Michael is always putting on a costume and posing for a character in a book. One day, he is posing in costume as an O. Henry character and the next he is pretending to be a fossil hunter. Michael has modeled as a pirate, pilgrim, patriot, inventor, explorer, and sometimes, even a bit of a rogue. Each book is a new adventure.
His family and friends also pose in costume for his paintings. The covers and pages of his books are adorned with illustrations of his daughters Rachel and Lisa, and the neighborhood children. He and his wife Jane have acquired a collection of vintage clothes and costumes, which they may cut, shape, or sew into something suitable for a seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century character.
Born in 1958, Michael grew up in the small town of Marlton, New Jersey surrounded by peach and apple orchards. He played baseball, built tree houses, and had snowball fights. He also loved to read and draw-a combination that eventually led to illustrating children’s books. His mother Patricia always encouraged him to draw and he could always be found “doodling” away. He even had a dog named, Doodles.
Today, Michael can still be found “doodling” away. He is the illustrator of over sixty books-many on historic subjects. He has illustrated picture books, chapter books and many Middle Grade Novels. His clients over the past twenty years include Reader’s Digest, The United States Post Office, Scholastic, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, HarperCollins, Philomel, Puffin Books, McElderry Books, Henry Holt, Holiday House, Beechtree, Atheneum, Disney and many others. Michael graduated in 1988 with a Master’s Degree in Illustration from Syracuse University and is a member of the Society of Illustrators in New York.
Here is Michael discussing the process of researching, and painting his new book coming out this fall:
Painting the cover of Fossil Hunter
A great deal of research goes into creating a painting. For six months, I search for primary sources, props, costumes, and background images. I started my research (for Fossil Hunter) at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where I met with paleontologist Ted Daeschler. Ted took me in the back room and let me touch the 80 million year old fossils from the Hadrosaurus found in Haddonfield, NJ in 1858. Ted let me photograph the bones that I would later use as reference (something to refer to as I painted).
I soon learned that Haddonfield (the site of William Foulk’es find) sat under a hundred feet of seawater when the dinosaur died (80 million years ago). Hence, the soil is rich with sea sediment and is called marl. Marl is different than most soil. It is dark and clumpy. So, I went to the dig site (now called Hadrosaurus Park) with shovel in hand and dug up clumps of the marl that I photographed for reference.
But how do you find a solid wall of marl to make it look like Foulke is ten feet down in a pit? I wasn’t about to dig a ten feet deep pit. Luckily, I found a construction site where the foundation was being dug out. It wasn’t marl but I could use the shapes and change the color to look like marl.
Lastly, I posed in costume for William Foulke. I had researched what he looked like and the types of clothes he may have worn. My wife Jane photographed me in my back yard (photo right). I made sure that all the reference I photographed was the same perspective (angle) and had the light coming from the same direction) so that all the images would look seem-less in the final painting.
Set with four photographic references in-hand, I made a pencil sketch leaving room for type and making sure nothing important was in the gutter. The most important thing at this stage is the drawing. My old illustrator friend Lou Glanzman was truly a great artist and always emphasized the importance of draughtsmanship. After the sketch is completed, I transferred my pencil sketch on to a stretched canvas using tracing paper and transfer paper. I use a rather smooth linen canvas (Fredrix’s Portrait Linen Canvas 589) that I stretch myself. The painting measures 17” by 25” proportion to the final trim size 8 ½” x 11”.
The first step in the painting process is to block in all the shadow, halftone, and light shapes in one color (usually raw umber and French Ultramarine Blue mixed together). This mixture makes a brownish green that is very appealing to me and (most importantly) will dry overnight (raw umber dries fast). At the end of the first day of painting, I have what appears to be a completed painting in monochrome.
The second day of painting I block in all the color. The trick is to make four pieces of photo reference look like they are in the same light (same color family). This is the most important step where the painting comes alive. It may take two days for this process depending on the complexity of the subject.
