Wednesday 6 August 2014

An Interview With...Illustrator Des Hanley

If you've been involved in the Games Workshop hobby for any length of time, you can't fail to be impressed from the lush and plentiful illustrations littered across their publications. From the early days in the 1980s, through to the present time, GW has literally published thousands of wonderful pieces of artwork in rulebooks, sourcebooks and novels. Each piece adds to the atmosphere of GW's fantasy worlds, and many are instantly unforgettable.

40k Chaos 'Abaddon & Cypher' (Des Hanley)

Des Hanley is one of the illustrators who responsible for some of this output. Working as an illustrator for GW from Oct 95 to Feb 1999, he worked on a wide range of projects, including Warhammer army books, Warhammer 40,000 codicies and the Battle Fleet Gothic game. Des has been kind enough to subject himself to being interviewed on his career in illustration and time working for GW.

axiom: Des, you're now a well-recognised illustrator, but how did you first start out putting pen to paper?
DH: "I'm afraid I was one of those kids that was always doing art related things, I use to draw on any spare bit of paper and occasional flat surfaces (like my bedroom walls). It's just something I've always done, though I didn't make it a career choice until I was in my mid 20's."

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axiom: In your early days were there any fantasy artists or illustrators who really influenced your work, or did inspiration come from film / tv / books?

DH: "I remember being hooked on the Lord of the Rings animated movie, so that had a big influence on me. Not to mention all the really cool TV shows of the 80's.
Gandalf meets Saruman in Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings film.

We started getting 2000AD every week, the glories of Ezquerra, McMahon, Bolland, Kennedy (and all the rest) were laid before me, this must have been around 79', 80' ish. So they had a HUGE influence on me, not in art style perhaps but in dynamics and mental story telling. I could quite happily spend days rereading them.

I was gifted a D&D basic set (Erol Otus cover), which nobody wanting to play, I just read the rules and gazed at the art, that set the ball rolling.
D&D Basic set published in 1981 by TSR. Cover by Erol Otus.

Later it was RPG's so that meant White Dwarf (pre #100) and then all the GW games (Golden Heroes to Rogue Trader)

Having adored Paul Bonner and Adrian Smith's work in print, it was fantastic to see some in the flesh at GW.

So basically I was raised (art wise) by the genre I work in.

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axiom: When and how did you end up working at Games Workshop? Do you remember what your first project was?

DH: "I was a part time staff member at GW Leicester. I did bits of art for the store and I was lucky enough that our regional manager offered to take my portfolio to the studio.

I did several trial pieces (never printed) but I think the first bit I did were (I shudder when I look at them) either Tyrannids or Imperial Guard or maybe Ultramarines (all 2nd edition)?"

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axiom: Most people will be most familiar with your illustrations on projects such as Warhammer army books (including Chaos & Wood Elves), 40k codices (Eldar, Dark Eldar, Chaos). Did you have any particular project(s) you enjoyed working on?

DH: "To be fair I was a big GW fan when I started working at the design studio, so getting to draw Space marines or Wood elves was great fun, and working on new products was fantastic.

Warhammer 40k 'Chaos Space Marine'
Anytime I got to leave my mark on a project and have it still going today is fantastic, even when I can see the new extrapolations from that.
Warhammer 40k 'Eldar Aspect Warriors'

It was also nice when artwork influenced a miniature (that started my concepting career right there), it's nice when there was an interplay between sculptors and artists.

Warhammer Beasts of Chaos 'Gorthor'
Personal favourites would be the Necromunda guns, WHFB Chaos and oddly Battlefleet Gothic (I'm not keen on straight line stuff (that's vehicles and spaceships))."

Warhammer 40k 'Tzeentch Sorcerer'

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axiom: You were involved in the illustrations for Battlefleet Gothic, a re-working of the ill-fated Spacefleet game. Tony Hough has recently lamented the fact that his 30+ illustrations for Spacefleet were never published - did you start from a clean slate or were you influenced by the earlier illustrations?
Spacefleet 'Imperial Bridge (Tony Hough)
DH: "Alas Tony's stuff was never brought up, it was all from scratch (a few bits were mentioned but we (the artists) didn't have any say on the art in the books)."

