Remembering E Michael Mitchell

E Michael Mitchell is one of the most influential drawing teachers I’ve ever had.

I just wanted to create this post about E Michael Mitchell to emphasize how important it is to have a mentor in your life no matter what you’re pursuing.

In the early stages of learning anything, having someone you can turn to for expert feedback, critical assessment, and just plain intuitive know-it-all is invaluable.

When you set out to be an artist, looking for a drawing teacher to guide you can be a challenge. Some of the most influential people in my life have been my drawing teachers. When I arrived at CalArts I had only ever had one influential drawing teacher. They really shaped my abilities to enable me to be ready for the Character Animation program at CalArts.

On the first day of classes at CalArts I met E Michael Mitchell. E Michael Mitchell was teaching a class called, Drawing from Real to Reel and Beyond. A hybrid of life drawing and production design for film production.

Essentially, it was a life drawing class disguised as a production design class. E Michael Mitchell would integrate a lot of different stimuli to observe while we drew. From partially costumed figure drawing models, a variety of props, and a projected film.

His influences aren’t so much in the visual style of my work, but more so in the business and approach to drawing.

The goal of the class was to incorporate all of these different visual elements into a theme. A theme explored through drawing large-scale storyboards meant to tell a loose story.

Mike’s career in Los Angeles was based around making these kinds of large-scale storyboards as a production design and concept artist. Working on a variety of animated films.

It’s this approach to drawing that helped me so much in my early days of finding work as an illustrator. Creating hundreds and thousands of storyboards with ease for clients. Turning myself into an asset on productions in the early phases of a project.

E Michael Mitchell and his mysterious past

The more and more time I spent with Mike the more I would learn about him. Things would come up in a conversation that would add a layer of mystery to him. From flying over Britain as a fighter pilot during WW2 to drawing the cover for Catcher In the Rye for his best friend, J.D. Salinger.

What mostly stood out from Mike was his drawings. On a level of being the closest thing to materializing his imagination onto paper. Effortlessly with just a handful of pencils and colored pastels. On a few occasions he would draw in class with us.

Specifically, I remember him opening a large drawing sketchbook tablet of 24″ x 36″ paper to reveal a vulture he was working on. One of many easy drawing ideas, all in pencil. However, the textures of the feathers contained a universe.

By no means were his drawings photorealistic. A crutch many artists and illustrators feel they have to master. No. All of Mike’s drawings contained an free and loose approach. As if his pencils were a wizards wand.

Here’s a video of E Michael Mitchell talking about concept art he made for Mike Ngyuen’s animated feature film.