April 4, 2021 | 4:55pm EDT
Mary Blair’s Disney Animation concept art coaxes color to the apex of its capabilities. The influence of her paintings sparked to brilliance the classic Disney features we know and love. She is undaunted by boldness, by brightness, or by marrying together colors that, while they seem like they should clash and compete, end up complimenting each other.
Mary Blair joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1940s, beginning in the character-model department. Her extraordinary talent was soon recognized, and she was moved to the story department where she created the concept art for many of what are known as Disney’s ‘Silver Age’ or ‘Restoration Age’ animated films. The animation and color scheme in Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953) are teeming with elements of Blair’s artwork. It’s no wonder that she quickly gained the approbation of Walt Disney himself, and became one of his most prized members of the story department.
For Cinderella, Mary Blair’s concept art is what brought the rich, midnight blues of the ball scene into the movie; it’s what made the singing flowers in Alice in Wonderland so bright and whimsical; it’s what shaped the tropical beauty of the mermaid lagoon in Peter Pan. One can see from her work that Blair was not aiming to tame color, but rather drive it to its furthest potential. And her innovative work with Disney is not just limited to the aforementioned films. Blair played a crucial role in developing many of Disney’s animated shorts, as well as the feature The Three Caballeros, the concept art of which was inspired by her travels through South America with Walt Disney and other Disney Animation Studios artists.
Being a favorite of Walt’s, Mary Blair was the source of much jealousy from the men she worked with. While there were other women working in the story department at the time, Blair’s presence was especially threatening to them. Her success even sparked antipathy in her husband, Lee Blair, who worked in the animation department, and by whom Mary would later suffer domestic abuse.
Mary Blair, Concept art for the Walt Disney animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” c. 1950, gouache on board. (Photo Courtesy of the Hilbert Museum)
The struggles she was facing in her personal life led Mary Blair to resign from Walt Disney Animation Studios, but that wasn’t the end of her career with Walt Disney. As Walt developed his theme parks, he was able to persuade Blair to return to assist with certain projects, most notably the It’s a Small World attraction that debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and eventually became a classic ride at both Disneyland and Disney World. Her concept art for the attraction demonstrates that Blair never lost her penchant for playing with color. The entire It’s a Small World ride is a marvelous journey of bright, joyful hues, from the blue, gold, and white exterior of the ride to the rainbow of scenes inside. Blair later went on to develop several murals for Walt’s parks, including her large work “Mural,” which is now displayed inside Disney World’s Contemporary Resort.
“Walt said I knew about colors he had never heard of!” Mary Blair once said in a letter. There’s no doubt that she saw something that those around her didn’t see. Surrounded by people working on movies for children, Blair seemed the most in touch with children's awe and whimsy, their ability to see beauty in the unconventional. She knew that color was the key to unlocking the magic within each story.
Brooks, Katherine. "One of Disney's Most Influential Female Artists Finally Gets Her Due." Huffpost, Buzzfeed, 22 Mar. 2014, www.huffpost.com/entry/the-world-of-mary-blair_n_5003658.
Hayward, Carrie. "MAGIC, COLOR, FLAIR: The World of Mary Blair - Photo Tour!" Disney Travel Babble, 17 June 2014, disneytravelbabble.com/blog/2014/06/17/magic-color-flair-mary-blair/.
Holt, Nathalia. The Queens of Animation. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2019.