Alumnus Aaron Zenz illus­trates chil­drens’ books. Facebook

Aaron Zenz said he used 119 Pris­ma­color pencils — taking each from great big pencil to little, itty bitty stub you can’t even hold — and broke 251 pencil tips in the making of his first children’s picture book, “The Hic­copotamus.” 

Zenz’s casu­alties stem from his unorthodox use of colored pencils. His manip­u­lation of this medium, according to Pro­fessor of Art Bryan Springer, results in dra­matic drawings that are col­orful yet soft, almost glowing. 

As Zenz ’98 pre­sented his illus­tra­tions Sunday at his exhi­bition in the Daughtrey Gallery, adults asked ques­tions, kids sat criss-cross apple­sauce or mean­dered to the snack table, and babies mewled. Around 50 people attended the opening that high­lighted the last 12 years of his work in illus­tration. During this time, he has illus­trated 33 books, nine of which he also wrote. His show, the penul­timate instal­lation of the Pro­fes­sional Artists Series, runs until Feb. 11. 

The Zenz clan com­posed a sig­nif­icant fraction of the audience, including Aaron’s wife and six children, ranging from 18 to 7; his younger brother Andy, another art major and alumnus; and his father, Dave, the first full-time director of the Aca­demic Com­puting Advisory Com­mittee at Hillsdale College, which later became Infor­ma­tional Tech­nology Solu­tions.  

Dave said Aaron would get crayons every year for Christmas, the big box with the bleachers of crayons and the yellow sharpener included. He was also con­stantly writing stories. 

Aaron Zenz got his first pack of colored pencils in the fifth grade. He said usually people use colored pencil because the medium allows for a sketchy quality that lets the viewer see the grains of the paper. A young, self-taught artist, however, Zenz wanted to replicate the look of oil paints and pastels, so he “misused and abused” colored pencils. He said if he were smart, he would learn to paint, but he sticks with pencil, which means a blue sky might take him eight hours. 

In college, Zenz’s love for this medium set him apart. When everyone else used oils for their por­traits, Pro­fessor of Art Sam Knecht remembers giving Zenz per­mission to use pencils. 

“He did a stellar job,” Knecht said. “You see that love affair con­tinues in the work he has done for his books.” He said he con­siders Zenz one of his top studio stu­dents, ever. 

Zenz picked up the story in his pre­sen­tation: “Everyone was painting as I was scrib­bling away, it probably took me twice as long to do it.” 

“The Hic­copotamus” — in which a hippo asks various animal friends to help him get rid of his hor­rible case of the hiccups — was pub­lished in 2005, but developed from a class he took at Hillsdale on how to use picture books in the classroom. He pointed to the pages on the back wall: “I pounded out that dummy over the course of a weekend.”

Zenz not only had to engage an audience that ranged from new­borns to the elderly for his pre­sen­tation, but also had to com­mu­nicate with an audience dif­ferent from him as an illus­trator. 

For­tu­nately, he said, the things that give him joy and where his mind nat­u­rally rests is in the playful, char­acter-driven world of children’s stories: “My parents joke they can shop for my kids and me in the same aisle of the store: Muppets, Disney stuff, toys, and knick-knacks like that, those are the things that get me excited.” 

Zenz said he didn’t expe­rience the countless rejec­tions most first-time pub­lishers do because he sold his book to former coworkers who had just started a pub­lishing company that orig­i­nally made sticker and col­oring books, but wanted to break into higher-end picture books. 

The book even went through three printings within six months before the company dis­solved and he had to scramble for employment. So he got an art-rep and started working project to project while trying to search for full-time works. 

Even­tually, he decided to devote his time to illus­tration, and “is still living project to project and on the Lord’s pro­vi­sions” and enjoys “using the gifts God has given him to bring some­thing good into the world.”  

NASCAR was his first client, and the place where Zenz realized he couldn’t remember drawing a single car in his entire life. He said per­son­al­ities excite him, not cars, tanks, and air­craft car­riers (which he later drew, too). But, he took the gig: “It wasn’t because I was giddy about jets. Again, I was giddy about gro­ceries.” 

Zenz manages to get by, with projects coming at just the right moment. His kids take part, too. Elijah’s monster drawings that lit­tered the house, for example, inspired Mon­sters Go: a col­lection of fan art Zenz made from hun­dreds of monster drawings that children sub­mitted. It even came in second place for its cat­egory at the 2017 Art­Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Alison Mar­shall, 40, and AnnaKay Mar­shall, 9, from Jackson were at the exhibit. The mother and daughter are both artists. Mar­shall said she tries to encourage her daughter to draw because she didn’t pursue art until she was an adult out of fear. AnnaKay wants to be an artist when she grows up, so Zenz inspires her. 

Part of Zenz’s pro­fes­sional illus­tration career involves vis­iting schools and getting children excited about writing, drawing, and cre­ating. 

“From the beginning, you write on paper, you are a writer; you draw, you are an artist. Doctors and race car drivers are not like that,” he said. “It’s one of the few jobs in the world where no one is waiting. [The kids’] eyes get big, they look at the kids next to each other, they gasp. Teachers will come up to me later that day and say, ‘The kids don’t want to go out to recess, they want to do nothing but write and draw.’”

Alison Mar­shall described Zenz’s drawings as “almost Seuss-like.” Annakay, who loves drawing animals — par­tic­u­larly uni­corns, which are almost always pink — said her favorite part about Zenz’s drawings is that they are bright. 

The bright, imag­i­native world of cute animals, rhyming schemes, and thou­sands of colored pencils do echo his state of mind, Zenz said. He admitted: “It’s like the inside of my brain, that’s what it’s like.”