books. Of course I would!  He setup me up with the lovely author and creator, Nicky Dee.  Working with her and a renowned young UK paleontologist named Dean R. Lomax, I illustrated the covers, spreads and some of the supporting spots.

The books are beautifully designed and written and I am very proud to have been a part of them. More are in the works and that is exciting.


How many books have you illustrated?

I have 10 children’s books fully illustrated by me. And many more that I have illustrations in.


Your dinosaurs are very impressive. Were you always interested in them? Which publisher was the first to notice your talent and start using you in this area?

No, I can’t say that I was always interested in dinosaurs. I just love creating images and variety is my favorite.  With that said, I want to do a lot more of them.

I believe my first dinosaur images were either for a scholastic publication or a DK publication. I can’t recall.


I see you have done a lot of work for Scholastic. Was your first book with them an educational book? What was the title and how did that project come your way?

I have not worked on any books for Scholastic. But, I have worked on several of their in-classroom publications for years now.  Magazines such as Scope, Action, Scholastic News, and Storyworks to name a few.

I was contacted by one of their art directors. I believe he saw my work on my Ispot or childrensillustrators site.


Were you always interested in dinosaurs or did you have to do a lot of research to capture that on paper?

Since these books were all about accuracy and using the most current scientific data, it was very important to capture the correct anatomy and details on each animal. This is were Dean really helped out.  I was given plenty of reference material from the team and I used modern animal anatomy when appropriate.  I always take my research seriously and I also really enjoy that part of the job.


I also love your knights that you did for Scholastic school magazines; Scope and Action. I’m not familiar with those publications. Have they been around for a while? Have you work on other illustrations for the magazines?

I have been working on them for around 6 years now. I am not sure how long the in-classroom magazines have been around.  See above for magazines.


What do you think was your biggest professional success?

That is hard to say. I would have to say breaking into the publishing industry with all of my wildlife images.  I am proud of the body of work that particular area focus given me.


You are represented by Lemonade Illustration Agency. How long have you been with them and how did the two of you connect?

I have just recently joined with Lemonade. It has been less then 6 month and we are working together to get my work seen by more potential clients. They will be promoting me at the upcoming books fairs in Europe this year as well as New York. (cont.)


I contacted them as I have been thinking about getting representation again. My first art agent was Creative Freelancers of New York city. I was with them for about 7 years or so doing advertising work. When I moved into games, I did less work through them and we eventually parted ways.

I do a lot of my own promoting through online media, but it is always nice to have someone working with you when it comes to promotion.


How long have you been doing freelance art?

About 22 years.


Do you spend a certain amount of time working on art projects?

I spend most all of my time illustrating. It is never a good idea to turn down a job unless you know for sure you cannot complete the job well and on time.

When I am in-between jobs, like to spend time with my family and friends doing non-art things.


Do you use Photoshop with any of your work? Or do you have another favorite software?

Photoshop is my most used software tool with Modo and Zbrush being a close second.


Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

Yes. I have a Cintiq tablet.  I have had one since they first came out and have never looked back.  I love it.


Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes. We built a new home 3 years ago so I was able to design the studio along with the house.  I have my studio upstairs in a loft.


Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?

A high end computer, my Cintiq, my library, and a spray bottle to keep the cat’s of off my desk.


Do you do exhibit your art?

No. When I have time, I like to submit to some online contests.  But I am usually too busy.  I have had my work in Expose and a few other industry magazines.


What awards have you won for your art?

My first and best award was during high school. I entered a national poster competition put on by the National Maritime Society.  I won first place and was flown to Washington DC and met with government officials and was treated to an awards banquet.  My poster was in the Smithsonian Institute on display for several months.

Beyond that, I have not won many awards:) I won a couple poster contests that Art Center would hold each trimester.  I was proud of those.

My latest award was being chosen to be in the 10th publication of Expose′. An annual book that recognizes the best in digital artwork world wide.


Any exciting projects on the horizon?

I will begin working on the next 4 books in the “What’s So Special About” dinosaur series soon!


Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?

Absolutely. It provides me with everything I need to run my business.  I have the ability to quickly do research for both my current jobs and for future promotions.  I am able to keep up to date with my tool set and have access to tutorials as i need them.  It has given me access  to some great clients through job boards, promotional sites, and my own websites.  It has made my profession much easier then the old days.


Do you have any career goals still to accomplish?

I would like to build a strong work of figurative work in my portfolio. Anatomy work is very interesting to me now and I would like to keep improving each new piece I create.


What are you working on now?

I am working on an image for a new company called Wall-Ah!. They create wall size printed murals that are high rez and very affordable.  The image I am currently working on is of a the interior of a submarine.  Kids like submarines.


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

Not too many as I now work totally digital. There are now so many places online to learn, that you kind find answers to any specific technique that you want.

I will say this if you work digitally- Save and backup your work often:) Some great sites for info on 3D are and


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

The most important advice I can give is to always be drawing in a sketchbook (traditional or digital). Without a strong foundation in fundamental art skills, no amount of software can make your artwork better.  You control your tools, not the other way around. (cont.)


As for the business of illustration, beyond creating artwork, it is important to remember you are always working on a team. Your client, be it through the art director, designer, or editor, is part of your team when creating your illustrations.  You may not always agree on what makes for the best illustration, but it is just as important to make the client happy as it is to make the best image you can. You can never ask enough questions and always be honest with were you are at with the job at all times.  And never miss a deadline.

This is not romantic advice but if you want to build a client base and a career and an illustrator, you have to be a professional.


Thank you Gary for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Gary’s work, you can visit him at website at:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for James. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow! I loved the demo on how to create 3D art, something I will never do. I also love Gary’s art for its hyper-realistic qualities, also something I don’t do. 🙂 Next time I re-watch Walking With Dinosaurs, I’ll think of Gary’s art for sure.


  2. Breathtakingly realistic art! Gary has worked hard and is very accomplished. Thanks for a great interview.


  3. Amazing work! Love those dinosaurs!
    I also have fond memories of Art Center… ! 🙂


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