What’s so special about Dinosaurs?

How a 3D Dinosaur Is Created

The centre spread in each book is a picture of the 3D model that our artist, Gary Hanna from Washington State, USA, created specifically for each dinosaur in the series.



Gary has written quite a technical explanation as it’s a complex process, but very interesting for anyone who likes the idea of creating models on a computer. There are pictures and short mpegs included to help show the process in action. A great read-along for an adult and child to do together…

Reference and Research

Because this 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 dinosaur research and discoveries.

Using this information, especially the visual references of skeletons and artwork showing them fleshed out as they may have looked, I can begin what is called a model sheet.

Model Sheet

The model sheet is basically a blue print of the dinosaur I am modelling. 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 modelling 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 3D Model

I begin by creating a simple model of the T. rex in a passive pose (standing straight). I use Modo for this, a powerful 3D software program that allows you to create, colour, render and animate 3D models. It is great fun to use. This initial rough model will focus on T. rex’s overall proportions and basic muscle structure. The experts (author Nicky Dee and dinosaur expert Dean R. Lomax) can then inspect this model to make ensure that I am true to the T. rex’s overall look. Once approved, I move onto the Tight Model.

Rough Model in Modo

Tight 3D Model

Now I begin sculpting the final 3D model in a software program called Zbrush. It is also a 3D modelling tool but unlike Modo, I can sculpt on the model, almost like working with 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 which is a pen that has no ink, just a plastic tip, I can draw on the tablet and it senses my motion and pressure.

Tablet Stylus - sculpting in Zbrush.

3 pics-02

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 and other such details. Because Zbrush is like working in clay, I can get very fine details into the 3D model. Once I have approval, it’s time for to strike a pose!

DIPLODOCUS in progress


MEGALOSAURUS in progress

TRICERATOPS in progress

Posing T. rex model

With the 3D model completed, it’s time to create a pose for both the spread and cover artwork. Until now the dinosaur has been in a simple, neutral pose, but now it is time to give it life!

HeadDetail-Posed Model-Zbrush part 5

Using Zbrush again, I can select areas of its body and twist and move them into a new position. For example, I can select an area on its leg (lighter area of the model) while the rest of it is locked (masked). I can then use tools within Zbrush to rotate and move its leg into position. Using this method of selecting a small area on its body, rotating/moving, I pose the entire body. In this case, hunting for its next meal!

HeadDetail-Posing Model-Zbrush part 4

With the pose complete, it’s time to light and render. Still in Zbrush, I can move a virtual light around in 3D space so that it lights the body how I need it for the final artwork. I can then render a still 2D image. Rendering involves pressing a button so that the software calculates all the lighting 1’s and 0’s, to create a 2D 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 stage this approved, I can now use it as the base (underpainting) for the dinosaur in the final painting. It’s time to give this dinosaur some colour and more detail like feathers and scales, and a place to live, the swamp. Now it’s time to move out of the digital 3D world and into digital 2D world, Photoshop.



Painting Comp In Photoshop

This is where I create the foundation for the final images that you see in the books. It’s where I bring all the details, colour, mood and setting that makes up the final 2D image. Photoshop is a software program in which you can edit photos but also paint in. Just like real brushes, pencils or pens, except it’s all digital.

Tablet Stylus - Painting in Photoshop

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 three variations of the spread image. It allows Nicky Dee and Dean to approve or edit as needed before I start the hard work. The Final Painting!

Rough Comp 3 variations

Final Painting

Now it’s time to make T. rex look like it belongs in its new swampy home. I use a combination of painting, photo collage and textures from detailed photos of things like rocks, plants, grime, etc. I may use a texture of a rock surface for an area of the scales because it adds “roughness” to them. All of these go together to create the final digital 2D painting.

Photoshop with layers

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) in Photoshop 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 than that.

T. Rex has his eyes, scales, claws, teeth, feathers, many other details all on their own layer. In the final painting, each is on a single layer. The same goes for all the elements in the scene that make up the entire painting. This allows me to control all parts of my painting so that I can make adjustments to color, size, shape of any them along the way.

Think of the whole 2D painting as a machine with parts that I can redesign or fix along the way. The actual painting is done with a variety of digital brushes within Photoshop. I can have hard edges or soft edges to my brushes. I can change their size, shape or colour 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 its colour and brightness, and paint over it to work it into the painting. This allows me a ton of creative options and helps me work quickly. This 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 something was painted back then, it was down for good. And if you needed to adjust something, you had to start all over. Yikes! I don’t miss those days.

Once I and more importantly Nicky Dee and Dean are 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 used to be 1GB is now only about 75 MB’s in memory. You need a powerful computer to do this kind of work.

So that’s how you create a 3D model of a dinosaur and bring a 2D picture in a book to life!