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.”