BFG 'Damage Control'

BFG untitled

BFG 'Chaos Rockets'
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axiom: There's a wide variety in mood with your GW illustrations, from the clean pencil drawings of the Wood Elves to the moody and gritty Warhammer Siege and Dark Eldar illustrations. Was this down to subject matter, or did your style evolve over time?

Warhammer 'Wood Elf Warhawk'

DH: "Well, I always view the scene like watching a movie, I have to pause it (mentally) and then try and draw it (it was never successful, I'd be lucky to get 80% of what I saw in my head onto paper). This has to balance with being a commercial illustrator over being an artist.
Warhammer 'Chaos Battle Line'

You have to turn out product asap. Admittedly I was more the artist than a commercial illustrator.
So you have to adapt your style as you go."

*        *        *
axiom: Could you give us an insight into how producing artwork for GW actually took place? Was it as open and free-flowing during your stint as it appeared to be in the late 1980s, or had things become more regimented?

DH: "It started reasonably open (within limits, you had a brief and a size) but later became very regimented and very, very…odd! (let's leave it as that).

Luckily I've not encountered that 'style' of management with any other company (thank god!) Perhaps it was just me…"

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axiom: Looking back, do you feel your work at GW has benefited you in your career?

DH: "Working at GW opened many doors, and still does. Though it's always a little disturbing when people say they grew up looking at your art…makes you feel old."

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axiom: Many GW artists have struggled to regain their work (there's even stories of artwork by Gary Chalk being skipped!). What was your experience?
DH: "I got lucky when I left that I took mine with me (I think they agreed to get me out of the building quicker). I'm sure they did want to return the art but then changed their minds in the end, I'm not sure as I'd left by then. I'm assuming the sudden flood of GW original art for sale didn't help."

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axiom: Since leaving GW you have worked for a wide-range of companies; what sort of projects have you been invoved with?
DH: "I made a choice to cut back on illustration and do miniature concepts instead. So I've probably concepted some miniatures you have in your collections. From Wizard's through to Mierce miniature. Though there's a lot of work invested in the 'Wargods' line, hopefully you'll see that in the future…"
Vampire - Avatars of War

Pi-Rat - Dark Sword Miniatures

Beowa - Mierce Miniatures
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axiom: Finally, if you could identify one favourite piece that you produced while at GW, which would it be?

DH: "Probably some of the WHFB Chaos illustrations, the Lord of Change springs to mind."
Warhammer Chaos 'Lord of Change'

Warhammer Chaos 'Lord of Change Head'
*        *        *
Many thanks to Des for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope you've enjoyed reading Des' thoughts and looking at his fantastic artwork again. I find it frightening to realise that some of Des' earliest pieces are coming up to being 20 years old!


  1. I really enjoyed reading that. Des work is very evocative of WH40K 3rd edition to me, which although possibly something of an impolite topic in Oldhammer circles, is the version that I have the fondest memories of gaming with. My Des Hanley illustration filled Chaos Codex is very worn from use.

    The Battlefleet Gothic images are very memorable too. The book was landscape rather than portrait (or whatever the appropriate terms in the printing trade are) as a deliberate effort to make the imagery panoramic. I think that it worked very well, as can be seen in the examples above.

    Des work has a lovely style to it, its a treat to read an interview like this.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the intervew - Des produced some really iconic work during GW's difficult 'transition period'. I love the way his later pieces became looser and more atmospheric (BFG for example). And good fantasy/sci-fi art should be enjoyed, whatever book it was published in :)

  2. yep superb interview , i missed most of this gw period due to work and family life , and have been swatting up on it since i got back into the hobby.

    i actually made a miniature based on one bfg damage control picture , one of my fave 40k ilos actually -

    1. Great conversion Neil - I really like the idea of bringing illustrations to life in model form :)