This week was Mary Blair’s birthday. She was born in 1911, so this would have been her 102nd one. I didn’t even realize until I saw a post on Facebook, and thought it would be a great time to talk about her. Because I always want to talk about her.
If you’re not aware of her work, or aren’t one of the 15,971 people on Facebook who have “liked” Mary Blair’s page, she was a phenomenal artists who worked for the Walt Disney company in the 1940s and 50s, working on films like THE THREE CABALLEROS, CINDERELLA, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PETER PAN.
Her style was ahead of its time, blending modern, bright color with simplified, graphic shapes. She also produced illustrations for children’s books, advertisements, set designs, and Disneyland attractions including It’s a Small World, which is the closest we’re going to get to living inside her head for a few minutes. Her work continues to look super fresh and contemporary even today.
I want to go to there.
I think I have wrote about her on here before at some point, but it’s always good to talk more and spread the Gospel of Blair. Everyone has that artist that became a huge influence in their life, and was a litmus for their work. A turning point. For me, that was her.
I can’t remember exactly the first time I saw her work. I think Durwin showed me her first, and it was love at first sight. Her work taught me so much about color and how to use seeming disparate color with great results. If you look at her paintings, she uses bizarre color choices, ones you wouldn’t think to put together. I was always timid about using color, often sticking to analogous or otherwise limited palettes because I couldn’t get the riotous riotous color I wanted to behave the way I wanted. It would always end up looking like a hot mess. Her color, the absolute fearlessness and joy with which it seemed to be approached with, inspired me to take chances. It also taught me the value of…well, value (no pun intended). Her colors only work because she had such a strong sense of value. They don’t fight with each other. It always has a clear sense of focus. It seems effortless, but in reality it shows what a master of color she was. I learned that she was highly influenced by the Fauvist movement, and I can definitely see that in her work. I still have a fairly extensive image morgue of her work that I turn to for inspiration when I’m stuck.
I had the absolute pleasure of visiting the Disney archives while with the Hartford Art School MFA program a few years ago and got to see her work up close and in person. I couldn’t believe how many pieces that I had admired, or works from series that I had loved, were just…there. Hanging on the walls. It was an amazing experience. I just wanted to absorb them into my skin, to take them home with me (but of course I could not, or risk Disney Jail. Worse than Real Jail). She inspired me to think about my work more cinematically – to set a stage and tell a story with color.
This nondescript building houses the most amazing things.
Mary Blair also had a phenomenal sense of shape. I love how simply she can describe a shape and have it just work, whether it’s a figure or a castle or anything else in between. Her characters come to life, in their extreme two-dimensionality, and jump off the page. They aren’t the best to literally animate, however, and I have read that the animators struggled with her designs on occasion. BUT, she could capture the essence of a character or a scene so well. It’s harder to be simple and effective; a lot more is forgiven or hidden with complexity. I think that’s one of the reasons her work resonates with so many people – it’s simple, straightforward, and has nothing to hide. It’s perfect.
This is a postcard from the Mary Blair exhibit in Japan, that I didn’t get to see in person (my super wonderful husband bought me the set). It sits on the corkboard right by my desk to serve as constant inspiration. We all need reminders of what to strive for in our work, and though I have many art heroes that I look up to, she’ll always be the biggest to me.