Drawing Interest

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An old, clinker-built fishing boat rushes down a wave in a following sea with a following wind, somewhere along the northern New England coast. The helmsman in a red hat leans to the motion of the boat, working the wheel as the bow digs in; the passengers grip the cockpit coaming. There’s fishing gear on the foredeck: a harpoon, a barrel float, a tub of line. The portside hatch to the cuddy is closed, the boom hauled up. Everyone’s wearing a jacket; it looks cold and wet.

This 1950s magazine cover by James E. Mitchell is a dramatic image with lots of motion: green water and whitecaps, big clouds, the rigging straining and the palpable feeling of holding on. It was published at a time when magazines still put commissioned artworks on their covers. Soon, photography would dominate, but a host of talented illustrators still had their place back then.

Mitchell was one of the best. Working in oils and casein (a watery medium made with milk) from the late 1950s into the early 1970s, the New York native produced covers and wrote articles for a variety of publications. Boating topics were always a favorite. Mitchell’s illustrations and articles included “Hydrofoils: A Sketchbook for the Future,” “Motor Boating: History in the Making” and “Pirates of Guadeloupe.” He was also known for his sketchbook of the 1972 Southern Ocean Racing Conference around-the-world sail race.

Mitchell was also a respected marine artist. Born in New York City in 1926, he studied art at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and in Paris. In later years, he hosted one-man art shows in New York and Miami while serving on the board of directors of the American Society of Marine Artists, making him one of the few to successfully
straddle the line between illustrator and artist. Mitchell’s work is still sought after today, and can be seen at the Submarine Force Library & Museum in New London, Connecticut; the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York; and The Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.