Saturday, August 6, 2016

Mary Blair: Everyone's Favorite Disney Concept Artist

Walt Disney has always been a leader in the animation world. From the first flickering images of his Laugh-o-Grams in the early 1920s to the creation of Micky Mouse in 1928 to the first full length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney has been a pioneer in this unique form of entertainment (Visit this site to read a fascinating article on "The Building of the Disney Studio" from a 1939 publication of Valley Progress).

Hurter working on Pinocchio

The first Concept Artist hired by Disney was Albert Hurter. He joined the team in 1931, at the age of 48. His job was as Disney's first inspirational sketch artist, where he would design characters for the animators to then bring to life, since his talent lay in his "ability lay in humorous exaggeration and the humanizing of inanimate objects." He was the "spark that kept others inspired" (They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age - The 1930s. Didier Ghez). Other "inspirational artists" were hired to work with Hurter, including Bill Peet who stayed on for several decades, but Hurter had the final say and was the one Walt Disney went to to draw and approve the concept art for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). During his decade working at Disney, until his death in 1942, Hurter worked on many of the Silly Symphonies as well as the feature-length Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and The Reluctant Dragon. Some of his sketches would be used many years later in Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp. To learn more about Hurter, there is an excellent post here. The book mentioned above is also a great source (linked below).

Sketch by Hurter

Mary Blair joined Disney in 1940, along with her husband, Lee Blair. Born Mary Browne Robinson in Oklahoma on the twenty-first of October, 1911, Mary and her family moved to San Jose. As they were poor, Mary had to work very hard to realize her dream as an artist. She earned a scholarship to the Chouinard School of Art (later the California School of Watercolor). It was there she met and married Lee Blair.

After graduation in 1933, the Depression was in full swing, meaning that a job as a fine art watercolorist was out of the question. She worked for a time as a barmaid and later got a job at Ub Iwerks Studio as a cell painter.

1940 found her working as a concept artist at the famous Walt Disney Studios, working on such films as Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), both part of the U.S. "Good Neighbor" policy with South America (click here to see tons of photos from Disney's trip to South America with his artists, including Blair). It was on this trip that Blair's art took on it's distinctive look that had previously been lacking and launched her as an artist worth having at Walt Disney Studios. Before she went, Blair’s style had been "sturdy, fluid, and earthy"—lots of browns and blues and grays, but...
...the artwork that she produced on the trip–stunning, colorful, occasionally geometric, graphic, and modern–speaks for itself. She observed everyday South American life (a woman with a baby on her back, carrying a small basket of chickens; the way huts and homes made fascinating jagged patterns when aligned next to each other) and turned it into something dynamic and evocative. She didn’t emphasize the culture’s otherness or try to glamorize its exoticism. Instead, she found the inner beauty present in each passing moment. “She went inside herself to find how it felt, more than how it looked, and brilliantly communicated her emotions through imagery,” Canemaker notes. Even if you’ve never been to South America, you can look at Blair’s illustrations from the period and get a real sense of what it is like (source).
World War II was raging at the time and like all of the movie studios in Hollywood, Disney too did it's part, releasing an extremely diverse range of films that otherwise might never have been made. It was during this time that Blair was able to experiment and hone in on her unique style and flair for colors.

She was the first artist I knew to have different shades of red next to each other.
~ Frank Thomas

In 1950, Cinderella was released. Blair's concept drawings for the film are  "jaw-dropping without being showy" and had a "delicate, almost greeting card fashion." And while the angular characters that appeared in her sketches didn't make it into the final film, the overall feel and colors remain.

Blair's style is definitely apparent in Alice in Wonderland (1951), Lewis Carroll's whimsical tale of a little girl that dreams up a "world of her own."
Blair’s brand of colorful whimsy, upside-down conceptualizations, and angular sense of geography was not only essential to the film’s lengthy pre-production phase but much of it (in a modified sense) actually wound up in the finished movie. In a way, it was a movie made up entirely of the abandoned dream sequences she had devised for Cinderella (source).

