Women in Fantasy Illustration: Leesha Hannigan

Women in Fantasy Illustration: Leesha Hannigan

Welcome to the Women in Fantasy Illustration interview series. I am interviewing a selection of women who work in the Fantasy Illustration Industry. You will find the links to more interviews at the bottom of the page.

This week we are speaking to Australia based, up and coming fantasy illustrator Leesha Hannigan, who recently took the plunge into the industry. Leesha has already made remarkable progress with her beautiful work. You can find a link to her website at the bottom of the page and I hope you will enjoy the interview!

A Promise Of Hope
A Promise Of Hope
© Leesha Hannigan
Photo of Leesha Hannigan

Leesha Hannigan

1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work.
Hello! My name is Leesha Hannigan, I’m a freelance illustrator whose interests are firmly planted in fantasy.

This is probably due to my entire childhod and adolescence being spent reading fantasy novels, pretending I could talk to the lizards in my garden (why yes, I did do their squeaky voices), losing myself in video games all the way from Everquest to World of Warcraft, and generally enjoying myself a lot more when I’m inside my own head.

My career has, like most people’s, been a bit of a windy path, but it was always veering in the same direction – creating things! When I was a child, I realised my lofty dreams of becoming a famous artist probably wouldn’t happen as it clearly wasn’t a financially viable career choice (I was apparently already rather cynical at a young age). As I got older, I still had no idea commercial art was really a ‘thing’, for several reasons I’ll get to later.

So I veered towards Graphic Design when I got out of high school, the ever-popular choice for someone who might think making money and making art are mutually exclusive. This worked out pretty well, aside from that fact it’s a little bit unfulfilling if your true passion is obviously art, but it’s a brilliant moneymaker and I honestly would recommend it to anyone who wants to make good cash, learn important design fundamentals, and work on their art on the side.

My career has, like most people’s, been a bit of a windy path, but it was always veering in the same direction - creating things!
Richard Schmid Study
Richard Schmid Study
© Leesha Hannigan

2. I understand you have a background in Graphic Design and that you are fairly new to illustration. How did you come to realize you wanted to give illustration a go and possibly make a career of it?

It was really a combination of things.

1. The lovely moment when I realised commercial art actually WAS a totally viable option, particularly for someone who was already familiar with the software and had a valuable background in design – which means I already had a thorough understanding of fundamental skills such as composition, Gestalt psychology, or colour theory. These skills all cross over directly into what I do now. I’ve also had about 6-7 years experience as a freelancer, which means I didn’t have to go through that often frustrating learning curve of how to deal with clients, manage profits or write up an invoice.

I noticed that in my spare time I always looked at awesome art, not so much awesome design. That’s not to say wonderful, clever, and necessary design isn’t out there – but it just never made me ‘feel’ anything the way that fantasy art always has and probably always will.

2. When I noticed that in my spare time I always looked at awesome art, not so much awesome design. That’s not to say wonderful, clever, and necessary design isn’t out there – but it just never made me ‘feel’ anything the way that fantasy art always has and probably always will. Considering we only have one shot at this whole Life thing, I honestly do not see the point in -not- going after what you are truly passionate about. At least give it a go, especially when you are younger, and especially if you have a way to monetise that passion.

Horse Study
Horse Study
© Leesha Hannigan

3. Have you faced any difficulties with this new creative endeavor?

Yeah! This is mainly to do with the transitional phase, but it’s sometimes probably really confusing for people to know what you do when you are actively both a professional designer and a professional/working illustrator. And it was confusing for me because I’d get torn between which one I should be marketing myself for.

I solved this issue recently by throwing myself entirely into illustration, working my butt off to produce paintings, self promotion, and banging out a working portfolio within a rather short deadline I’ve set for myself.

I’m still taking on design work, and it will likely always be something that is there when I have downtime, which I am incredibly thankful for – considering how sporadic work can sometimes be when you are a freelance artist. I know many freelance artists still have part-time or ‘day jobs’, so graphic design is mine, for the time being.

4. What do you like the most about illustrating/painting?

Probably the feeling that you will never master your craft. Some might find that bleak, but I feel like it gives you something you will always be looking forward to, working towards, reaching for. I guess I tend to be happy when my life feels dynamic and has movement, art will help me to keep that feeling around.

The other part of it, which I think I will experience tenfold when I go to the States – is the community. Aside from the wonderful gaming community in Melbourne, Australia (shout out to you guys) – I have never really had a group of people that I felt inherently close to or could relate to instantly. The illustration community have so far been incredible, supportive, and have a wonderful outlook on life in general. The community has helped me so much in ways they might never know, and I can’t express how much I am looking forward to meeting everyone in person in the coming year and giving all of you awkward hugs.

I like the feeling that you will never master your craft. Some might find that bleak, but I feel like it gives you something you will always be looking forward to, working towards, reaching for.
A Place For Us
A Place For Us
© Leesha Hannigan

5. What do you like the least about it?

This isn’t really ‘art’s’ fault – but the value of art is completely disregarded all the time, and that will never stop being frustrating. It breaks my heart to see someone on DeviantArt producing high quality, finished character artwork and selling it for 50 bucks a piece. They probably spent about 8-12 hours on that painting, you wouldn’t pay any other professional six bucks an hour would you? I’m not really sure what the solution to this problem is, but raising awareness wherever possible and speaking up about it, is likely a good start.

