Cancer was the push Michelle Henninger needed

Michelle Henninger
Michelle Henninger

Michelle Henninger was born and raised in Allentown, PA, where she worked in Advertising/Marketing, met her husband, had her first child, moved to New Hampshire, had her second child, acquired a black and furry pooch, and most recently moved out West. 

She now hangs her hat… and some pretty nice shirts…in lovely Arvada, Colorado.

You can find out more about her at http://www.michellehenninger.com.

Q: When did you get started illustrating for children? What did you do before?

A: In 2007, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIA breast cancer, the same year my eldest daughter entered Kindergarten.  She was a shy little girl and we were all under a lot of stress, so to help her get through her day, (and to help me get through my treatment) I would draw a little picture to put in her lunch box every day.   That was the push I needed to get my act together, follow my bliss, and not let the fear of rejection stop me from a career in illustration.

The First Easter DayQ: Your newest book released this month is The First Easter Day by
Jill Roman Lord. What did you find the most challenging thing about the illustration of this book?

A: The most challenging thing for me was that the publishers wanted the animals in the book to look a bit more realistic than is my typical style, so I had to stretch a bit out of my comfort zone.  It’s those challenges that help you grow as an artist, so I was happy to stretch.

Q: Is working on a touch and feel book more challenging than a plain text book? How?

A: Actually, I didn’t have to deal with that aspect of the book.   I simply submitted the illustrations and the publishers handled the rest.  I had it pretty easy.

Q: What other children’s books have you worked on?

A: The First East Day is my first book.  Most of my work-to-date has been in magazines.

Q: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other art projects you’d like to talk about?

A: I’m currently working on three books with ABDO Publishing, and I’m at the sketch stage of a picture book I’m both writing and illustrating: So Do I.  I also like to regularly submit B&W spot illustrations to the SCBWI Bulletin.  (I really enjoy doing black & white work.)

portraitQ: Do you do non-children’s book art (licensing, fine art, etc.) or art just for fun? Is that art similar or different from your children’s book art?

A: Not very often.  Occasionally, I’ll do portraits as gifts for family and friends.  And sometimes, I like to play with blocks of color on a large canvas and create abstracts.  Both are so different from what I normally do. I find it relaxing.

Q: Can you explain your art process?

A: I work traditionally for the most part.  I do pencil sketches and play with them until they’re where I want them to be.  They can get really messy.


Then I scan them in.  Sometimes, if things don’t look quite right, I may use Photoshop to play around with the composition, then print out the altered image.


If the composition was changed, I’ll light box the new composition onto watercolor paper.  If I was happy with my original sketch, I’ll lighten it in Photoshop so just a hint of line shows, and print it out directly onto watercolor paper.

Next, I’ll break out my trusty black Prismacolor pencil and go over the lines.  I try to keep it fairly loose so that the feel of my original sketch is still there.

Then I’ll scan that into the computer (just in case I mess up the paint and need to redo it). My final step is to watercolor.


Q: What is your favorite medium to work in? Have you always worked in this media? If not, why did you switch?

A: My favorite medium is pencil, but I’m getting more comfortable with watercolor.  I took a watercolor class this past summer with Ted Nuttall.  And although he is a portrait artist, I’ve been enjoying applying some of the techniques I learned in his class to my work.  That’s the great thing about being an artist: you’re always learning and evolving.

brothers012Q: Do you use models/source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?

A: I do use reference photos.  And if I can’t find quite the right reference, my family members are forced to be my models.

Q: What gets you through an illustration when you’re stuck for inspiration?

A: The kidlit artist community is so amazing.  I reach out to them when I’m in a slump.  These people totally get where you’re coming from, and will lift you right up.    I also like to step away when I’m stuck: focus on my family, and my “other” life.  Then when I come back (usually with a big cuppa black tea in hand), things flow much better.

beautyQ: If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?

A: In college, I majored in Russian and Sociology.  So, if I could be something other than an artist, it would be a CIA Operative!!  Although, being a spy does tend to throw a monkey wrench into family life.  “Sorry, I can’t attend the PTA meeting tonight … I’ll be jetting off to London to make a dead drop at the west corner of Hyde Park.  Maybe next month.”  “No, honey, you cannot bring that umbrella to school – that’s Mommy’s poison tipped umbrella.”  See what I mean.

Ann Likes RedQ: What book do you remember from when you were young? 

A: The very first book I read all by myself was Ann Likes Red by Dorothy Z. Seymour.

“Ann likes red.  Red, red, red.”

Q: Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now?

A: My absolute favorite illustrator is Matt Phelan…. oh, what I would do to be able to draw like he does.  He has such a gift (coupled with a great work ethic)!  And he’s a really nice guy!

I also like R.W. Alley, and LeUyen Pham‘s artwork.  They capture personality so wonderfully.

And as far as the masters… well, they’re masters for a reason!  N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Norman Rockwell!

Q: If a student asked you what they should know about breaking into illustration, what advice would you share with them?

explore_paintA: I think the number one most important piece of advice for illustrators is to believe in yourself. It can be really tough being rejected. Really tough.  You need that belief in order to dust yourself off (indulge in an Oreo or two), and do it all over again.  Often times I find myself thinking, am I like one of those contestants on American Idol, you know, those contestants who think they can sing, but everyone in the audience thinks “go home!” …  except with art.  But, if you just keep at it, good things happen.

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.

Oh, and draw.  Paint. Do it all the time.  Look at the work of people you admire.  See how they tackle an area you’re weak in.  Learn, adapt, work hard.

9 thoughts on “Cancer was the push Michelle Henninger needed”

  1. Thanks for posting this great interview. I like the part about believing in yourself, something I’m working on. After a huge conference is over on March 12 that I’m in the midst of organizing, I’ll be anxious to try out my new Niji pens with sketching lots.

  2. Love this! Gonna go check out the book, that is SO exciting. I thought you’d been drawing for decades. Except wait, you’re not that old.

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