Life at The Walt Disney Studios: Mary Blair’s Contributions

Mary Blair’s illustrious career with The Walt Disney Company began during The Goodwill Tour of South America  (1941) where she sketched, painted, charcoaled, and watercolored the local people, places, animals, and daily life.  Many art historians proclaim that her work spoke the rhythm of South America and set the vibrant color rich tone of the two features Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.  In fact, due to the nature of the “quick” sketching needed to capture South American life in the moment, Mary Blair’s artwork began to take on a whimsical almost art deco voice.  This is the artistic voice that most Disney fans are familiar with when Mary Blair’s name is mentioned.

In fact, due to her vast amount of prodigious work, she was credited with art supervisor for Saludos Amigos, one of her many contributions that she would have with The Disney Company. (In fact, a few of her conceptual art sketches actually make their way on screen during this feature!) Over the years and films, Mary Blair would be accredited with color stylists, conceptual sketches for live action sets and costumes stylist, and background stylist. Saludos Amigos was the first of many films that Blair worked on, many of which have become part of the Disney classic movie cannon, and when watched have a distinct artistic “feel” to them.

Her other film credits include;

  • 1945 The Three Caballeros (Like Saludos Amigos, Mary Blair contributed much to the overall color and stylistic look of this film. She was key in choosing the bright and vibrant colors that are so indicative of South America)
  • 1946 Make Mine Music  (many of the title cards in these feature are Mary Blair’s handiwork. Once Upon a Wintertime segment is also an amazing example of her artwork come to life.  She also made multiple sketches that inspired the final look of The Legend of Johnny Appleseed)
  • 1946 Song of the South (It was Blair who come up with the color palette and set the tone of the backgrounds during the animated sequences. Walt called upon her classical watercolor technique. You can see her whimsical touch in the finished animation)
  • 1948 Melody Time (Johnnie Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet is a wonderful jaunt into the beautiful color combinations of Mary Blair. Her rich choices enhance this charming tale)
  • 1949 The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (It was Blair who helped set the mood for Ichabod’s fateful encounter with the Headless Horseman. Blair drew upon her water coloring background to create a moody yet visual rich environment for the final showdown.  Take another look, despite all the dark colors used during this sequence, it is not flat or boring, but electrifying to the eye)
  • 1949 So Dear to My Heart (Blair traveled to Indiana to surround herself in the country atmosphere.  She utilized American quilting patterns and folkart to inspire her work of the country landscapes)
  • 1950 Cinderella (If you have yet to see her conceptual artwork for this feature, do so now! Mary Blair is able to capture the juxtaposition of a cinder girl yearning for a better life perfectly by using color and a few choice scenic items in each painting These paintings are truly ones worth devouring with a critical eye)
  • 1951 Alice in Wonderland (her artwork for this feature is very prolific and one of my favorites. Her artwork was once featured over five years ago on throw pillows and  Le Sport Sac chose to feature her concept artwork on a line of handbags for their Japanese audience. Unfortunately, these handbags are all sold out and extremely difficult to find)
  • 1952 Shorts Susie the Little Blue Coupe and The Little House (Her artwork from these films inspired Eyvind Earle to work towards being a color stylist opposed to a background artist)
  • 1953 Peter Pan (This was Mary’s last animated film that she worked on for The Disney Company. Her artwork shows a strong sense of contrast between dark and light, illumination, and shadow. Her beautiful paintings also strongly resemble a collage more so than any previous)

For those of you who are interested in Mary Blair’s character artwork, color choices, and background concepts there are three absolutely incredible books currently on the market.  Each book tells the tale of Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland respectively but the accompanying illustrations are concept art by Mary Blair, some of which have never before been published. I strongly recommend adding these treasures to your Disney library as they are fine examples of why Mary Blair’s artwork continues to be prominent in today’s art work.