forces of geek, Writing

Mary Blair, Walt Disney’s Modernist Ace In The Hole


“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.”
– John Canemaker, author The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (2003)


Walt Disney was a good at sketches, but by no means a great artist.

His inspirations came from realists like Norman Rockwell. What Walt Disney was was a great producer, the man with the vision and a discoverer of great talent.

So, why was Walt’s favorite on-staff artist someone who was neither a realist nor someone whose work went beyond the one-dimensional?

Short answer: She was awesome.

Mary Blair was one of the true artists amidst a boys’ club studio of animators and cartoonists, including her own husband, Lee Blair. In many ways, like with many great artists, Mary was even a bit ahead of her time in terms of style melding with the viewing public.

In her first few years as a Disney artist and part of Walt’s famous El Grupo of artists travelling South America in 1941, she heavily influenced The Three Caballeros and Saludos, Amigos. Her exaggerated perspectives and in-your-face colors were seen by the public as “experiemental” and too, well, new. The films received mixed reviews from both critics and an always critical general public. From the perspective of other artists, on the other hand, Mary’s influence and style were seen as inspiring and her color choices ground-breaking.

One of Mary Blair’s concept designs for The Three Caballeros

Within a few years, the influence of newer types of art began to permeate more and more aspects of contemporary life and, as such, Mary’s style became more appreciated.

Alice In Wonderland has Mary splashed all over it. No, she wasn’t murdered and her body run through the film reels as they were being printed. The overall design of Alice showed that Mary’s view of the world could, in fact, inhabit an entire world, one that Walt invited moviegoers to immerse themselves in, to toss aside an appreciation for realism (something Walt himself was doing) and to just enjoy the fun of what was Blair-inspired.

For both Peter Pan and Cinderella, Mary’s concept art helped set the stage for the vibrant color design of both films and her harder lines and skewed edges are definitely recognized in the animation design of Cinderella.

Mary left Disney studios to pursue a successful freelance career that included children’s books and successful ad campaigns. But, like Michael Corleone and “the family business”, Mary returned to Disney because they kept pulling her back in.

Actually, Walt personally recruited Mary to design an attraction he was putting together for the 1964 World’s Fair, a themed ride that would benefit UNICEF. The ride, titled It’s A Small World, is all Mary, all the Blair-iest time. It’s what would happen if Mary Blair had ingested 1000 pounds of steroids, set of an Atomic bomb and created a rip in the fabric of space.

Okay, that’s slightly (a tad, at best) an exaggeration, but for the first time ever, the public literally went inside a Mary Blair world.

It’s A Small World has been the source of lessened respect over the years, mostly due to its monotonous song and its canals of water filled with undiscovered and possibly deadly bacteria.

After being closed for renovation for 2008 (additional characters, exterior refurbishment and, as rumor has it, increasing the depth of the canals due to boats dragging along the “shallow” canals of old which totally had nothing to do with, ya know, obesity. Nope, not at Ice Cream and Turkey Leg Land, er, Disneyland), there was a bit of a withdrawal that happened for guests.

They realized that they needed that Mary Blair fix, they liked how they felt when they allowed themselves to be absorbed in Mary’s small world.

One article suggests the possibility that Mary was a synesthete, someone who experiences with different senses (ex: can “hear” colors or “taste” smells), that her constant desire to achieve an unending variety of each color was partially a neurological need to understand and interpret the world. If she was a synesthete, hell, even if she was an anti-Semite with occultist leanings and an NRA membership, who cares? Her art is amazing to look at, it’s fun, there’s a great sense of whimsy and innocence that other artists attempt to emulate.

Jonas Rivera, producer for Pixar’s UP, admitted in one interview that much of the film’s design was inspired by the concept paintings of Mary Blair.

The necessity for a Mary Blair style for UP is because here was a story about a floating house, 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.”

Pixar’s UP does Mary Blair

Mary Blair died in 1978, but is still being celebrated by artists, fans and the Disney company, who named her a Disney Legend in 1991 and continue to use her work for books, prints and pretty much anything else they need to look cool.