The final step of painting is completing the details. Going over everything one more time, if needed. Now, the painting has three coats of paint creating a patina that you cannot achieve any other way. Notice a copper pan was added to the left of painting. This image was ‘swiped’ from my files. A swipe is a photo image from a magazine, old photo, or book that you have saved.
All in all, it is about a five-day painting process if everything goes according to plan, Sometimes, (as I emphasize in my school visits), I may get a day or two into a painting and start over. A painting is the process of correcting your mistakes as you go along.
I paint in oil on canvas in basically the same method as the illustrators did a hundred years ago like Norman Rockwell and NC Wyeth. I harmonize (color scheme) my paintings by making three quarters of a painting in one basic color family (shadows are either bluish, purplish, or greenish.). This ties everything together like a musician harmonizes his/her notes. I dull my colors with its’ complement. For example, a blue object would be brought down in value with orange. Grays are mixed with complements (blue and orange and white makes gray).
Take note of how Michael left space for the text in his sketch.
Could you tell us a little about your color palette?
My palette (Winsor Newton Professional Artists oil paint) consists of :
Cadmium Red light
French Ultramarine Blue
Anyone who has written a book like this knows how much fun the research can be. Did you find anything fun that you can share with us?
I do. During my research I found at the Academy’s library a quote in William Foulke’s writing (primary source). I actually discovered a letter he wrote ( )to his paleontologist friend Dr Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (in 1858). He said, “I have taken some splendid bones from the marl,” wrote William. “The fruits are abundant and I wish them to be preserved for science.”
I had to paint a picture of him doing just that. (Above)
How long have you been illustrating?
What college did you attend and did you study art there?
Syracuse University (Masters Degree in Fine Art)
What were you favorite classes?
Illustration/ painting with Joe Bowler
What type of work did you do right after you graduated?
Illustrating for Readers Digest and Disney Adventure Magazine
Do you think getting your MFA has helped your career?
I learned more my first day at Syracuse University with artist Joe Bowler than I had in my previous four years at other colleges/art schools.
Do you feel the illustration classes you took influenced you style?
I believe your style is something you are born with and comes naturally to you.
What was the title of your first book and who published it?
My first book was Mary Mclean and the St Patrick’s Day Parade written by Steven Kroll (1992).
How many picture books have you illustrated?
To date, I have illustrated 64 books including about 20 picture books.
How many book have you written and illustrated?
I have written four picture books including The Great Horseless Carriage Race (2002), Young Thomas Edison (2005), George Washington’s Army and Me (2011), and Fossil Hunter (2014)
Do you plan to write and illustrate more books?
I am always writing and always searching for new stories that interest me. Eventually, each one is sent to an editor in hopes of selling it.
It seems like most of your books deal with things in the past. Where you always interested in history?
I have always been interested in history. My wife, Jane, and I live in a house built in 1919, I watch old Sherlock Holmes movies, and read old books. I am stuck in the 60’s. The 1760’s.
How did you come up with the idea and how did you connect with the publisher?
I saw an article about an interesting character who was the first race car driver (in 1909) and went to the library to research him. In my research, I came across a story titled The Great Race of Chicago. I wrote for about 3 months (probably 30 drafts) and eventually sent it along to an editor at Holiday House. All of my stories are about People Who Have Changed the World. See World Changers at http://www.michaeldooling.com
It looks like you like doing school visits. How many do you do in a year?
I visit approximately 50 schools nationwide each year with my History through Picture Book program, inspiring children to read, write, and draw. From Rhode Island to Texas and everywhere in-between, I have visited over 900 schools in the past 15 years.
Michael is always getting family and friends to pose in costume for various characters in his books. He shares these pictures with the students during his school visits ands tell them, “Everyday at my house is like Halloween.”
Do you have any tips to share on how to do a successful school visit?
A school visit is about inspiring children to read and write. You have to know your subject and explain or teach in terms that children can relate to.
I read somewhere that you said you love to do visit schools because it gives you the opportunity to inspire children to read, write, and draw. Do you get letters?
I get many letters. A librarian recently sent me note. In it she said, “You have truly made a difference in the life of a child,” said one librarian. “He is still writing!” That is the goal of every school visit I do.
