Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In Memoriam: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough, Children's Book Illustrator

In August 2013, Blast Furnace published an interview with children's book illustrator Michelle Henninger-Ainscough. Having received news of Michelle's passing on January 27, 2017, we are reposting the interview to honor and memorialize her, with deepest sympathies to her family, friends and the many lives she touched with her talent and vibrant spirit.

- R. Clever, Founder/Editor/Publisher

Artist Focus: An Interview with Michelle Henninger-Ainscough, Children's Book Illustrator

Blast Furnace met Michelle Henninger-Ainscough (then Michelle Henninger) way back in 1990 at State College, Pennsylvania, while she was a senior at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). At that time, she may not have imagined that one day, she'd be sketching and painting artwork for inclusion in books for young children.

Originally from Allenton, she's been a bit of a world traveler over the years, and even a little nomadic within the good ol' U S of A. Now an Arvada, Colorado resident along with her husband, two daughters, and dog, she's never lost the ability to make us smile, even when talking about overcoming some difficult life challenges.

We think this light-hearted interview and accompanying illustrations will make you smile, too. And inspire you. 

You are a Recipient of the Ann Barrow Illustrator Scholarship: New England Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Conference, Nashua, New Hampshire. When did this happen, and what is its significance for illustrators and for you?

It was in 2009 that I decided to get serious about pursuing a career in children's illustration. I joined the SCBWI, which is an amazing resource for authors and illustrators interested in children's literature. At the time I was living in [New Hampshire], and one of the largest regional SCBWI Conferences was to be held in my town. While investigating the upcoming conference, I learned about the Ann Barrow Illustrator Scholarship opportunity. As an illustrator, one of the hardest challenges is believing that you're good enough to be published. I decided to jump on in with both feet and applied for the scholarship. I was thrilled when I was told that I won. The award allowed me to attend the following year's conference for free. But more than anything it gave me the confidence I needed to pursue illustration as a career. 

You pursued the Russian language as an undergraduate major in college. What made you switch to illustration? Do you also pursue other artwork?

In fact, I had two majors in college, neither in illustration: Russian and Sociology. The road from college to the present is a pretty winding one. Initially, I had hoped with my Russian degree to get a job with the CIA, but unfortunately, when I graduated there was a governmental hiring freeze so there were no jobs to be had. Instead, I took a job which gave me the opportunity to live in England and work as an Advertising Director, which lead to another job in advertising here in the States (I really loved the creativity of advertising, and I was happy where I was). It was there that I met my wonderful husband. When we decided to start our family, I wanted to be able to stay at home with our children.

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 had to deal with a mom who had cancer, 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. It was then that I realized how much I enjoyed illustration.

That was the push I needed to get my act together, and not let the fear of rejection stop me from pursing a career in children's illustration.


illustration: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough
What materials do you utilize? 

I work traditionally: pencil, pen and watercolor. Although, I do use Photoshop to clean up my work. 

Blast Furnace read that you have conducted several workshops for elementary aged children. Do you offer a variety of workshops? What do you get out of providing the workshops?

Right now, I only offer one workshop: "The Art of Illustrating: Make Your Mark and Make a Splash," for elementary aged children. I love sharing the joy of illustrating with children... giving them a glimpse into a world they seldom see, the world behind the books and children’s magazines they read. Too often, creativity is lost during these early years. I hope to inspire children to embrace their creative selves.

illustration: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough

How did you initially go about getting your work/name out there?

I found a great website called "Illustration Friday" that posts a weekly (Friday) challenge, and gives you one week to come up with your own unique interpretation of the prompt. It is a wonderful opportunity to get your work “out there,” and get feedback from others. It was through Illustration Friday that I found one of my first critique groups and really started to move forward in my art.

I also joined SCBWI. An amazing resource dealing entirely with the children's lit world. On a regular basis, I submitted illustrations to their magazine, The Bulletin. Another wonderful opportunity to have your work seen by others. I attended SCBWI conferences and workshops. I signed up for portfolio reviews by art directors. I joined a local critique group.

I sent out postcards. Often. Three or four times a year. To art directors and editors of publishing houses and magazines whose style seemed to match my work.

