Curiouser and Curiouser with Mike Wohnoutka

Mike Wohnoutka
Mike Wohnout­ka

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!

Mike Wohnoutka's sketches of Max for See the Cat: Three Stories about a Dog
Mike Wohnoutka’s sketch­es of Max for See the Cat: Three Sto­ries about a Dog © Mike Wohnoutka

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.

Mike Wohnoutka art samples
Com­par­ing Mike Wohnoutka’s ear­li­er work with acrylics for Can’t Sleep With­out Sheep
and with acry­la-gouache, bold­er col­ors, and a dark out­line for Moo!  © Mike Wohnoutka

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.

Mike Wohnoutka's favorite art tool
Mike Wohnoutka’s cur­rent­ly favorite art tool, a Micron pen

May we see a pic­ture of your studio?

Mike Wohnoutka's studio
Mike Wohnoutka’s 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.

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Heidi Hammond
2 years ago

It was so much fun to read your inter­view and see your stu­dio again. You were so gra­cious to allow Gail Nord­strom and me to vis­it you in your stu­dio with our pic­ture book class. Thank you, Mike!

Mike Wohnoutka
Mike Wohnoutka
Reply to  Heidi Hammond
2 years ago

Thank you, Hei­di! That was a very fun morn­ing with your class!

2 years ago

Oh, to be so tal­ent­ed! I love your stu­dio, too.

Mike Wohnoutka
Mike Wohnoutka
Reply to  aimeebissonette2017
2 years ago

Thank you, Aimee!!

Laura Purdie Salas
2 years ago

What a fun inter­view! I love both Mike’s styles – his old­er acrylic, mood­i­er (in my mind) art, and his new­er, graph­ic, pop-art style. They’re both wonderful!

Mike Wohnoutka
Mike Wohnoutka
Reply to  Laura Purdie Salas
2 years ago

Thank you, Laura!!

Joyce Sidman
2 years ago

Loved read­ing this inter­view! Mike, I real­ly enjoyed see­ing your sketch­es as your char­ac­ters evolved.

Mike Wohnoutka
Mike Wohnoutka
Reply to  Joyce Sidman
2 years ago

Thank you, Joyce!!

Mark Ceilley
2 years ago

This was a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view! I enjoyed read­ing about your process, see­ing your stu­dio, and your col­lab­o­ra­tion with David. I look for­ward to see­ing your next book!

Mike Wohnoutka
Mike Wohnoutka
Reply to  Mark Ceilley
2 years ago

Thank you, Mark!!