He and I went to school together. An adolescent, non-verbal romance existed between us; we spent hours open-mouth kissing at house parties yet scarcely spoke two words to each other during school hours. Now – more than half a decade later – we meet again as adults. Our point of discussion is his work: his ever-growing success as a painter and a craftsman in a very modern society.
Oscar Mitchell is a Glaswegian freelance fashion illustrator. At the young age of twenty-three, he boasts a portfolio that was planted in Falmouth, sprouted in Melbourne and blossomed in New York City. With many exciting projects on the go, including transatlantic schemes on the horizon, his work fills a void for the digital era.
His illustrations, which have been published in Hunter Fashion Magazine and DOG Magazine, are an amalgamation of traditional illustration and the cutting-edge new. In many ways, the work is a synthesis of the hand-drawn stylistic tendencies of the twentieth century and the graphic dimensions of the twenty-first. The loosely outlined compositions have the simplicity yet effectiveness that can be seen in the work of René Gruau, whose illustrations dominated much of the mid-twentieth century’s fashion industry. Much like Gruau, Oscar often focuses on one item of clothing – a pattern or a texture to which the eye is drawn and from which the illustration ripples.
The quick sketchy quality is met, paradoxically, with a sense of detailed precision – acting as both a contradiction and confirmation of the two opposing characteristics. In the strange two-dimensional figures, there is a clear echo of respect, of homage to the illustrations of the past, all the while maintaining the authenticity and originality of the artist himself.
As he sits opposite me at the corner table of a Glasgow bar, one leg casually draped over the other, I forget to turn on the recorder as we begin to chatter away after years of silence.
We met at school in Glasgow’s West End. He had always had an eye for putting fabric onto paper: as a young boy he wanted to design football boots for Nike.
Now, in between illustration projects, he paints football fights to wind down. Well, who doesn’t? “There is something cinematic about seeing footballers fight each other on the screen.” Perhaps the colours of the strips and the interweaving bodies create patterns not dissimilar to those found on the garments of Oscar’s fashion pieces. Whatever it is, there is a strange, paradoxical similarity between flowing fashion figures and frenzied footballers. “You’ve got to break up the projects that you do with some other stuff, otherwise you’ll be painting the same things repeatedly.”
After high school, Oscar journeyed to Falmouth to study a diploma in art, eventually applying at the last minute to complete his degree there – a decision that felt right at the time, but one that, with hindsight, might have been a hinderance.
The course seemed bent on molding everyone into a commercial illustrator. “There were a lot of really talented people on the course,” he says. “But it was more about finding a market and slotting yourself into it, rather than discovering an individual style or rhythm.”
A lack of practical guidance created a distance between the student and his tutors, he explains. “They were helpful if I asked, but I hardly spoke to my tutors. We just didn’t click. This might have seemed arrogant, but I really didn’t mean it to.”
The foundations of his style were by this point laid down, but, with no clear direction in mind, Oscar settled down to complete his final project – a children’s literature illustration. The beginnings of his creative independence were becoming visible. The space created between student and teacher allowed for a certain degree of flexibility; unfettered, he was able to out-grow the confines of the classroom.
It occurs to me that what seems to him a mistake – the choice to stay in Falmouth – perhaps developed the thing that would ensure his future success: the ability to stray from the crowd, to develop his own panache instead of bending himself to someone else’s programme.
For Oscar, the real learning came after Art School. Travelling to New York post-graduation was the first step towards pursuing fashion illustration as a career, proving travel – that is, experience – is often more creatively lucrative than any arts degree.
The fast-paced city was crucial in forming Oscar’s loose, moving figures. Often, they were the result of an unsuspecting moment, captured crudely, and sometimes not-so-subtly, through the lens of his camera, where they stayed until paint touched paper. “I mean, New York is full of it. Whether it’s tiny little art galleries or little spaces with strange exhibitions or someone walking down the street who has a silly haircut, it can be anything. So stylish or so unstylish.” Often shown walking and in isolation, the illustrated figures seem to resonate a sort of loneliness, perhaps conveying the inevitable yet contradictory seclusion of life in a massively overcrowded city.
One project is called ‘NYFW’. It shows New Yorkers going about their daily business during the city’s most famous and fashionable week: “the drawings made them look like these luxuriously dressed people, when in reality, it might have just been someone waiting for a bus.” In a sense, this seems like subconscious idealism; the moment something becomes monumentalized through the act of documenting it. This spell in New York would inspire another of Oscar’s projects, one that he began many months later and many, many miles away: Looking Real Good. “It’s all about people in Melbourne who were terribly well-dressed. Dressed in stuff people would never term fashionable but that looked really good.”
We laugh at the irony: most clothes start from a fashion illustration, whereas Oscar’s work is taken from reality – someone is already wearing it – before he transports it back onto the page. In some ways, he is taking the garment back to its roots and creating a finished piece of art, rather than a preliminary sketch.
Indeed, fabric is both his Muse and his medium. Oscar is currently the sole designer for Tonic Youth, a Glasgow-based company that designs T-shirts with printed illustrations. The brainchild of Ruairidh Mason, Tonic Youth is a valuable outlet for Oscar’s creativity, allowing him to make drawings that are free from the sometimes-strict conditions of client work.
What continues to strike me about him is his sense of self-assurance coupled with a complete lack of arrogance – a rare combination. I ask whether he thinks one must be modest as a young person trying to make their mark on the art world. “A degree of modesty is important when starting out. You should be capable and confident without being pretentious and arrogant about it.”
He illustrates with an example of where he misjudged a situation, publicly releasing two similar projects for two different clients on the same day. “Neither party was very pleased. Neither of the projects went as far as they could have because I hadn’t managed it properly. I should have accepted then that I could have gotten a lot more out of one project than two if I had only handled it properly.” He laughs. “I definitely dropped the ball on that one.” It is this kind of honesty that is reflected in Oscar’s work. His paintings are not trying to be something they’re not. Every flaw is confessed and, because of this acknowledgement, his style thrives.
The upcoming work from Oscar Mitchell will be illustrations for New York clothing brand S. K. Manor Hill – a brand that takes its inspiration from vintage garments and silhouettes. Oscar explains that he doesn’t take every job that comes his way. “Neither the brand nor the artwork should be compromised. You’ve got to be able to admit when your illustrations just won’t fit. Luckily, with S. K. Manor Hill, it’ll work really well.”
The brand spotted Oscar’s work on Instagram. We discuss how the app, and social media more generally, can be both detrimental and useful. It’s certainly good for getting work seen across oceans, but it should stick to being about the art, he says. “I’ve caught myself creating stuff just for Instagram, which isn’t how it should be. It’s not about how many ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ you have; as long as you’re getting the work you’re succeeding.”
I pose my closing question: what would you say to someone who is in their first year of illustration at Art School? He turns away slightly, and pauses. “A tutor’s help is important, but in a creative subject, your thought process must come first, and it must be allowed to take place fully.”
I chime in, “guidance rather than direction, maybe?”
“Yeah, and you’ve got to have confidence in what you do. Otherwise, it will never come across as a finished project. Don’t get bogged down in things you would change in stuff you’ve done months ago – old work to you is new work to other people.”
I turn off the recording device and I thank him for his time. He walks away – back turned and head down shielding his face from the November rain – mimicking the silhouettes of his illustrations. As I walk home, I think about the last hour. For me, interviewing Oscar was like interviewing a distant memory. One thing’s for certain though: never has a memory had such a bright future.
See more of Oscar’s work at oscar-mitchell.format.com or on Insta @olmitchell.