I’ve known Mike Wohnoutka for many years, from his first SCBWI meeting when he introduced himself and showed samples from his portfolio. His adorable character in Cowboy Sam and Those Confounded Secrets (Kitty Griffin, Kathy Combs), an early book, captured my attention. Here was an illustrator who infused humor into the visual story. Hannukah Bear (Eric A. Kimmel) has the yummiest, coziest, winter color palette. Mike’s authored-and-illustrated book Dad’s First Day makes me laugh every time I read it!
Touring the state of Minnesota with their popular, one-word, picture book Moo!, Mike and author David LaRochelle became an author/illustrator team. Subsequently, they have collaborated on This is Not a Cat! and See the Cat: Three Stories about a Dog, which recently received the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for excellence in early readers. My curiosity bubbled over about how Mike works, so you’re invited along for our interview.
Mike, when an editor sends you a manuscript that reads, “I am not a cat. I am a dog,” what goes through your mind?
When I first saw David’s dummy for See the Cat I thought it was brilliant. Normally, as the illustrator, I’ll get the manuscript (just the words on the page) from the publisher. That’s not the case with David. David, who is a very talented illustrator, will work a up a book dummy with very simple sketches. I use this as my starting point. So it was not just the words, “I am not a cat. I am a dog.”
When Max, the dog in See the Cat, gets more and more frustrated, it is apparent on his face. How do you work with expressions to make them convincing?
Sometimes I’ll act out what the character is doing or look in the mirror and imitate that emotion, but the most effective way for me to capture the facial expressions is to sketch the character over and over until it feels exactly right. I have pages and pages full of sketches of Max and all the emotions he goes through. It takes a lot of bad sketches to finally get to the one that works!
You and the author of See the Cat, David LaRochelle, live in the same city. By all reports, a picture book’s author and illustrator don’t talk to each other, communicating through their editor. Do you and David LaRochelle communicate directly?
Yes, normally the author and illustrator do not work together, but David and I are very good friends. On our first collaboration, Moo, our editor specifically told us not to communicate with each other about the project once I started the illustrations. Since then, each book with David has become more and more collaborative. The bottom line for both of us is to create the best book possible, so we both have to put our egos aside. David is open to text and story suggestions from me and, of course, his very simple sketches are my jumping off point.
You and David LaRochelle have teamed up on a number of books now, the fabulous Moo! and several forthcoming titles. What do you find is more advantageous about working as a team?
Thank you! There are a lot of advantages of working as a team. First of all, I get to illustrate David’s ingenious concepts. Once the books are published we’re able to do book events together, create promotional items, collaborate on teaching guides, etc. All these things are more doable and successful because we each have different skills that we bring to the table. Also, when we have good things happen to our books, it’s really nice to be able to share in that success with such a good friend/teammate!
How would you describe the style of your art in See the Cat: Three Stories about a Dog?
I guess I would say it’s “cartoon” style, although that word isn’t precise. I prefer “graphic.” My style really changed with Moo. Since then, all my books have been painted with acryla-gouache paint. This paint is more opaque, lending itself to flattening the picture plane, making things more two dimensional rather than 3‑D. In my case, this also means using bolder colors and adding a dark outline. Before Moo, all my books were painted with acrylics, which meant more modeling.
How large are the drawings or paintings you work on?
I sketch on 12”x 18” sheets of paper. The sketches on these pages can vary from scribbles to final drawings. I’ll scan the sketches that are working into my computer and clean them up in Photoshop. The final paintings are usually the same size as the book or slightly larger.
Do you ever have to revise a painting because the art director or editor asked you to? Does that mean you have to start over?
There are always revisions during the sketching stage. Sometimes having to start over. Once I get to the paintings most of the details have been figured out, so if there are any changes with the paintings they’re usually pretty small and can be changed in Photoshop — knock on wood.
What is your favorite art tool?
This changes a lot, depending on the project or my mood. Lately I’ve been really enjoying my Micron pens.
May we see a picture of your studio?
Would you encourage other artists to become children’s book illustrators? What’s a good, first step?
Yes, BUT it’s a really difficult business to break into. After I graduated from art school, it took me six years of sending samples of my illustrations to publishers before I got my first book. I would suggest going to the library and looking through the picture books to see what’s out there — I think it would be inspiring.
Thank you, Mike, for answering my questions. I’m looking forward to each new book with your name on the cover.
Are you, too, a curious reader? Please visit Mike Wohnoutka’s website for more information.