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, May 10, 2011

Michelle Henninger

I'm very happy to introduce Michelle Henninger this week. Michelle's expressive lines tell so much about each of her characters. You really feel like you know their stories and their problems and maybe even their names! You can see more of her work at her website www.michellehenninger.com or her blog michellehenninger.blogspot.com
How did you get started in illustration?
I've always loved drawing.  When I was little I would draw all the time: Ziggy, Snoopy, Tipsy the Turtle from the Art Instruction School, you name it.  However, when I went to college I double majored in Russian and Sociology, and my art took a backseat.  It was when my eldest daughter started Kindergarten, that art found it's way back into my life.  She was a shy little girl, so I would send her to school with little drawings to cheer her up.  Her teachers told me that I should seriously think about drawing for children because all the kids in her class loved seeing what I'd drew next.  It was my Ah-ha moment.  I haven't stopped drawing for children since.
What is your favorite medium? Can you describe your usual work process for us?
My favorite medium is pencil and pen.  I sketch directly onto my watercolor paper.  Depending on how messy the sketch is (I have a tendency to drag my hand across the paper), I will either ink it, or light-box it first and then ink.   Next, I scan the illustration in B&W.   (Just in case I need to print it out again during the painting process.)  Then I begin painting.  I'm still learning the ins and outs of watercolor.  Sometimes it can be tricky, but I think I'm getting better at it.  By far my favorite part of the process is the sketching/inking part.  I love capturing a character's gesture/expressions!
Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you? 
I am working on a picture book dummy.  Mainly as a vehicle for my illustrations; however, I really do love the story.  It's simple, but heartfelt.   Typically, I see the pictures in my head first, then the words follow.  But occasionally, something one of the kids says works it's way into my head and the words force their way out before the illustrations; but that's rare.
Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job?  How do you balance the different aspects of your life
I'm fortunate that my husband has a job that supports our family. And now that our children are both in school full-time, I can devote my day to drawing/painting.  Prior to that, I would find time to draw where I could, usually after the kiddos went to bed, or before they woke up in the morning.
It's easy to balance the two now that I have the day to work. It's great because when the kids come home from school, I can focus on them completely (unless there's a deadline or big project that needs finishing).
Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio and include some photos?
We just recently moved from New Hampshire to Colorado.  It was a  big move for us.  I've always been an east coast girl, and the west is quite different from what I'm used to, but I know that soon Colorado will feel like home.

I have a studio, but I'm rarely in it.  It's in the basement.  I prefer sitting on the comfy couch: listening to music during the day, and watching TV with my husband after the kids have gone to bed.  I love the sunlight that fills the living room and the company of our black lab/border collie Lucy. The basement just doesn't do it for me.  Although, it is a great place to keep all my art stuff organized.

Tell us about your education and training. Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?
I didn't go to art school.  I've learned everything I know about art from looking at  the work of illustrators whom I admire.  I studied their use of line,  their application of color, and mashed it all together until I developed my own style.  Part of me wishes I had gone to art school, but my experiences have made me who I am, and I wouldn't trade that for the world.

Please list any of your publications and let us know your website.
My work can be found in the SCBWI Bulletin, Stories for Children Magazine, New Moon for Girls, as well as touring around the country with The Sketchbook Project.  My portfolio can be found at http://www.michellehenninger.com and my blog can be found at http://michellehenninger.blogspot.com

Tell us about your current project.

I'm currently working on a picture book about a girl and her four-legged best friend.

Who are your favorite children’s illustrators or authors?
I love this question!  There are many, but my favorite illustrators are: Matt Phelan – He has such a gorgeous style.  He is the king of capturing the quiet moment.  I just adore his line.  He's definitely my number one fave.  I am also a huge fan of Marla Frazee's work.  She has such a gift for capturing gesture.  If only I could absorb some of her talent via osmosis!  I also love R.W. Alley, and LeUyen Pham's artwork.  They also capture personality wonderfully.
And as far as masters: I love the work of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Norman Rockwell.
If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?
Hmmm. I think I'd probably be Calpurnia Tate from “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.”  Set during the turn of the 20th century, when women were expected to enter young womanhood with its trappings of tight corsets, cookery, and handiwork, Calpurnia prefers to read Darwin, and Dickens, and to embrace the scientific method in observing plant species.  I love her close relationship with her grandfather.  I love that she follows her dreams despite societal pressure.   I love a spunky protagonist.

What inspires you?
My kids, snippets of conversations I overhear, experiences I've had, illustrators I admire.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
In Kindergarten, I wanted to be a doctor. For a really long time after that, I wanted to be a psychologist.  Then after college a CIA spy.  I wish I could clone myself because there are so many cool jobs out there.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I love learning opportunities: going to museums, historical sites (LOVE history!!!), getting involved with our kids' research projects, going to the library and coming home with loads of books (I love historical fiction, or biographies!  If you haven't read David McCullough's John Adams, I highly recommend it!)   I also really love gardening (flowers, my husband does the vegetables), and going for family hikes (Colorado has so many great trails!).

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?
Hmmm.  I still think the CIA operative job would be pretty cool, but probably too hard/dangerous with a family.  Maybe a National Park Ranger.  Or maybe a historical re-enactor.  I need those clones.
Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?
I think the number one most important piece of advice for illustrators is to believe in yourself.  It can be really tough being rejected.  You need that belief in order to dust yourself off (indulge in an Oreo or two), and do it all over again.  The second piece of advice is to get your work out there.  No one will hire you if they haven't seen what you can do. Remember: postcards, on-line portfolio, blog, FB, Twitter.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
I have the most supportive and wonderful husband in the world, and we have two brilliant and beautiful daughters.
My parents and brothers are awesome!
I love SmartWool socks.
I love drinking black tea – specifically a big ole cuppa PG Tips, with two lumps of sugar and a splash of milk.  Especially while nattering with my best friend Haylebopp.
John Adams is my favorite president, and I can't for the life of me understand why there isn't a gigantic memorial to him in Washington DC.

Wow- Thanks Michelle!


  1. Great Interview Michelle,
    I've enjoyed your pictures in the Bulletin. Nice to know a bit more about the artist. And I bet you are left handed. I'm always dragging my hand through my art also!
    Thanks Jill,
    Kit Grady

  2. Michelle, I enjoyed your interview tremendously. I often see your illustrations in the SCBWI bulletin on page after page. They are delightful.
    Thanks for sharing so much,...... we will miss you in NH !

  3. What a fun way to learn more about you, Michelle! You are as darling as your artwork! :)

  4. Great work Michelle! I agree with Jill...your characters have wonderful expressions. :)

  5. Awesome interview Michelle, I enjoyed it so much. I love your watercolors - congrats on all the success coming your way!

  6. Wow - Great Interview! Your illustrations always make me smile!! WELCOME TO COLORADO!!!!

  7. Michelle- I love your little girl with the pigtails and the surprised expression! I laughed when I opened my Bulletin and saw her there. Thanks for doing this interview with us. And like Gail said, Welcome to Colorado!

  8. What a fun interview! Thanks for letting us into your world Michelle!