“The Legend of Sleeping Bear” illustrator on painting his way through Michigan
Walk into the children’s section of pretty much any bookstore or library in Michigan and you’re likely to find Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen’s work staring back at you from the shelf. Even if you don’t know his name, you probably would recognize the cover to the first book he illustrated, The Legend of Sleeping Bear by Kathy-jo Wargin. There are puffy black bear shaped clouds floating over Sleeping Bear Dunes, all of it luminescent orange from a setting Lake Michigan sun.
The painter, known by friends and acquaintances as Nick, has now illustrated several books for Sleeping Bear Press. His latest work is out this year, Our Michigan! We Love the Seasons, celebrates all that makes Michigan uniquely beautiful throughout the year. The Dutch native moved to Michigan in the 1970s, and his work effortlessly captures Michigan’s splendor from dunes to birch forests, bridges to lighthouses.
From the Netherlands to Michigan
While van Frankenhuyzen was vacationing in Michigan in the 1970s, he saw a copy of the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine, which was put out by the state. Van Frankenhuyzen was employed at a Dutch advertising agency, but he said he knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do forever.
“When I saw that magazine, I knew that that's what I wanted. I wanted to be doing layout, photography, painting, dealing with the printers, doing everything for the magazine. That is what I had learned in art school,” van Frankenhuyzen said.
When van Frankenhuyzen asked for a job at the magazine, the editors said no. So, for the next eleven months, he sent them a postcard with a sample of some of his work every week. Finally, the editors sent him back a letter saying to come into their offices next time he was in the United States. It didn’t take long for van Frankenhuyzen to decide what to do next.
“I quit my job. Was back here in Michigan, walked into the building, got hired about six or seven hours later. So it worked out well,” van Frankenhuyzen said.
Chasing an illustration dream
When the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine stopped production, van Frankenhuyzen started to make a living as a painter. It was a challenging shift. He was excited when a friend offered him a chance to illustrate a children’s book about firefighters. Illustrating children’s books had always been a dream for van Frankenhuyzen, but he got frustrated when the publishers sent back extensive changes to the paintings he created. In the end, the publisher didn’t use his work. Van Frankenhuyzen said the process made him reconsider if this was a dream worth pursuing.
That was until Heather Hughes from Sleeping Bear Press saw van Frankenhuyzen’s work hanging up in his friend’s office. She reached out to ask van Frankenhuyzen to paint The Legend of Sleeping Bear, which went on to be the official State of Michigan Children’s Book. Van Frankenhuyzen thought his work would be scrutinized the same way it had been in other publishing houses. But this time was different.
“The book that they printed is exactly what I painted, and I even kind of laid it out because I had indicated where the text should go and they didn't change a thing,” van Frankenhuyzen recalled.
Van Frankenhuyzen’s painting style evolved throughout his career. He first used solid, dark colors like gray and brown in the majority of his work. He soon transitioned to using captivating, bright colors— which has become his distinguished style.
The colors in his first book, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, were inspired after talking to kids at a local bookstore about what caught their attention when they were looking for something to read. He said they seemed to like books with not too much text, lots of pictures, and bright colors.
“I thought I could do that. I didn’t even start out with a white canvas. I would turn it into almost pure orange and paint on top of that. You have to be gusty and I got there with this book.”
Being an analog artist in the digital age
In addition to his work as a painter, van Frankenhuyzen is also a photographer. He’s learned to use digital tools in that side of his work. But when it comes to painting, van Frankenhuyzen said he prefers to keep his creations in the physical realm.
“I like the process of taking paint, the basic colors, and coming up with any color and creating it into a painting that I want. It’s fun. It’s exciting.”
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This segment originally aired June 14, 2021.
This post was written by Stateside production assistants Catherine Nouhan and Chantell Phillips