Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Color Icons" Mary Blair

Last week I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum located in The Presidio of San Francisco. The personal evolution of Walt Disney and the Disney Studios is chronicled in amazingly creative interactive displays. I was delighted to discover the sophisticated color work of one of his key collaborators, Mary Blair.

Image: The Colors of Mary Blair, Walt Disney Animation Research Library Collection

Mary Blair was born into a poor family in Oklahoma in 1911, moving first to Texas and then west to San Jose, California when she was 7. Blair's artistic skills were evident at a very early age. Her mother supported the family by sewing for the neighbors as well as for the local churches. With remnants, clothes were fashioned for Blair that according to biographers were both colorful and stylish.

Image: Cartoon Modern –

Blair won an art scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles . She graduated at the height of the Depression in 1933. The economic climate forced her to abandon her dream of a fine arts career. She took a job in the animation unit at MGM Studios. She married an artist and continued to develop her color eye. Blair started using her fine arts training to inform her work in animation.

In 1940, Disney recruited Blair where she worked under the title of color stylist and designer for 30 years. Her collaborators described her exciting use of color on a par with Matisse. She painted color compositions using complex tertiary hues. She would place two different chromatic intensities of color next to one another which was revolutionary for animation at that time.

Image: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, John Canemaker – Disney Editions

Her inventive palettes of muddy colors with pure colors created a visual tension that heightened the sense of drama. Her Peter Pan and Cinderella colorations shaped the future of Disney animated features.

Image: Cartoon Modern –

Disney asked her to create the character design of It’s a Small World, for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

Image: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, John Canemaker – Disney Editions

After she left Disney, she continued to apply her original and distinctive color skills to free lance mural design, graphic design and the illustration of children’s books.

To give you an insight into Blair’s character, here are two excerpts I found.

Joyce Carson who worked with Mary Blair was interviewed by Disney Historian Jim Korkis.

“Mary sewed and designed her own distinctively stylish, color coordinated clothes. She had lots of glasses and a lot of different colored contact lenses as well. She used to coordinate her eyewear to go with the outfit she was wearing that day."

John Canemaker, tenured professor and director of the film animation program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, authored The Flair of Mary Blair. “Blair juggled her family and creative life. She postponed starting a family until she was thirty six. Even after the birth of her second child three and a half years later, Mrs. Blair continued create dazzling color compositions.”

Image: Cartoon Modern –

Blair died in 1978. She was the very first woman to be honored as a Disney Legend. I would like to think she will be remembered for her prolific and joyful creativity, her exuberant color palette, and her pioneering spirit as a woman in the arts.

Image: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, John Canemaker – Disney Editions

The Colors of Mary Blair

Walt Disney Animation Research Library Collection

The Art and Flair of Mary Blair

John Canemaker – Disney Editions

Cartoon Modern –

Disney Legends –


  1. I heard this museum opened in SF but have yet to visit. Was down at Disneyland recently though and I always wonder about the people who created this colorful, iconic images. Mary was truly a pioneer and I really enjoyed looking at the artwork you posted!

  2. Thanks for the introduction to Mary Blair. What an amazing woman! I can't wait to check out the museum - been on my list of places to visit since it opened. Can't wait to explore all those Disney colors. The artists were truly of another world. (If you're interested, I did a little post awhile back on John Hench, another long-time Disney artisit, and how he used color: )

  3. John Canemaker, tenured professor and director of the film animation program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, authored The ...

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