Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 4, 2014

Illustrator Saturday – Michelle Henninger


Michelle is a tea drinking (a robust Irish Breakfast, thank you), cozy sock wearing children’s illustrator living, drawing, and enjoying life in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She prefers a traditional approach of pen/ink, and watercolor: with a touch of digital thrown in for good measure.

A member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, she was a New England SCBWI Ann Barrows Illustration Scholarship recipient, and has conducted a well-received workshop for elementary aged children entitled “The Art of Illustrating: Make Your Mark and Make a Splash.” 

She is represented by Christina Tugeau at CATugeau.

Here is Michelle:


Above is a Self-Portrait done by Michelle.


Above is the cover art for Michelle’s new book, The Princess and the Frog written by Nancy K. Wallace and illustrated by Michelle. It was published by Magic Wagon in August 2013. Below are a few illustrations from the 32 page picture book,


The Princess and the Frog is a fractured fairy tale based on the story of the princess and the frog. When the princess loses her ball in the well, a helpful frog is willing to get it for her–for a price! But the kiss doesn’t cause the traditional transformation. This book provides information on putting on a production–including tips on sets, props, and costumes. An easy-to-follow script with color coding for character cues is ideal for readers’ theater, puppet shows, or class plays. Teachers can download a free guide with additional tips and reading level information for each character.


Here is Michelle discussing her process:


First some Character studies


I began with this illustration.  I needed to work on older kids and had sent this one to my agent.  She liked it, and asked for these two characters in another illustration. 


My favorite part of the process is in developing the characters. So, I like to start with faces.   I did a loose pencil sketch, playing with their expressions.  I scanned them in, and brought them into Photoshop.  I reduced their size, and then printed it out, so that I could work on their bodies next.  (That part of the process varies – most often I’ll sketch out their full bodies, but in this case, I was happy with their expressions, but had run out of space to sketch their bodies, hence the scanning).


michelleProcess_4I sketched in their bodies, scanned into Photoshop and cleaned up the image up a bit. Print.


I wanted them to be in a school setting, so I sketched in the lockers and hallway.


At this point, I focused on other kids in the hall.   I worked on a sketch of a group of kids.  Scanned them in and added them to the scene in Photoshop.


I still felt there needed another kid in the scene, and sketched her.  The thing I love about Photoshop is using it to work on the composition of the scene.  So, so, helpful!!

After placing everyone where they needed to be in Photoshop, and cleaning up the sketch.  I printed it out on watercolor paper, and paint. Below is the final image.


How long have you been illustrating?

When I was in elementary school, I would draw all the time. I had a big desk in my bedroom, and that’s where I’d work.  I studied the classics.  You know, Ziggy, Snoopy, Family Circus.


Did you study art at Pennsylvania State University?

Nope, not even close.   I double majored in the Russian, and Sociology: with a minor in Russian Area Studies.  I lived in the Soviet Union for four months the summer before my senior year.  In fact, I was in Moscow when the Soviet Coup of ’91 occurred and Gorbachev was taken by the Soviet hardliners.  I stood in Red Square amongst the tanks and heard Boris Yeltsin speak.  It was an incredible experience. I had hoped to work for the CIA, but due to a governmental hiring freeze, that never came to be.  It’s funny the winding path that life takes you on, isn’t it?

michellepenguin_day Did you study art anywhere else?

No, not really.  I took a figure drawing class at The New Hampshire Institute of Art which was really helpful in learning to capture gesture.  But most of what I’ve learned has been from looking at the work of those whose illustrations I’ve admired: Matt Phelan, Marla Frazee, RW Alley, Freya Blackwood.


When do you think you developed your illustrating style?

There wasn’t a point where I sat down and thought… hmmm, what’s my style going to be.  I think  style just happens when you’re busy drawing.  My style constantly evolves as I learn new techniques, and am influenced by the things going on around me.


What was the first thing you illustrated where someone paid you for your work?

That’s an easy one.  The SCBWI Bulletin published one of my spot illustrations.  I was over the moon!  My illustration accompanied a poem on the same page as an article about Judy Blume.  JUDY BLUME – I couldn’t believe it!


Did the college help you find work?

No.  Not in the art world, since I was on the road to Covert Ops.


How did you get your first big break?

My first big break was when, after years of hounding Christina Tugeau with samples, she finally agreed to give me a chance to prove myself.  For years, I admired her cadre of illustrators, and thought she was an amazing woman.  I poured over her blog and the articles she had written about the business.  It was both fantastic and frightening when she said she’d bring me on.  Fantastic for obvious reasons, but frightening because now I had to prove myself worthy.  Nothing like a little pressure. 🙂


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?

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.


How many picture books have you illustrated?

I have illustrated four books. explore_paint

What was the title of your first book? Who was it with?

My first picture book (board book) was The First Easter Day (2013 Candy Cane Press), written by Jill Roman Lord.


How did that contract come about?

Christina Tugeau. She got in touch with me and let me know that the folks at Candy Cane Press were interested. It was fabulous, because I had just signed on with her when this opportunity became available!


Have you done any work for children’s magazines?

