By Brooke Kennedy
Bright colors, bold brush strokes, and one creative mind behind it all. While you might not know her by name, Mary Blair’s groundbreaking artistic touch can be felt in many of Disney’s early feature films.
Raised in Texas as Mary Browne Robinson, she would make her way to Los Angeles, California where she excelled in the arts at San Jose State University. During her college career, she earned a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute, where she continued to develop her skills before jumping into a career in animation. After her graduation from Chouinard in 1933, she married fellow artist Lee Blair and began her first job in animation at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Blair would later join her husband at Ub Iwerks’ studio before making her way to Disney. While reluctant to join at first, Blair took a chance and began her tenure at the company by working on art for Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, and a second version of Fantasia titled Baby Ballet.
In 1941, while on a three-month research tour with Walt and Lillian Disney in South America, Blair would paint the scenery of the Latin countries using her watercolors. Walt took a shine to her paintings, and appointed her the art supervisor for 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros.
According to D23, “Walt connected with Mary’s fresh, childlike art style. As Disney Imagineering artist Roland Crump once told animation historian John Canemaker, ‘The way she painted—in a lot of ways she was still a little girl. Walt was like that… You could see he could relate to children—she was the same way.’”
As Blair continued her work with the company, she designed concept art for several of Disney’s iconic animated features including Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Blair’s style took a more modern approach for each film’s aesthetic, creating works with colorful abstract shapes that were a feast to the eye.
In her concepts for Cinderella, Blair often used cool background tones to accentuate characters and motion. Her paintings for Cinderella’s ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ song sequence showcase a gleaming white carriage with yellow and pink detailing that make it stand out from everything else. Along with that she adds some gentle shadows to other objects and characters to give the viewer the impression that the carriage outshines everything else in the scene. Her visualization of the dress transformation also uses this technique to highlight the swirling sparkles of magic, the moon and stars, and Cinderella’s ball gown. The color story seen here and most of Blair’s other concept arts for the film remained largely unchanged for the final product, with only a few exceptions such as Cinderella’s elegant gown going from a gentle light pink to a shining silver.
For other films like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, a variety of colors were applied to create the playful whimsy of the far away lands we grew up wishing we could visit. The color schemes of scenes like the mad tea party or the bird’s eye view of Neverland give a sense of uniqueness to the land compared to its surroundings. Wonderland’s green bushes and multi-colored teacups contrast against the dreary darkness of the Tulgey Wood, and bring Alice into a world of her own. Her concept of the island of Neverland also depicts a shadowed Neverpeak to accentuate the ground, swirling purple cloud, and Tinker Bell followed by her trail of pixie dust. Just like with Cinderella, the aesthetic present in Blair’s work made its way into their respective films.
After her session at Disney, Mary Blair moved on to becoming a freelance designer, illustrating several Little Golden Books with her signature style including I Can Fly, which is still in print today. However, her work with Disney wasn’t done yet. Walt asked Mary for her assistance in designing a new attraction that would debut at the 1964-1965 New York World Fair titled “It’s a Small World.” After the fair’s closing, the ride moved to Disneyland, and would then go on to be recreated at Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. You can also find murals by Blair throughout the Disney parks and resorts. Her 90-foot-tall mural in the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort Hotel can still be seen by millions of visitors, and is her largest work ever created. After her death in 1978, Disney honored Blair by naming her a Disney Legend in 1991.
With an enduring style that many have dubbed the Mary Blair flair, it’s no wonder that people flock to RR Auction to own a piece from the Disney legend. Over the past several years we have offered more than 70 pieces of Mary Blair concept art, with more going up for sale in our June 2023 Fine Autographs and Artifacts auction. RR Auction’s COO Bobby Eaton discussed why animation artwork is so popular with art collectors with Animation Magazine.
“That’s the reason why people collect art, because it touches us in such a personal way,” he said.
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