VSS Illustrator Interviews

In doing these interviews, we hope to give you a glimpse into our artist members' unique personalities, a new perspective on their wonderful work, and the opportunity to know what inspires them!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lisa Michaels

This week's featured illustrator is Lisa Michaels. 

She is the designer of The Visual Storytellers Studio!

She recently won 1st place in Dragonfly Publishing's " 2010 Picture Book Cover Contest."

Her picture book cover, for the book titled Chloe's Secret, won the 2010 Bronze "Reader's Favorite" award.

Lisa is very involved with inspiring and educating children's writers and illustrators. You can learn more about her at her website www.ljmichaels.weebly.com

How did you get started in illustration?
Would you believe I was three years old when it all started? Seriously, it’s true!
In 1962 my father was one of those pioneering stay-at-home dad’s, a real “Mr. Mom.” While my mother worked outside of the home, we both sat at his drafting table, while he architecturally designed what was then considered a modern-day marvel, and is still considered the American dream,...single family homes.
I was fascinated with my fathers’ drawings, but when I’d start to get wiggly and squirmy, he’d stop what he was doing, and make up a story for me.
Two years later, he began drawing out his tall tales in story-board fashion. I remember swash buckling mice, swords clashing across the pages, and mischievous monkeys swigging from chandeliers and bookcases. He’d patiently wait while I drew my versions and he listened intently as I made up stories of my own. I wish I still had those drawings, but they’re long gone. I’ve been working long and hard (ever since) to replace them with a little bit better version!
When dear ol’ Dad wasn’t drawing houses, he was busily hunting for buried pirate treasures, and he occasionally found gold & silver coins, cannons, and odd bits at the bottom of Tampa Bay. Now you know where I got my sense of adventure, yo-ho-ho!
What is your favorite medium?
My FAVORITE medium is clay. Ha! Bet you never would’ve guessed that one! I love the way it slips and flows through your fingers, allowing you to form anything you can imagine, and then some. I love 3 dimensional art that begs you to touch it. The truth is, my studio just isn’t big enough for it...but maybe someday.
My second choice is pen & ink. The feel of a brand new, fine point pen and crisp, white bristol paper makes my imagination sing! I feel like a kid in a candy store, who gets to try every flavor. Some people are intimidated by a blank page, but I live to start something new and push myself just a bit further. As an artist, I still don’t know exactly what I am capable of, but I know it’s MORE than I can imagine, and I hope I get to see it before I have to turn in my ticket and go home.

Can you describe your usual work process for us?
Well, it’s seldom the same way twice. Last month I would draw an illustration on paper, in graphite pencil or pen & ink. Then I scanned it into my computer to refine it and add color and shading. I use Adobe Photoshop.
This month I have a new MAC, (another dream, finally come true, woo-hoo!) and my process has changed. Now I skip the paper, and draw right on the screen (in Photoshop), using an Intuos pen and tablet. Once I have it sketched out on the first layer, I change the opacity to 50%, and open a second layer so that I can draw a cleaned-up version right on top. After it’s done, I trash the first layer, leaving me with a nice, sharp drawing that is ready for coloring and shading. I usually create separate layers for flesh or fur, clothing, background, etc., so that changes can be easily made.
How I’ll do it tomorrow, depends on the techniques I discover today. I’m always looking for ways to improve, grow, and draw faster!       

Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you?
Yes, I write my own stories. Most of them are still being tweaked and polished, except for one...”Polly O’Possum’s Country Music Jamboree”. I’m working on creating the dummy book to submit to publishers in the near future. “Polly” is me when I was little. I wanted to be a country/folk singer in a really big way. I even played guitar and won just about every talent show I was ever in! In the fifth grade I was voted “most talented”, and before I graduated from high school, I landed a singing gig on a local morning t.v. show. It was 1976, and I was far-out (well, my fans thought so!) 
Which comes first? Sometimes the story, sometimes the title. My ears are always listening for a catchy title. I pull stories from observing everyday life. The idea for the mid-grade novel I’ve been working on, came from a trip we took into the woods, off the beaten path. What I saw at the end of the trail changed me forever.
Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job?  How do you balance the different aspects of your life?
I do illustrate and write full-time, thanks to my husband's income. I never forget how lucky I am. When you’re trying to make a name for yourself as a writer or illustrator, you don’t make much money. You need another source of income that you can count on. Depending on another person’s support is both humbling and motivating.
Other aspects, hummm. It’s really hard for me to push away from the computer. I have to force myself to do so 100% of the time. Sometimes I feel like I’m running out of it...time that is. Time to write down all the stories and idea’s that fill my head, time to spill out all my colorful characters on canvas, time to share everything I’ve learned. It’s like a runaway train that keeps speeding up.
I’ll be the first one to admit, my life isn’t balanced. Between the writing critiques groups and the illustration groups I moderate, the teaching & mentoring daily, and the work assignments, I have to keep a running list of what needs to get done. I cross things off as I do them, and add to it as life throws new things at me. I have a calendar beside me at all times, and I use it to keep track of everything that’s coming up - otherwise I’d never show up when I’m expected!
I addition, I have spent the past 18 months babysitting my new great-nephew while his mommy works. These past few months have been a wonderful reminder of those early days with my father, as I sit and draw illustrations for “Alexander”! He’s just now starting to recognize the different animals.  

Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio and include some photos?
Sure! I live in Spring Hill, Florida, (Just north-west of Tampa Bay). During the summer I refer to it as “the swamp”, because it’s so darned HOT you just want to hibernate in the air conditioning! But right now, in the Fall and Winter, it’s delightful. In October, the outdoor art shows and craft festivals begin, and I’m in heaven. I get so inspired when I’m surrounded by so much creativity. I always come home with my head buzzing with new ideas. It’s CRAZY!
My studio is my sanctuary. My stacks of drawing and painting books belonged to my father-in-law, Jack Costello, who’s wonderful art work appeared in major magazines (Life, Mademoiselle, Mc’Calls, etc.), in the 1950’s. When I look up at them, I know he’s happy that they’re being used and treasured. I’ve also purchased lots of illustration books myself, in order to learn todays techniques.
I’ve tried to surround myself with things that inspire me and make me happy. For example, a little wooden airplane sits on one shelf, handmade by my oldest brother who passed away in 1997. It’s worth more than gold to me. There’s an illustrated book of poems & songs by the late, Harry Chapin. He signed it for me, and then kissed me on the cheek. There’s a purple ribbon, from the first art show I won and of course, my own work is on the walls...it reminds me of where I’ve been as an illustrator.   
Tell us about your education and training. Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?
In the fifth grade, I realized I would not only follow in my father’s footsteps, but I would surpass him. You might be wondering how I knew this at eleven?
It started with a simple art assignment. Everyone in the class was to pick out their favorite image to draw, from a magazine. I searched and searched, until I found something I thought would be the most beautiful thing I would ever reproduce. It was tiny (about 2”x2”) and I carefully tore it out.
The next morning, the teacher instructed us to clear the dusty, wooden floors by pushing all our desks against the wall. Then she gave each of us a huge brown piece of paper (as tall and wide as I was). I laid mine on the floor and crawled on top, with my freshly sharpened pencils and 64 crayons. I pulled the coveted clipping from my pocket and smoothed it out against the crunchy brown paper, and began to draw with determination.
It was as if time stood still. For the next hour, I might as well have been the only child in the room. I was unaware of the goings on around me. I fell into the drawing, just as sure as Alice had fallen deep into the rabbit’s hole, so involved was I.
Carefully I sketched out my drawing, paying close attention to every detail in the clipping. I noticed where the light fell on her face, and the delicate curve of the child’s chin.
When the bell rang, I looked up for the first time since my pencil had first touched the page. Around me stood teachers from many classrooms, all staring down at me in disbelief. Someone whispered, “child prodigy”, but I didn’t know what that meant.
As I got to my feet, I looked down to see what I’d accomplished, and smiled. A rough version of Raphael’s “Madonna” smiled back at me, and I knew exactly who I was. I was an artist.  

The only formal training I acquired was in high school. If I’d known then that it would have to last me a lifetime, I’d have paid more attention! Fortunately, I had a wonderful art teacher, shout out to Mrs. Burwell! Hey Girl, you still rock!! Mrs. B taught me for three years, and I was like a sponge. We swap e-mails now, thirty-something years later! She knows I love her, ‘cause I reminder her every chance I get.
What is your website? My website address is; www.ljmichaels-illustrator.com My blog is at; http://wscribbles.blogspot.com I’m also on Facebook & Twitter as “wscribbles”.

Tell us about your current project.
Several months ago, I hosted a picture book writing contest for my writers group, “The Yellow Brick Road”, at http://welcometoybr.blogspot.com The winner received the choice of a gift certificate or an original cover illustration for their manuscript. Leslie Zampetti won for her story, “Nina & Meana”, and she chose to receive an illustration, created by non-other than yours truly.

