Friday, August 17, 2012

Where Did You Go, Michael Mitchell?

Back in the late 1990s I stumbled upon a stack of old Maclean's magazines at a used bookstore in Toronto. They were a bargain at a dollar a piece, so I snapped them up. I was intrigued by the artwork in them... big double page spreads by illustrators I'd never heard of, including this one by Michael Mitchell.


What an interesting, energetic style - I could hardly believe someone had been creating work like this in 1952.


Since Maclean's is a Canadian magazine, I assumed Mitchell was a Canadian illustrator (I didn't know back then that Canadian publishers often bought second rights to U.S. illustrations). By chance one day I spotted his name in an ad for an art rep in the 1952 New York AD Annual. Mitchell was surely American - and an illustrator who kept some very prestigious company! Just look at some of the other artists James Monroe Perkins repped in the early '50s:


The next time I encountered a piece by Mitchell it was in a 1952 issue of a stack of vintage Woman's Day magazines I'd just acquired.


Mitchell's style was enough of a departure from the literal realism so typical of '50s that again, I was impressed he was doing such avante-garde looking work (and getting published).


That stack of Woman's Day mags yielded just one other piece by Michael Mitchell.


By now I was really in love with his style and kept hoping I'd find more examples... but in all the hundreds of magazines from the '50s and '60s that I've collected over the last few years, I never found another piece by Mitchell - nor did I find any biographical info. For the time being, the door on this artist's story remained closed.


Until today - when I decided to do a little more sleuthing around the Internet. It turns out that Michael Mitchell was better known as "E. Michael Mitchell" - and he is responsible for one of the most iconic book covers of the 20th century.


While I wasn't successful in finding a detailed biography, I was able to determine that Mitchell actually did begin his career in Canada, then moved to New York, did illustration, then went into film as a production designer and spent much of his career working in animation. Eventually he became an instructor at CalArts. Mitchell passed away in September 2009. He was 89 years old. From the blogs of his students and fellow faculty, it's clear he was revered as an artist, instructor and as a person and will be greatly missed by those who knew him. I even found this short video on youtube featuring Mitchell and some of his production art:


  1. I had Mike Mitchell as an instructor at CalArts for two years before he passed away. He was a teacher in Character Animation program and he taught life drawing. He was a very encouraging and lovable guy - he left behind a legacy of artists that expanded their worldview while under him.

  2. Great sleuthing and a wonderful story, Leif!

  3. I really want to know his Canadian background. I was always struck by how similar his work was to Oscar Cahén's - it's hard to tell who came first.

  4. Jaleen; in another video interview on youtube ( just search his name) Mitchell very briefly mentions his Canadian roots and that there wasn't enough work here for him as an illustrator, so he did graphic design - then high-tailed it to New York. Unfortunately he doesn't mention specific dates. So far all I've found by him is from '52, which is odd... there must be earlier and later examples... maybe the early editions of the Toronto Art Directors Annuals contain some reference to him.

  5. Roger Reed2:03 AM

    My father remembers Mike being at Famous Artists School in the early days, and being instrumental in doing great drawings for one of the course revisions, but I couldn't get Walt to pinpoint the time period. I have a "Meet your Instructor" bio sheet on Mitchell (ca. 1964, I'm guessing), which shows some great drawings, fleshes out a lot of what you've outlined (mags he worked for), and contradicts other parts— says he "gave up commercial art" in 1950. I found his work in Lithopinion, ca. 1970. Too bad he's gone; he would have been a wealth of information!

  6. Great post - really like Mitchell's work - thanks for sharing.

  7. great energetic style indeed. fun stuff. wonder what kind of man he was - extravert or just a jazzy mind? thanks for sharing.

  8. EMM was my mentor for almost a decade. I have some original work of his. Let me know if you want to see them and I can send you some hi res scans. Thanks for this. Artist should know his work.

  9. Anonymous8:28 PM

    I was able to pick Mike's brain for a couple years at CalArts in the late 90's and yes he was awesome. If legend is correct he was even one of David Hockney's drawing instructors at the Royal Academy.
    Thanks for sharing!!

  10. Wonderful discovery!

  11. Of course... I find this all a little surreal... as my name is also Michael Mitchell,...and I draw comic books.

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  13. Anonymous4:21 PM

    Yep, That's a video of the film "my Little World" written and directed by Mike Nguyen , a close friend of mine and a fellow Cal Art student who eventually became a character animation teacher there. I remember seeing some of Michael Mitchell original production work at July Films. Beautiful art! Thanks for the video.

  14. Mike was a mentor of mine while I was at Cal Arts. I also have a bunch of his original drawings. Let me know if you want to see them.

    Also, Linda Dorn has a great post about her experiences with Mike:

    Very nice article!


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