Rinse and repeat...for several years. And only then did I find my agent, Christina Tugeau, who was willing to give a new kid a chance. She has been amazing at getting my name and work in front of lots of people in the industry.


illustration: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough
What was your reaction when you received news that your illustrations would be featured in your first picture book, The First Easter Day (written by Jill Roman Lord and published by Candy Cane Press, an imprint of Ideals Publishing), printed in February 2013? How do you get matched up with an author

I was thrilled! My agent, Christina, took me on in 2012, and shortly after I joined her team, she contacted me about this wonderful opportunity! Illustrators and authors very rarely have any contact during the book-making process, so I never actually communicated with Jill Roman Lord directly. The art director and/or the editors of the publishing house get in touch with an artist agency to find an appropriate artist for their project. Once the illustrator is approved, they work directly with the art director throughout the process. 

Your website states that you are currently working on three books with ABDO Publishing. What does a book project typically entail for you, from beginning to end (planning phases to execution)? 

Typically, it starts with an email from my agent stating that XYZ Publisher is interested in having me work on a series of books. If I'm interested, and after the contracts are signed, I'll receive the manuscript. Usually, there is art direction given such as where on the page they need the illustration, and the size: full-page vs a spot illustration, the number of illustrations required, color or black & white, etc.

From there, I begin the sketch phase. This is my favorite part of the process. I love developing the characters, playing with expression, gesture, and composition. Once I'm satisfied with the sketch, I'll scan it into the computer and clean it up in Photoshop. I'll then email it to the art director who either makes suggestions for changes, or approves it. 

Once all the sketches are approved, it's time to paint. When I begin the painting process, I do a few color studies, in order to find the right colors for the illustration. Once satisfied, I'll complete the painting. Then I'll scan them, color correct in Photoshop and send to the art director for approvals. If approved, [high-resolution] scans are FTP'd [File Transfer Protocol] to the publishing house, and they take care of the rest.


illustration: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough
Are you a freelance illustrator, full-time illustrator, or do you do a little of both?

I'm a freelance illustrator because my jobs come in sporadically. But I do work at it full-time. Even when I don't have a current project for a publisher or magazine, I'm always working. Whether it's new pieces for my portfolio, or a book idea, I stay busy. 

What has been your most challenging/rewarding project? What lessons have you learned over the course of deciding to begin doing illustration? 

I think the most challenging and rewarding project is working on my picture book dummy in which I'm both author and illustrator. It's easy to push your own work aside and because of that, it requires commitment and determination to keep moving forward. I think the biggest challenge as an illustrator is developing a thick skin and believing in yourself. It's a tough business. It's all very subjective. And sometimes the feedback is pretty harsh, but you have to be able to brush it off, take what you can from it, and move forward.
illustration: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough
What are your next big projects? Do you have a projected goal/dream that you strive towards and would ultimately love to achieve?

I do have another project that I will be starting in the next few weeks, but I can't really say too much about it right now. I do hope to one day get a picture book with a major trade publisher. I can't wait for the day when my kids go to the school library with their friends, and pull a book off the shelf which was illustrated by me! 

What surprised you most about the illustration field/childrens publishing industry? 

It's a surprisingly difficult field to break through in. It requires dedication and a really thick skin. Rejection hurts, but you need to pick yourself up and keep at it. 

What is your inspiration for your illustrations? Who were/are your influences, if any?

It's cliché, but my kids and their friends inspire my illustrations. It's much easier to draw for children when you know what goes on in their heads. 

As for influences, my absolute favorite illustrator is Matt Phelan. He's an amazing artist, and has a wonderful quietness to his work. And his lines are gorgeous. Just a subtle mark of the pen, and he can convey an amazing amount of emotion...

And of course, the masters…N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Norman Rockwell.

illustration: Michelle Henninger-Ainscough
How has the move to Colorado inspired your work? How did New Hampshire?

Living in New Hampshire is great for a children's illustrator. New England has so many kidlit publishing houses, as well as conferences, workshops all geared to this field. And it's remarkable how many illustrators and authors live there. You really feel like you are part of a community.

The environment is quite a bit different here in Denver, but I was able to find my focus and continue to grow as an artist. 

What advice might you have for artists/illustrators struggling to be recognized?

The only way you'll get a job is if art directors and editors see your work. Send out postcards three or four times a year. Keep your art in front of them. Keep your name in front of them. Join SCBWI, attend conferences, learn from your peers. And draw. 

Editor's Note: Visit Michele's website online at http://www.michellehenninger.com or her blog at http://www.michellehenninger.blogspot.com. Additionally, more of her artwork can be viewed at http://www.catugeau.com/#loaded_art.