Peter Pan (1953), Blair's last feature-length film at Disney, also ended up looking different than the artists original sketches. However, her mark can still be seen:
... her style took on an almost collage-like aesthetic; bold, chunky, with deep shadows and high contrast. While less of her work made it into the finished film, it certainly informed the way the movie looked, particularly in its color schemes and use of lighting. Mermaid Lagoon, Skull Rock, the mischievous pixie that is Tinker Bell, these are all 100% Mary Blair (source).
In 1953, Blair left Disney Studios to pursue her own career. In the following years, she illustrated Golden Books as well as "scarves and dresses for Lord & Taylor, designs for Radio City Music Hall holiday spectaculars, paper sculptures for the Bonwit Teller strorefront windows on New York's 5th Avenue, television commercials for toothpaste and ice cream, illustrations for greeting cards, and advertisements for Nabisco, Johnson & Johnson and Maxwell House Coffee" (source).
Walt greatly missed Blair and made a promise to himself when it came to his next concept artist:

“For years I have been hiring artists like Mary Blair to design the styling of a feature, and by the time the picture is finished, there is hardly a trace of the original styling left,” Walt said. So he made a steadfast commitment: Sleeping Beauty, the studio’s first attempt at an animated fairy tale since Cinderella (this time utilizing 70mm film projection and an exaggerated widescreen frame), would really stick to Earle’s style. And it did.
Blair wasn't through at Disney though. In 1963, Walt called her back to have her design the famous It's a Small World display for the United Nations Children’s Fund pavilion, part of the 1964 World's Fair.
Sadly, after Walt's death in 1966, art opportunities for Blair also ended. She was told that her art, once cutting edge, was no longer modern enough. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26, 1978, at the age of 66.

My favorite Blair sketches: Cinderella & Peter Pan
Mary Blair may be gone, but her artwork lives on, in the films she helped design, in her books, and in her artistic contributions to Disneyland. I could spend hours looking at her sketches which, thanks to the internet, are available by just typing her name. There are also books celebrating her contribution to the animation world.
(Magic Color Flair insides video - slightly different from above book)




Sources (click on the underlined words in the post for bonus material):

     They Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney's Golden Age - The 1930s. Didier Ghez. 2015. Disney Enterprises.

     Animation Resources - Design: Two Disney Concept Artists

     Filmic Light - Albert Hurter - Walt Disney's First Inspirational Sketch Artist

     Animation Resources - Biography: Mary Blair

     Huffington Post - One of Disney's Most Influential Female Artists Finally Gets Her Due. 2014.

     A True Contemporary: The Life and Work of Mary Blair

     Magic of Mary Blair - Official Website

     The Walt Disney Family Museum: The Latin America Tour

     Modernist Cute: Mary Blair’s Art For ‘Dumbo,’ Golden Books, ‘It’s A Small World’

Additional Sources:

     Filmic Light - Albert Hurter "He Drew As He Pleased"

     Animation Resources - Mary Blair (links to scans of books)

     Sullivan Goss: Mary Blair

     The Woman Behind the Curtain: Mary Blair at the Walt Disney Family Museum

     California Watercolor: Mary Blair Biography

     Los Colores de Mary Blair video

     Disney Artist's Tryout Book - fascinating!

     Deja View: Dalmatian Art

     How Walt Disney Brought The Jungle Book to the Big Screen

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon focusing on the System (How movies are made) hosted by Movies Silently, the Films (the movies themselves) hosted by Silver Screenings, and the People (the folks who made the movies) hosted by Once Upon a Screen.
Day 1: The Studios & the Publicity Dept.
Day 2: The Production Code & the Magic of Animation
Day 3: The Groundbreakers & Before They Were Stars
Day 4: The Technical Dept. & the Wardrobe Dept.
Day 5: Movie Disasters & the Wonderful World of Color
Day 6: The Family Business & a Foreign Affair


  1. I love her style! She is amazing – no wonder her work is so celebrated. (Her artwork for the Baker's Hot Cocoa ad is adorable.)

    Thanks for including all those links in your post, and thank you for joining the blogathon. I was glad to know more about Mary Blair's career and influence. :)

    1. Thanks! It was fun learning more about her. I really hope to get a copy of all her books one day :)

  2. Mary is definitely my favorite Disney artist. I had actually never heard of Albert Hurter, though. This was a really fantastic post and the art you selected is truly some of her best. I really love how the art from the South American trip didn't focus on the "other" or exoticism. That was something I hadn't noticed before, but it's so true.

    No wonder that it's Mary that we love~

    1. I had never heard of Hurter either, but his sketches are beautiful. I could have easily included ALL of Blair's art I love it so much. I hadn't looked at her South American art much before I wrote this post, but it really is wonderful. I love all the photographs of the trip - looks like it was fun!

      Haha yes!!!

  3. Mary Blair's work touches my heart.

    When my young niece turned 4 a couple of years ago I gifted her with a collection of Little Golden Books illustrated by Mary Blair and gave the same collection to my 20-something daughter about to graduate with a Bachelor of Animation degree.

    1. What a lovely gift!! I made my sister a calendar on Shutterfly of Blair's art. The plus side - free art prints!! ;)

  4. Great post on Mary Blair. I love both her design work for Disney and her illustrations for children's books. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. What a great post! A really good research, I love Mary Blair artwork. Congratulations :)