After my last project, “Alphey Loves Letters” was completed, I began catching up on my promises. “Nina & Meana” is in the works, and I’m proud to say it is probably my best work to date.
 Who are your favorite children’s illustrators or authors?
Anne Jewett, Julie Vivas, Tomie DiPaola, Penny Weber, Marla Frazee, Maurice Sendak, Mary Engelbret, Charles Schultz...and many more. 

If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?
Pippi Longstocking, because well, there was no limit to her imagination! She made anything and everything possible, and she always brought her friends along to share in the fun. She never let anything or anyone get her down, and in her eyes, everyone was equal-regardless of their social status or financial situation. Not to mention, she was strong enough to lift a cow, a policeman, or even a house! I think that’s so COOL!
What inspires you?
Seeing what other illustrators are creating & reading manuscripts that are so magical and magnificent that you can’t help but weep, because you know that no matter how good you are as an illustrator, you could never do them justice.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
At ten, I decided to become a country music legend, like Patsy Cline & Loretta Lynne...I figured every star had a serious hobby and art would be mine.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working? 
I love to go to arts & craft shows, museums and movies. I love to be outdoors when the weather is nice. I also like to spend time with my friends and family...especially Alexander.
What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?
Let’s see....I’ve tried just about everything. I’ve been a babysitter, a bookkeeper, an assistant store manager, a bank teller, a newspaper carrier, a dental office manager, a legal secretary, assistant to a congressional candidate, an event coordinator, a store clerk, an editor, a web designer, an art teacher ....and I’m sure there’s a few I’ve forgotten! Every now and then, I held several of those positions at the same time, and with most of them, I did them for more than 5 years.
Interestingly enough, I always found a way to use my art in every position I held. So, the moral to this story is, an artist is always an artist, no matter what else gets in the way. Being an illustrator full time, is a dream come true. I pinch myself every morning. 
Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?
Keep moving forward, searching for a way, and learning from those who have cleared the path.
When you stumble (and you will), don’t be too ashamed to reach up for a hand.
When you’re in full stride (and you will be), reach back and lift someone up.
When you arrive, remember how you got there, and be humbly grateful.

Be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, because once you find what you’ve longed for...time becomes your enemy. There never seems to be enough hours in the day, days in the week, or years left in your life, with which to spill out everything in your creative soul.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
1.) I believe that Authors and illustrators are creative equals, and should treat each other as such. Each is deserving of respect and admiration for their ability to stay focused and passionate, in a world that is most often distracting and seldom understanding of the effort it takes to do so.
2.) I feel that it is often assumed by the public that all illustrators were born with a natural gift, and that this gift comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gifted illustrators feel the pressure to constantly evolve and improve, spending time, money and creative energy to learn new techniques and technologies to keep up with not only their craft, but the ever-changing world of publishing. 
Although it is true that we love what we do, it is WORK, and we should be fairly compensated for it. I sincerely hope that my fellow illustrators will follow my example, by refusing to do art on spec. This not only robs us of our time, but it diminishes the value of our talent! Thank you.


  1. Yay for Lisa Michaels! Such a wonderful lady, artist, leader and diplomat. Great interview on both ends. Patsy Cline? Who knew? Wahoo!

  2. Wow! That was so fun to read, and especially to see all the lovely artwork. My sister is an artist, but she works in oil on canvas. I love to learn more about people and really enjoyed the comment about writers and illustrators being creative equals. I think it's easy for writers to be jealous of the illustrators. I especially love the story of when Lisa was drawing at age 11 and the world disappeared, only to find several teacher fans adoring her work at the sound of the bell. Gave me chills - in a good way. ;)

  3. Wonderful description of an artist work.

  4. Great interview, Lisa. I loved learning about your process, your muse, your wonderful desire to create and tell your stories with your own illustrations.
    The transition from pen, pencil and paper to the Mac and Intuos seems to have gone seamlessly for you. Your work is beautiful.

  5. I really enjoyed getting inside your studio, and your head, and seeing your process! What a fun and informative interview. I especially enjoyed seeing all the different artistic expressions! So inspiring -- thanks so much for sharing and paying the inspiration forward.

  6. Wonderful interview, Lisa! What an awesome gift your dad shared with you. Your passion for your work is evident in every illustration you create. I especially love how your art is so full of joy, dimension, and life!

  7. Wow, Lisa, I'm learning so much about you. You are living your dream and doing it splendidly.
    Keep on illustrating. :)