Mary Blair: Why she was 'Walt Disney's favorite artist'

Mary Blair, who received her own Google Doodle on Friday, greatly influenced early Disney animation. She's remembered today as one of Walt's favorites.
Mary Blair shaped the style and color of several early Disney movies. Today, Google remembers her with a Doodle.

Mary Blair played a big role in the early days of Disney. The painter and concept designer drove the style of "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Peter Pan." Many other artists worked on those films. But she had a special place in Walt Disney's heart.

Friday marks what would have been her 100th birthday. Google celebrated with a Google Doodle in the colorful and playful style that made her so essential to Disney.

When Ms. Blair received her own exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco a year ago, the curators introduced the show with some high praise: "The case is filled with treasures from Mary Blair who, according to some historians, was Walt Disney’s favorite artist!"

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, explains historian John Canemaker in his book "The Art and Flair of Mary Blair."

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.

"Her vibrant colors and stylized designs pervade Disney animated films from 1943 to 1953," writes Mr. Canemaker. "Beneath her deceptively simple style, lies enormous visual sophistication and craftsmanship in everything from color choices to composition."

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 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."

In fact, you can still see Blair's style shining through modern animated movies. Pixar producer Jonas Rivera says that Blair deeply influenced the design for 2009's "Up."

"We had a movie about a house that floats in the air with thousands of balloons on it," Rivera told the Memphis paper The Commercial Appeal. "So we decided we needed a certain amount of whimsy and caricature to support that. So Carl is three heads high, and he's very much a square, with square glasses. He sort of looks like a house, in a way. The caricatured look of this world -- we really want to push shape language, we really wanted to push the color palette, to be bolder. We were more inspired by the graphic design paintings of Mary Blair than by any photo references."

The team behind Disney's "Tangled" also named her as a key influence.

Like many of Google's past Doodles, this one honors someone whose work is remembered well, even if her name has slipped away. Past examples include E.C. Segar, Roger Hargreaves, and Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. (Can't remember what they did? Click on their names for a peek.)

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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