Do you still use oil paint for your illustrations?
I have always worked in oil on canvas.
Have most of your books been with educational publishers?
I have worked for just about every publisher: Scholastic, Holiday House, Penquin, MacMillan, Henry Holt, FS & G, and many others.
I noticed that the USPS commissioned you to illustrate the Ben Franklin Stamps. How did that come about?
In 2006, I illustrated a stamp of Benjamin Franklin. The director of the project noticed the cover of my book about Franklin and hired me to illustrate something similar (Ben as a printer).
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
Finding work as an illustrator is about marketing to the right people. Art directors have to be buying what you are selling.
What do you feel was your greatest success?
I feel my most successful books creatively are George Washington’s Army and Me and my newest title, Fossil Hunter. Although Young Thomas Edison sold the most and had very nice reviews. School Library Journal said Edison, “belongs in every library.”
How did you hook up with James Cross Giblin and Henry Holt & Co. to illustrate The Boy Who Saved Cleveland?
I am hired by the publisher after they have purchased the story from the author. I only meet the authors by chance after the book is published. I don’t work with the authors.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I do a tremendous amount of research (at least six months) at museums, historic places, reenactments, libraries and take hundreds of photographs of models in costume. Every day at my house is like Halloween.
I notice that you have done a few books with Jeannine Atkins using CreateSpace. Are you friends? Is that how you connected? Or are you open to illustrating for authors who want to skip going through one of the major publishers?
The books that I have republished (with authors like Jeannine Atkins) through CreateSpace were originally published by major publishers. Jeannine and I reprinted Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. It had a good run of almost twenty years in print with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. After it went out of print it seemed like a smart thing to do to put it back in print. It is a very popular book at my school visits.
While researching your books, I noticed that you illustrated Mary McLean and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade by Steven Kroll. Were the two of you working on this before he passed away? Were you the one who decided to use CreateSpace to publish his book?
Mary Mclean and the St Patricks Day Parade was published in 1992 by Scholastic. After it went out of print a couple of years ago Steven’s wife and I put it back in print.
Can you share your experience with using CreateSpace?
CreateSpace is an ideal way to republish books once they have gone out of print. I don’t publish original books with CreateSpace.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I work all the time. It is the curse of having your own business. You have to always be thinking about your next project.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Have you tried Photoshop or Corel Painter with your illustrations?
I don’t know what Photoshop or Corel is.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
I don’t know what a Graphic Drawing Tablet is. I work in oils on canvas in basically the same method used by many illustrators a hundred years ago.
Do you have an artist rep or an agent?
I represent myself.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
Two of my stories The Great Horseless Carriage Race and George Washington’s Army and Me are being considered for major Hollywood motion pictures. It would be a nice dream to see them in the theater.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up the last two paintings for Fossil Hunter. Fossil Hunter is the true story of William Foulke who (in 1858) discovered the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton (in Haddonfield, NJ) ever found. William proved that dinosaurs once existed because before his ‘find’ people could only speculate on what dinosaurs looked like or if they ever really existed. William changed the world.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Making a picture is about drawing, composition, and the idea (creating a mood). I base each picture on an emotion like happy, sad, fear, or hope. I use what I call my ingredients (emotion, light/shadow, perspective, color, facial expression, body posture) to tell a story with a picture. Illustrating is like making a movie in print form: you set the stage, props, actors, lighting, and create the mood.
Since Michael has been working on the book FOSSIL HUNTER, he ends his school visits by saying, “I live just down the street from Hadrosaurus Park and I often wonder if there is a dinosaur buried in my backyard. Is there a dinosaur buried in YOUR backyard?”
Now I wonder how many kids are out there digging up their yards.
Thank you Michael for the interview and sharing your process with us. I really enjoyed the time I spent reading about you and your body of work. Please make sure you keep us up-to-date on all your future books and successes. You can visit Michael at: www.michaeldooling.com
Please take a minute to leave Michael a comment. I am sure he would love to hear from you and I would definitely appreciate it. Thanks.