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Artist Journey: Maike Plenzke

last updated 23 July 2019


Berlin-based illustrator Maike Plenzke was fascinated by books and comics from an early age, dreaming of conveying the emotions she got while reading as a kid through her own art. Since joining Bright in 2017, Maike has taken the illustration world by storm! A shining star in the realm of middle grade book covers, Maike’s art now inspires a new generation of readers to pick up a story and fall in love with it. We caught up with Maike about what inspired her to become an illustrator and her unique creative process behind bringing a book cover to life.

Did you know you wanted to be an illustrator from an early age? Where did your journey as an artist begin?

As a child, I always loved reading and often went to our local library to get a big stack of books and comics that I would basically devour in the following week. Getting lost in the worlds these books created was one of my favorite pastimes. As I got older, I became more interested in Japanese comics, which are what inspired me to try and get better at drawing. I wanted to be able to convey the same emotional feeling in my images that I got while reading. When I was young, I didn’t really know you could be an illustrator as a profession, but I knew that I loved drawing! During high school, I attended a youth center to participate in a drawing course and there I met another girl, Hannah. It was then that I learned we actually have a school for illustration in Germany, so we both applied together and got accepted! During my last semester in art school, American Girl Magazine contacted me to ask if I would like to illustrate an article in their winter holiday issue. I was so excited because I hadn’t done any promotion yet and the email arrived totally out of the blue. That was my first job as an illustrator, and I’m so grateful that they took a chance on me! It opened doors that I didn’t imagine would be possible as a shy girl in her twenties.


Personal illustrations by Maike

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it plays such an important role in representing a story and catching the eye of a reader! What is it like to see your art as the first impression for recent middle grade titles such as Twinchantment and Maybe a Mermaid?

It’s such a fantastic feeling! I’m always amazed that I ended up illustrating the covers for such great books that I would have loved to get from my library as a child! There are so many wonderful stories being published these days, and I’m so glad I can be part of the process of inspiring young readers to pick a book up and fall in love with it.


Cover evolution of MAKING A MERMAID. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

From manuscript to final artwork, can you walk us through the creative process and unique challenges behind bringing a book cover to life? Do you always read a book start to finish before diving into the artwork?

Yes! Isn’t that the best part? Middle grade books are usually not too long, so I can easily read them in a day or two. However, reading a book as an illustrator differs a bit from the normal reading experience. I need to be extra aware of every detail, as it might be useful for sparking fun ideas later on. This means I cannot completely lose myself in the story as I usually would when I read a book for my own pleasure. After I have read the manuscript, I identify the themes and visuals from the book that would be important to convey on the cover, and then I start sketching ideas. The initial sketches are so rough that nobody would be able to understand what they represent, so I then go into Photoshop and start sketching a bit cleaner to see if my tiny ideas would actually work. I usually end up with 3-5 variations. Middle grade covers are often a display of an important scene from the book, but I also try to include sketches that are more conceptual.


Early FRONT DESK cover variations

I always plan my covers with a title placeholdertype that I draw in, because the title of the book is another visual element that decides if the composition will ultimately work in the end. Occasionally, the art director will decided to use the type on the final cover. Once the sketches are approved, I paint a rough colorsketch and then start on the final image.


FRONT DESK cover progression from sketch to final artwork. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Your book covers are beautifully intricate and colorful. Do you have a method when settling on a particular color palette for a project?

I wish I had one, but no. Colors for me are very subjective and trying to find the right one is often a very spontaneous decision and one of the hardest parts of the process! If the book is part of a series, I usually choose a certain color as a theme for each book, like for the Ottilie covers, blue-violet for the first, green for the second, red for the third. For stand-alone books, the color choices usually stem from an emotion that the book conveys. For example, Front Desk had some sad themes, but the overall feeling for me was still hopeful and joyful, so I decided to use mostly happy and warm colors.


Final OTTILIE COLTER cover art for books 1-2. Published by Hardie Grant Publishing

When you’re not working on a book cover, what other types of creative projects do you enjoy?

Middle grade book covers are great because they contain so many diverse themes, characters, and worlds. Since the schedules are rather short, I’m able to work on many different projects throughout the year that challenge me creatively every time. Aside from covers, I also have a lot of fun illustrating picture books or magazine articles such as American Girl. I also enjoy sewing in my free time!


Maike’s personal illustrations

You are a self-proclaimed proud plant mom! What does your workspace look like nowadays, and how many plants could we expect to find?

Plants just make me very happy when i feel down, so having them around me is such a mood booster. I think I inherited my love of plants from my late grandma. She always took me on bike rides in the countryside and taught me how to identify the trees and plants around us. I have at least 25 indoor plants and a few flowers on my balcony. I’m trying not to buy any new ones at the moment, because I want to keep them manageable and every plant happy and healthy, but last month I caved and got my first carnivorous plant.


Maike’s home studio and plant collection

It sounds like you find inspiration in nature! What else inspires you when working through a big project?

You’re right! Nature plays such a big part in my inspiration. Whenever I need a new idea, I just go on a long walk with my dog, Elmo, in the nearby forest. Usually a project is inspiration enough, but I also like to do things that don’t have anything to do with drawing. Sports like bouldering and longboarding are meditative and relaxing for me. They clear my mind and give me new ideas. And of course movies, music, videogames and photography are very inspiring as well. They spark all these emotion that I immediately want to translate into lines and colors.


Maike’s dog, Elmo

How has your career as an artist developed since joining Bright, and what exciting projects lie ahead?

I have gotten so many more projects than before thanks to Bright’s agents! It is such a wonderful feeling to have somebody I can turn to for advice and help when I need it in my professional life. At the moment, I’m finishing up some secret book projects and have a few cover sequels lined up for book series that I did last year!


View Maike’s full portfolio here

To work with Maike, contact her agent, James Burns, here

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