If you’re new to the site, this site is all about the “Cartoon Modern” style of animation design, which was an art movement between the 1940s and 1960s. Mary Blair was one of the key figures of the movement. Please enjoy her work on this site, as well as work by lots of other amazing artists. If you’d like to learn more about “Cartooon Modern,” please pick up a copy of my book Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation, a beautifully illustrated coffeetable book published by Chronicle Books:
Let’s take a little break from paintings today to celebrate other aspects of Mary Blair’s talents. First, here are some Blair-designed handkerchiefs posted by our friend Dan Goodsell at the Mister Toast blog. And below is a never-before-published set of four 4″x4″ tiles designed, painted, glazed, and fired by Blair as a personal project. These tiles were submitted yesterday by a reader so it’s new to my eyes as well. The contributor prefers to remain anonymous, but I can assure you that he’s a terrific artist whose work we all know and love.
Yesterday, I got an email from Disney historian extraordinaire Jim Korkis, who currently works at the Disney Learning Center at Epcot in Walt Disney World. He shares this excerpt from an interview he did in 2000 with Joyce Carlson, who had worked with Mary Blair on the “It’s a Small World” ride. The entire interview can be read in WALT’S PEOPLE, vo. 1. Here are Joyce’s personal recollections of Blair:
Mary was very friendly and very artistic. She had a lot of glasses. She used to have a lot of different colored contact lenses as well. She used to wear green or blue or any color to go with the outfit she was wearing that day. I’d watch her put them in and I thought, “I wouldn’t want to wear those.” Maybe that affected her colors. Her colors were always bright. She used theatrical gels and cut them up and put them on top of her artwork. I had to match the colors she picked and that was a problem because those colors didn’t exist with the paints we had. I had to go and get some of the paints from the ink and paint department and mix them in with our paint and they didn’t always mix well. It was like painting with mud. When I worked with her on the mural in the Walt Disney World Contemporary Hotel, it was a little easier because the tile work wasn’t as bright like Small World but it was still tough. I would finally get what she wanted but it took time.
Mary painted very flat and it wasn’t very dimensional. We often had to cut pieces of Styrofoam for her and let her move them around. She wasn’t always happy how her artwork got translated to animation, but she was happy with the finished product of Small World, I think. Of course, other hands were involved as well. Mary would let us put our ideas together and she’d pick things we’d do and put them in the show. I created a cardboard giraffe for the Africa scene and Mary loved it and put it in. We’d always be changing characters and adding things.
And here is today’s Blair piece. I have no idea what it’s from. If any of you do, please let us know. There are a lot of artists today whose work is influenced by Mary Blair—and I do mean a lot of artists—but few are able to draw characters whose shapes are as dynamic and interesting to look at as the design of this frog. Blair understood how to incorporate daring asymmetrical shapes into her design without getting too wonky with the individual shapes or losing sight of the overall composition. Easier said than done.
Below is a never-before-published concept of the stepsisters from CINDERELLA (1950) with incredibly fun and inventive character shapes. Perhaps the design wasn’t appropriate for a traditional Disney feature like CINDERELLA but it’s too bad they couldn’t figure out a way to use these type of designs in the Disney shorts. This piece was actually in my book until a couple weeks ago when we realized that some of the sections had been sequenced wrong and I had to remove eight double-page spreads to bring the book back down to 200 pages. But that’s why there’s this blog.
I’ve been doing this blog for nearly four months now and no mention of Mary Blair (1911-1978). Well, that’s going to change. This week is going to be “Mary Blair Week” and I’ll be posting a piece of her artwork everyday for the entire week. There isn’t much Mary Blair in my book, but then again, there isn’t much Mary Blair in the Fifties Disney films either. Whereas artists like Tom Oreb and Eyvind Earle were able to get their work faithfully onto the screen, Blair’s work was usually relegated to being ‘inspirational’ and was too often interpreted (and watered down) by other artists. Her presence is strongly felt in some of the 1950s features, like ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but more often than not, Blair has a subdued presence in the Disney films. This is in no way a criticism of her work, but the realities of the Disney studio were that she really didn’t get the opportunity to control the look of a film in the way that production designers like Tom Oreb, Eyvind Earle and Walt Peregoy did. If you’re looking for more Blair, look no further than John Canemaker’s excellent book THE ART AND FLAIR OF MARY BLAIR which covers her life and work in depth.
This first Blair image is a concept for THE LITTLE HOUSE (1952) and actually appears on page 65 of Canemaker’s book. The colors are off in the printing of that book though, and I think you’ll agree that the piece gains a lot when shown with accurate colors.