6. You have accomplished an impressive speed of artistic growth during last year, can you tell us a little about how you achieved this? I’m guessing there is a lot of dedicated studying involved.
I have been asked this quite a lot lately, and I wish I could tell you something more interesting, like that maybe you have to dance naked under the moonlight on a Wednesday with bits of toast stuck to your body to gain ultimate inspiration – however, it really it has nothing to do with inspiration or that silly concept of ‘talent’, it just comes down to doing tons and tons of studies and working your butt off. Master studies are particularly, amazingly helpful!

Drawing from life or doing photo studies is also essential to figure out what things actually look like. I realised early on that I wouldn’t be able to successfully bang out an imaginary landscape or character until I had that knowledge in my visual memory bank.

Drawing from life or doing photo studies is also essential to figure out what things actually look like. I realised early on that I wouldn’t be able to successfully bang out an imaginary landscape or character until I had that knowledge in my visual memory bank. And Master studies are to help you figure out the best ways to represent that knowledge, how to imply detail and texture, and learn what makes a composition really work. I can’t recommend them enough!

While we are on the subject, to be quite honest, I spent 90% of my time painting/studying, and only about 10% of my time looking at other people’s art. I’ve heard from so many artists that constantly browsing art often gets them down, demotivates them, and triggers an endless loop of constant comparison. This is a big waste of time and completely unhelpful!

So my other piece of good advice would be to get off ArtStation and pick up your pencil (or stylus) instead.

River Rocks Study
River Rocks Study
© Leesha Hannigan

7. You’re from Australia and now residing in New Zealand/Middle Earth! What is the illustration scene like down under?

So earlier I referred to not realising commercial art was really a “thing”. It’s time to talk about why!

Part of the reason I didn’t realise becoming an illustrator would ever be a viable career choice much earlier in life is due to the fact that in Australia, whilst we have a great Fine Arts scene, we really suffer for choice regarding courses in Illustration, Concept Art and the like. We also don’t seem to have much in the way of an active digital/commercial art community or events, we certainly have nothing like Spectrum, IlluxCon or Massive Black.

It’s a shame because we certainly have amazing artists here, many of whom I know, and many of whom have migrated over to the States for good reason – but it’d be wonderful to see a strong fantasy art community really grow and evolve in Australia too. I have a wonderful home country full of wonderful, talented people, and I’d absolutely love to see this happen.

Thyst The Indignant
Thyst The Indignant
© Leesha Hannigan

8. Please tell us a little about your choice of medium, creative process and main inspirations?

At this point in time I work purely as a digital artist, using Photoshop. Describing my creative process is a bit tricky because unlike some other artists who have super clean and organised processes, it’s a bit all over the place right now and really depends on how I’m feeling that day.

For example, I usually work on one or two layers, I am prone to doing pages of thumbnails, choosing a great one, then disregarding it completely and throwing down a bunch of random shapes instead, getting halfway through a sketch and scrapping it entirely to start anew, sometimes chucking some photo textures in there to help the sketch phase along, usually not doing any line art of any sort but later on realizing I really should, it’s a mess to be honest.

I guess it works for me sometimes, though. I have never been a super methodical person, and I probably never will be. This might backfire on me occasionally, but ultimately I think it serves me well in that I am not precious about my sketches, I know when to start over because I don’t feel pressured to stick to a sketch and I use reference loosely – which is, I think, the best way to use reference.

I know when to start over because I don’t feel pressured to stick to a sketch and I use reference loosely - which is, I think, the best way to use reference.
A Small Measure of Courage
A Small Measure of Courage
© Leesha Hannigan

One thing I do tend to always do is have two canvases open in Photoshop – one canvas is my painting, one canvas is full of a collage of reference images. This allows me to create a mood board for each painting, keeps my reference in one place, and I find this really helps to keep me on track.

As for inspirations, here’s a few artists who have recently left me dazzled: Richard Schmid, Quentin Mabille, Mike Azevedo, Sang Nguyen, Jana Schirmer and Guangjian Huang.

Aside from artists, I suppose I draw inspiration from everything around me, films, experiences, the usual stuff. I have what is probably a rather obvious love for animals, Disney and animation in general, alongside a fondness for high fantasy thanks to my love of RPGs… and that likely comes out in my work quite a bit.

9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your art and career?

1. Use reference
2. Don’t be scared to scrap a painting and start over
3. Flip your canvas so you can see how secretly derpy your painting is, and fix it.

10. What are some of your hopes and goals for the future with your artwork?

My hopes and goals are still being written, but I’d probably do crazy things in order to work with certain people, studios and IPs. I’d also love to do a range of everything, from card art, to video game art, to book covers and everything in between.

My main goal is simply to keep getting better at what I do, and find a way to always enjoy doing it.

Sargent Study
Sargent Study
© Leesha Hannigan

I wish you all the best with your artwork in the future and look forward to seeing more from you, Leesha!

As for you, dear reader, thank you for your time and I hope you enjoyed this interview with Leesha Hannigan. If you’d like to read more you can find all the Women in Fantasy Illustration interviews here.

Have a great week!

Links:
Leesha Hannigan’s Website
Leesha Hannigan’s Blog

Kiri Østergaard Leonard
kiri@kirileonard.com

Kiri Østergaard Leonard is an award winning illustrator and artist from Denmark, currently living in Austin, Texas. She enjoys working on projects within the fantasy and children's illustration genre.

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