From the first time he smelled the aroma turpentine in an art school that he visited, Don fell in love with painting and drawing. Originally starting at Stanford University, he gave up the life of an engineer and enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute in 1923. Don started out in the beginning years of Chouinard as the janitor, “earning his keep” as he would say, and slept in the school’s bathtub to minimize his rent and later he instructed perspective in return for tuition. He was among the first graduating class of Chouinard.


He then went to New York to study and paint, and then onto New Orleans for a year and a half long life drawing teaching position at the New Orleans Art School. He continued to study and paint landscapes until 1930 when he returned to Los Angeles and was hired by Mrs. Chouinard as life drawing instructor for the next four years.


In 1932 during the formative years of the Disney studio he was commissioned by Walt Disney to instruct evening classes to improve the drawing abilities of his artists. He was sent on a country wide talent search and in 1934 was called upon to review and judge the portfolios of potential new Disney artists. In seven years he personally examined over 35,000 portfolios.


His education as a drawing teacher really began when trying to solve some of the problems inherent to this new animation, a new kind of drawing unique in the history of art. Thanks to the interest of Mr. Disney, Don spent the next ten years attempting to solve these problems in the analysis of action.


By 1941 war in Europe had seriously curtailed studio activity, and it became evident that the Disney school had served its purpose. Due to the events of Pearl Harbor, Don went to work as a production illustrator in the Tool Design department of Douglas Aircraft Company and then onto the Interstate Aircraft Company and assisted in the designing of the main retractable landing gear of an experimental Navy plane.


In the winter of 1942 Don was prevailed upon to conduct a one evening a week drawing class at Chouinard. In spite of gas rationing, blackouts and overtime, this class grew. The procedures in thinking and teaching that proved successful in the specialized animation industry proved workable to the professional artist no matter what his particular field.  At the end of the war he continued this approach to drawing and composition to a deluge of returning G.I.s. In 1947 Don moved to the Northwest with his family for a change from the strain of all the teaching but returned to Chouinard in 1949.


In 1950 Walt Disney engaged Don to investigate the possibilities of making films on various aspects of art. Dividing his time between Disney and Chouinard, his research intended as a film eventually ended up as a book, “The Art of Animation” (by Bob Thomas, Walt Disney Productions 1958) a major treatise on the development of animation in America as the new graphic art of our time.


Don also held a one evening a week drawing class for a short while at the Ray Patin Animation Studios and continued to teach drawing and composition classes until 1970 at Chouinard. He served there as the head of the Fine Arts Department, President of the Faculty Society, and Member and second Vice-President of the Board of Trustees of the Chouinard Art Institute.


After writing and compiling drawings for four years, his book on composition, “Composing Pictures, Still and Moving” was published in 1970 by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. Later in 1971 Don retired and moved back to the Northwest where he continued to enjoy drawing and painting as long as he could. He died in October of 1976 after struggling to recover from several strokes.


Some of his paintings and drawings were shown in a group retrospective of California artists in 2000 at the Claremont Gallery in Claremont, California. Another show of his works was held at a Cal Arts/Chouinard reunion in June of 2005.


Copyright (c) 2005 Donald H. Graham

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