Mary Blair Walt Disney’s favorite artist

Mary Blair, born Mary Browne Robinson on October 21, 1911 came from humble, poor beginnings. She was born in McAlester Oklahoma along with her fraternal twin sister Augusta, and additional sister to a low income family complicated by an alcoholic father. At the age of 7, the Robinson family moved to Morgan Hill California near San Jose. Even at a young age Mary Robinson knew with a sure minded passion that she wanted to study art, more specifically she wanted to become an illustrator. She began to take art lessons and entering art competitions, which she often won thus increasing her professional sure mindedness.
Mary Robinson Blair trained at the Chouinard Art Institute of Los Angeles during the Depression, and, with her husband Lee, was a member of the important California regionalist school of watercolor of the 1930s. Beneath her deceptively simple style, lies enormous visual sophistication and craftsmanship in everything from color choices to composition.
Husband Lee Blair, himself a water colorist, was a very important influence on Mary's work. During her time at Chouinard, she became intrigued about fine art and like her husband took a keen interest in watercolors. At this point in time, Mary's work was not indicative of what Disney fans think of as “Mary Blair artwork”. She utilized watercolors almost exclusively, the colors were more saturated opposed to vivid, and there was more fine detail in her work. However, her watercolors still had a strong element of story- telling, the white of the page was used in the layer of the painting opposed to just a background, and the quintessential Mary Blair eye for attractive and engaging color could be seen. It can be said that during this time, Mary Blair's artwork felt more serious, moody, and in some ways foreboding.
Mary Blair worked as a sketch artist on multiple projects already in process. Although she was able to experiment artistically, Mary Blair quickly became bored and frustrated with the work. There were many reasons for her frustration. One reason stemmed from the fact that she continuously joined projects already past the planning stages and into concept production. Unlike her free spirited watercolors, she was forced to paint a preconceived creative notion opposed to being an actual part of the initial designs and ideas. Furthermore, she was not her own boss and worked under multiple veteran Disney artists. Due to this, her work did not look like that of one artist with a firm creative voice, but that of various artists.
Disenchanted, Mary Blair resigned in June 1941 to return home and work on her water colors while her husband continued employment with the company. However, despite her short time at the studios, her beautifully moody sketches resonated with Walt Disney and he soon handpicked Mary Blair to be one of the artists to accompany him on his Goodwill South American tour. Mary Blair jumped at the opportunity for travel and just three months after her resignation was rehired by the Walt Disney Company on August 11, 1941.
The Goodwill South American tour was quite fortuitous for Mary Blair and played a pivotal point in her future as an artist. It was on this trip that Mary Blair's artwork flourished with the vibrant colors of her tropical surroundings and unexpected, thought provoking color combinations. Mary Blair utilized her watercolors but also reached for charcoals, gouache, and black backgrounds which further enriched her works with layers of bright colors. For many Disney fans familiar with Mary's work, it can be said that during this fruitful period, her true artistic voice began to resonate.
For the first time, Mary Blair found her place within the Walt Disney organization and worked on a film from the very beginning, and was her own artistic boss. The very things she longed for during her first employ.
Though much of her art veers away from naturalism toward abstraction, she was still one of Walt Disney’s favorite artists; he personally responded to her use of color, naïve graphics, and the storytelling aspect in her pictures, especially the underlying emotions palpable in much of her art.

What was it that Mr. Disney appreciated so much? Well, when he set out to create an animation studio, his inspiration came from realists. He liked Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton and Gustaf Tenneggren, Blair was definitely not a realist. She embraced bold colors, abstracted shapes, and embellished characters. She was Disney's modernist – the company's flair of eccentricity.

Disney had a stable of amazing artists, "but where Mary Blair was unique was that the work that she did here at the studio was not only beautiful work, what she did went beyond the project into a pure art form," says Michael Giaimo, art director on Disney's "Pocahontas," in an interview with the L.A. Times last week. "It became art. It became a statement unto itself."
"Her vibrant colors and stylized designs pervade Disney animated films from 1943 to 1953," "Beneath her deceptively simple style, lies enormous visual sophistication and craftsmanship in everything from color choices to composition."

Mary Blair's work on Alice and Wonderland is what gave the film its iconic colorful look, above is the girl who played Alice for Disney inspiration, admiring Mary's work

"Her most distinctive factor is that she is kind of showing us her soul," Mr. Giaimo added. "It is not just slick commercial art, it is the combination of commercial and the personal in the artistic sense. She puts herself into her art work and it transcends the greatest of the Disney movies."

Mary Blair keeps inspiring today, her works influenced both Pixar's UP and Disney's Tangled. Her art can teach everyone the beauty and wonder that can be found in the world around us.

Credits:

Disney

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