Yes, I have done work with New Moon Girls, and most recently I did a Hidden Pictures illustration for Highlights Magazine.


Have you done anything for educational publishing houses?

Yes, my three most recent books were published with ABDO Publishing, Magic Wagon.  They were Readers’ Theatre books written by Nancy Wallace, and were so much fun to work on: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, Farmyard Security, and The Princess and The Frog.


How did you come to be represented by Chris Tugeau?

Relentless hounding.  🙂 And working on my skills, taking her advice, reading the articles she had written about the business, looking at the work of those illustrators I admired, and hours of drawing.  Drawing, drawing, drawing. And hounding her.


Do you think you have gotten more jobs by having representation than you would have found on your own?

Absolutely. Without a doubt.


Do you have a favorite illustration? Of my own work? 

My favorite illustration of my own work is probably this one.  I love music: my daughters play violin and flute. Whenever I see this one, it makes me happy.


(Orchestra illustration from Sketch to Final)


Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?

Yes. I have a few ideas for picture books that I’m working on.  But writing is HARD! I definitely hope to go that route though! michelleelection_dayWhat is your favorite medium to use?

My favorite is pen and ink and watercolor.  I’ve been exploring digital but I love the way the paint flows in watercolor, and the happy accidents that inevitably happen with watercolor.


Do you take pictures or do any research before you start a project?

I do. I don’t know what I’d do without the internet.  If I can’t find a reference online, I’ll make my kids or my husband pose for me. Or if I’m just really stumped on something ,like a weird hand position, I’ll take a photo of myself.


What is the one thing in your studio you could not live without?

Hmmm.  My HB pencils.  Closely followed by my children’s book library.  I love being inspired by the talents of other illustrators!


Do you try and spend a certain amount of hours every day working on your art?

When I don’t have any projects in the works, I work M-F from 8-3 – while my kiddos are at school.  When they are home, I like to focus on them.  Unless, there is a project in the works, in which case, I make the time where there is none. 🙂


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely.  It is through the internet, that I discovered SCBWI, my agent, my illustrator pals, technique tips, etc. michellesunglasses day paint Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

I do.  Mainly, for cleaning up my sketches, and finishing up paintings.  I would like to get more involved in the digital side of illustration.  That is one of my goals for this year.


Do you own or have you ever tried a graphic Drawing Tablet?

No.  I’d like to try out a Wacom Cintiq, but I fear spending the money and discovering I don’t like it.


Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your material changed?

Oh my gosh, YES!!  I mentioned earlier how I used to draw little pictures for my eldest daughter when she was in Kindergarten.  She pulled them out not long ago, and oh my.  They were NOT good.  It’s really hard looking back on my older stuff, because I’m constantly changing – for the better (I hope!).


How do you market yourself?

Christina Tugeau does several group mailings, and I try to send out my own personal postcard mailings three times a year.  I keep a blog, and website presence, and am active on Facebook/Twitter.


Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

I’d really, REALLY love to illustrate a trade book.  I’m constantly working on improving my technique with the hopes that one day I’ll be able to see my book up on a shelf in the local bookstore! Closely followed, by being an author and illustrator of a trade book.  That’s the dream.


What are you working on now?

Right now, I don’t have any big projects in the works.  So I use this time to focus on character sketches, bringing movement into my work, playing with technique, working up book ideas, basically all the stuff needed to make you a better illustrator.


Do you have any material type tips you can share with us?

Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc. Pencils – General’s Kimberly Drawing Pencil HB, Prismacolor colored pencils – Black, Prismacolor colored pencils mixed color tin Pens – Micron Paint – Windsor Newton Watercolors Paper – Arches Hot Press Sketchbook – Decadence – Moleskine, Typical – whatever I can get my hands on for cheap.  🙂 Printer/Scanner – Epson WF-7520, and Epson R2000 (for printing on watercolor paper) Where to go to buy art supplies –

michellebest friends

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful illustrator?

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 (grab a cup of tea), 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. 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.


Here are a few examples of Michelle’s expertise with black and white illustrations.



Michelle thank you for helping to kick-off 2014 with your wonderful talent and thanks for sharing your journey and process with all of us. Make sure you let us know of each success story.

You can visit Michelle To see more at: or I am sure she would love you to leave a comment below for her. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Michelle, Love your work. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the French hens. Wonderful! 🙂


  2. Thanks so much! 🙂


  3. Beautiful work, Michelle. Glad you’re in the CAT group! 🙂


  4. That’s my girl! Hard, constant worker…practice DOES make perfect….or close enough! will this be the year for a Trade pic bk????


    • I hope 2014 has a picture book in your futures.


  5. Love your loose and lively characters, Michelle!


  6. Michelle, thank you for sharing your process. You capture expressions beautifully. My favorite was the three french chickens! All the best with your dreams. 🙂


  7. Delightful artwork. Thanks so much for posting this. I love Illustrator Saturday.


  8. Wonderful work–and I’m lovin’ those chickens! 🙂


    • It looks like everyone is a chicken lover.


  9. Michelle, thanks so much for your interview. Great advice! I’m re-energized.


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