A stroke took the life of Edwin Aguilar on April 10, bringing a remarkable career to an untimely end. He was 46.
Aguilar embodied triumph against the odds in a stark way. Born in El Salvador’s San Miguel province in 1974, he fled the country in 1982 to avoid being drafted as a child soldier in the army. Growing up in East L.A., he dodged gang life to win scholarships to art schools. Intimidated by the test to join The Simpsons, he passed and went on to become a mainstay of the show.
In the 22 years he spent on the Fox show, Aguilar served in a wide range of roles, most notably character layout artist (1999–2021) and assistant director (2007–21). He also worked at Graz Entertainment, Hanna-Barbera, and Warner Bros. with Chuck Jones — an artist whose characters he’d idolized as a child in El Salvador.
Aguilar’s achievements, and his qualities as a friend and colleague, have been commemorated elsewhere (such as in this Los Angeles Times tribute). We’re focusing here on one of his parting gifts to animation: an online masterclass he gave to schoolchildren in Compton, California, which was uploaded to Youtube only a month before his death.
In it, Aguilar speaks about his hair-raising emigration to the U.S., and subsequent artistic education and career. He also gives his audience a drawing tutorial and shows a clip from an unproduced sitcom he created. Watch the whole masterclass below, or read on for five comments and tips that stood out from his talk …
Aguilar’s career was launched with the help of a high school teacher.
This teacher kept Aguilar’s work and submitted it to contests — without telling him. And he started winning. This is how he ended up getting a scholarship to study illustration and fine arts at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He went on to study animation (again on a scholarship) at Bridges Visual Institute in Santa Monica.
The Simpsons characters were very hard to draw.
When he took the test to join the show, Aguilar found it so difficult that he almost quit animation. By the end of his career, he had mastered the designs. He demonstrated to his audience how he’d build Homer’s and Bart’s bodies around the shape of an upside-down lightbulb; his starting point for Bart’s head was a soup or soda can.
Aguilar turned Family Guy down.
Fox’s second-biggest animated sitcom tried to poach Aguilar as a director. So did other shows. He said no to all. “I could literally draw [the Simpsons] characters with my eyes closed now,” he told his audience. “And I’ve worked at other shows — working on pilots and stuff like that — but The Simpsons is my home … Most of the people there, they’ve been there for forever, too.”
Drawing what’s around you is the key to becoming an animator.
Aguilar urged would-be artists to carry a sketchpad at all times. “If you’re sitting there, and you want to draw a lamp, draw a lamp,” he said. “If your mom is cooking, try to draw her cooking … Try to draw everything you see.” That constant practice is “the foundation of an artist.” Aguilar admitted that he himself didn’t sketch much anymore, as his spare time was taken up by developing new projects to pitch to studios.
When you’re frustrated with work, walk away.
Knowing when to take a break is essential for an artist. “When you walk away,” he said, “you give your brain a little break, and so when you come back, you see [your work] differently.”
Closing his masterclass, Aguilar observed that many animation artists keep their inner child alive, however old they get. He spoke of his passion for his work in terms that are all the more moving in light of his death. “I don’t want to retire,” he said. “I just want to keep on creating stuff.”