Be the Artist: The Giant “Small World” of Mary Blair

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The 2022 Be the Artist series celebrates the art of “toons” and similar fun styles.

The Artist: Mary Blair

Back in 2015, groundbreaking artist Mary Blair was one of the first “Be the Artists” we celebrated, and this year’s theme is an excellent time to bring her back with a new project idea.

Blair is one of the Walt Disney Studio’s most beloved artists and is credited for bringing the modernist art style to the Disney family with her concept art for both film and theme park attractions.

Born Mary Robinson in Oklahoma in 1911, Blair attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles on a scholarship, due to her gift for painting. When she graduated during the Depression era, she had to find work. Instead of trying to make it as a fine artist, she took on her first job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Soon after, Blair and her husband, fellow animator Lee Everett Blair, went to work for the studio of animator Ub Iwerks. By 1940, she had joined the Walt Disney Company as a concept artist.

In addition to serving as art supervisor for the classics Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, she contributed her animation and concept art talents to some of the studio’s most famous animated films in the 1950s, including CinderellaPeter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland. She was also the driving force behind the look of the Disney Parks’ most famous attraction, “It’s a Small World.” One of her most famous pieces, a 90-foot-high mosaic mural created in 1971 for Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort, still greets visitors today.

From books to parade floats, Mary Blair’s invaluable contributions to Disney are still getting love.

In addition to her work with Disney, Blair illustrated several Little Golden Books, designed sets for Radio City Music Hall, and did freelance work for everyone from Hallmark to Nabisco.

Even after her death in 1978, she received several posthumous awards. This included the honor of being inducted into the Disney Legends group in 1991.

This year, Blair’s style and legacy received an illuminating new honor. A new float in her style from “It’s a Small World” was created for the return of the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland Park.

Her work was respected and loved by fellow Disney legends like animators Frank Thomas and Marc Davis. Davis even listed her work on the same level as Henri Matisse, and described her as bringing “modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did.”

The Project: It’s Your Small World, After All

Mary Blair contributed to several of Disney’s classic animate features, but her style and spirit really shine through when celebrating the cultures, the geography, and the children of the world with her work on the attraction “It’s a Small World.”

The last time we took on a Blair-inspired project, we created concept art for different shows in her style. For this project, we’ll look at something more personal to each individual artist: their own “small world.”

Seven years ago, Mary Blair was the focus of our Be the Artist, giving her style to newer shows. Images: Lisa Tate

We’re going to create a Blair-style painting in honor of your hometown (where you were born or where you live now). Everywhere you are, there is a unique culture, geography, history, and personality, no matter what corner of the world you live in.

Every community’s personality goes way beyond just ethnicity or geographic location, although those are important factors. Your “small world” has its own landmarks, public art, and architecture, and even inside jokes, that only locals will get. Bring that fun into your image, done in Blair’s imaginative style.

Blair was a master of watercolors, especially the opaque watercolor medium gouache, which made up many of her vivid paintings, but start with a simple drawing. Blair even said nearly all artwork begins with a drawing. It is “that artist’s fundamental tool.”

Start with a drawing, then add your color. Blair liked to use about 4 or 5 main colors for her paintings of building, and let the colors be the “edges” of the images. Very few dark outlines were ever used.

One of her defining factors was her innovative use of color. She would combine images and color in a way that would make even the simplest drawings come to life. Give your image that “Mary Blair flair.”

Use what you have for color. I used alcohol markers for my Blair-style “Missions and Star on the Mountain” since the paper I had didn’t work well with watercolors.

There are geometric patterns in some places and curvy, loose edges in others. There are bright colors for everyone and a sense of playfulness in her figures. The site Designing Disney has some great Small World images for inspiration.

Think of the mid-century style of painting. Use simple but bold expressions and backgrounds. Use watercolors, acrylic, craft paint, colored pencil, or another bright medium.

Facial features
Blair could show a lot of expression with a very simple, minimal face design.

If you’re feeling uninspired by your current surroundings, tap into the culture and history of your family, and create a painting based on where they came from that helped make you who you are today.

People love to joke about “It’s a Small World,” but it has a place in people’s hearts for a reason, the dedication and style of artists like Blair.

In celebration of Blair, the many unique “personalities” of the world, and in your own hometown, create something beautiful and new from something with which you are already very familiar.

Blair did with her style and eye for color, as she told writer Ross Care in a 1977 interview: “Walt said I knew about colors he had never heard of.”

“La Posada” at San Jacinto Plaza, celebrating Blair’s style by El Paso’s famous Los Lagartos sculpture. Image: Lisa Tate
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