Behind the scenes at Disney: Eric Carle Museum offers a retrospective on seminal illustrator Mary Blair

Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016

She might be the biggest name in animation you’ve never heard of.

Mary Blair was a key figure for the Walt Disney Co. in the 1940s and 1950s, an art director and designer whose eye for bold color and stylistic verve had a huge influence on the company’s successful animated musical films like “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella.” She also designed what became one of the enduring attractions at Disneyland, “It’s a Small World,” in the 1960s and was a favorite of Walt Disney himself.

In fact, Blair, who died in 1978, became one of the most important artistic figures at Disney at a time when few female artists could crack the “celluloid ceiling” of animation. Her influence was felt not just in animation but in the design of advertisements, theatrical sets, costumes and children’s books, observers say.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst is doing its part to bring Blair to a wider audience with a new exhibit devoted to her varied work. “Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair,” which features some 90 works of art — paintings, drawings, murals, collages and photos — runs through Feb. 21, 2016. The show is sponsored by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where it opened last year.

Ellen Keiter, the Carle’s chief curator, said Blair’s influence in animation can still be seen today, in part from a number of posthumous awards. She noted that Andrew Beall, a former animator for Pixar films such as “Up,” visited the Carle earlier this year for an event and said the “electric colors” of the opening sequence of “Up” were designed as an homage to Blair.

In fact, the director of “Up,” Pete Docter, a veteran of several other Pixar movies such as “Monsters, Inc.,” is big fan of Blair and has spoken publicly about her influence on his own work. In a 2003 book about Blair, Docter said that in every Pixar production he’s been involved with, “There’s a phase where we say, ‘Let’s look at Mary Blair’s stuff!’”

Blair, who was born in Oklahoma in 1911 and originally aspired to be a painter and illustrator, did not do animation herself. She turned out hundreds of watercolor paintings — studies or “visual developments” — and concept drawings that were used as templates by the actual animators for creating the overall look and style of numerous films, including “Saludos Amigos” (1942), “The Three Caballeros” (1945) and “Alice in Wonderland” (1951).

The high regard Walt Disney had for Blair can be seen in a number of ways, including two watercolors that are placed right at the beginning of the exhibit. The two works — one of a Peruvian girl, another of a Peruvian boy, both in colorful dress — were among the few Disney artworks that Walt Disney ever actually displayed at his Los Angeles home.

In addition, Blair was an early telecommuter of sorts: She lived in New York with her artist husband, Lee Blair, during part of her career at Disney, and as such was one of the few employees (and only woman, apparently) at that time who was allowed to work off-site. She mailed much of her work to the Disney studios and flew there regularly for meetings as well.

“She was definitely a favorite of Walt Disney,” Keiter said. “And she was able to use her success to go on to a whole other freelance career as this really wide-ranging and influential graphic artist.”

A unique style

The original showing of “Magic, Color, Flair” at the Walt Disney Family Museum included additional work that, because of space constraints at the Carle, is not part of the Amherst show. These include some of Blair’s original watercolor paintings from the 1930s, when she studied at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angele. At that time, she was painting landscapes and indoor domestic scenes, using a darker palette than she would later at Disney.

But she and her husband, despite their desire for careers in the fine arts, were forced to bow to the realities of the Great Depression, and both ended up working in Los Angeles animation studios by the late 1930s. It was while both were at Disney in 1941 that Blair’s career took a big turn, the point at which the Carle museum exhibit begins.

That year, Walt Disney invited Blair, her husband and a number of other Disney artists on a 10-week tour of South American countries, a trip sponsored by the U.S. government as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy designed to promote good will in the Americas and work against any spread of Nazism or fascism. For Mary Blair, the experience fostered a dramatic change in her art. The exhibit showcases numerous paintings and pencil sketches from her trip; the paintings all glow with vibrant colors and a mix of folk art and modernist images.

“She was professionally trained, and she was very steeped in the history of art and the art of her time,” Keiter said. “She drew on that and her own bold use of color to create this very original style ... a lot of what she did really compressed space, and it was very flat, with this modernist approach. That was new for Disney.”

Walt Disney gave Blair increasing responsibilities from that point on, and the exhibit features many of the studies — predominantly in watercolor, but also in gouache and pastel — Blair did in the ensuing decade. Her work reached a peak with movies like “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella,” two of the company’s most successful animated films.

One particularly evocative study she did for “Peter Pan” shows the character of Wendy stitching Peter Pan’s shadow back onto Peter, in a wide-open room; an accompanying catalog to the exhibit describes the scene as a good example of Blair’s “mastery of emotion, attained through her use of color and the organic, collage-like shapes of settings and characters that she placed within them.”

“The ‘Cinderella’ I knew and grew up with was Mary Blair’s,” said Keiter, who remembers seeing the Disney feature as a child. “I didn’t know her name at that point, but the images she created were so distinctive. And she seemed to have a great sense of what it was like to be a kid.”

The transition from Blair’s drawings to final animation was not seamless. The catalog describes the difficulty Disney animators sometimes had in translating Blair’s flat, stylized images to the “rounded, ‘illusion of life’ Disney style of believability that Walt and his audience expected.”

Yet her artistic stamp was undeniable, as one longtime Disney animator, Wilfred Jackson, recalled. Blair’s many ideas “influenced the way others of us, the story sketch artists, the layout men, the animators and background painters, made our drawings and paintings for the production,” he said.

Back to New York

Blair left Disney studios — on amicable terms — in 1953 to develop her freelance career in New York in graphic arts, which is also a focus of the Carle exhibit. Her work was all over the map: illustrations for magazine advertisements, greeting cards, designs for handkerchiefs and scarfs and women’s suits and dresses, and theatrical sets for holiday productions at Radio City Music Hall.

But she might be better known for the illustrations she did for a series of children’s books for very young readers, “Golden Books,” that were popular for years; two of the titles, “Baby’s House” and “I Can Fly,” are still in print today, Keiter says. Blair created memorable images of children with large heads and facial features that are both whimsical and modernist. The Carle exhibit includes examples of Blair’s finished work as well as some of her preliminary sketches.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Blair also developed a new line of work in murals and large-set collages, like the one she did for “It’s a Small World,” an amusement park ride first opened at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964 and later replicated at Disneyland in California and then Walt Disney World in Florida. The Amherst show includes models and other preliminary designs Blair did along these lines, as well as photos of her with her larger creations.

“We are so happy to have this exhibit because we think it will give people a good sense of just how extensive her work was,” Keiter said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair” will be on view through Feb. 21, 2016, at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. For information about the show and the museum, visit


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