Be the Artist: The Fanciful Worlds of Don Bluth

Crosspost DIY Featured GeekMom

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

The Artist: Don Bluth

Don Bluth was born in El Paso, Texas in 1937, and later moved to Utah where he spent time doing both farm work and drawing. He even remembered riding a horse into town as child to see movies or buy comic books.

He was first hired by Walt Disney Studios in 1955, but left two years later to do other work. He returned in 1971, and became a full-time trainee, then eventually worked his way up to animation director. His Disney work includes projects like The Fox and the Hound, the original Pete’s Dragon and The Rescuers. Over time, for Disney and other studios, he worked as a layout artist, storyboard artist, inbetweener (creating the scenes “in-between” a character’s pivotal moments, character animator and more).

In 1979, at age 42, he resigned to form his own animation studio. In addition to his animation achievements, Bluth became a celebrated director He created 12 animated features such as Anastasia, An American Tale, All Dogs Go to Heaven and more, as well as bringing the old school animation look to video games in the 1980s with Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair.

Here’s a peek at his magical, character-driven style:

The nostalgic popularity and groundbreaking idea of Dragon’s Lair is still the subject of a large fan-base today, and not only has the game been featured in Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, it will be the subject of a Netflix project in the works starring Ryan Reynolds.

In 2004, he served as animation director for the Scissor Sisters’ 2004 music video “Mary”, because the group was inspired by his work on an animated sequence for the 1980 film Xanadu.

Today, at 84, Bluth has just released his autobiography, Somewhere Out There: My Illustrated Life. He offers his tutorials on animation available through his “Don Bluth University” on his official site, and has authored books on drawing and storyboard creation.

The man who still influences animators today, remembers very clearly in his own autobiography his own spark of inspiration…from a Walt Disney classic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“The hand-drawn animation’s vibrant colors…reached off the screen and into a secret part of my soul, attached itself, and reeled me in,” he writes. “…I didn’t know what I’d seen was called ‘animation’; I just liked what I saw, and one taste of it was not enough. I wanted more.”

The Project: Four Sketches of Your Favorite Worlds

Bluth and his creative partner Gary Goldman have been responsible for teaching more than 1,000 artists, many who have gone on to work in the animation world. Among the many technical tips he has offered, Bluth made sure young artists remember to start with drawing what they love, as he does in this piece from his tutorials:

This is simply what we are going to do with this project: draw what we love. Sketch a favorite live-action movie, series, music video or even a book whose worlds you know well in your head, and transform it into the over-the-top, fun and colorful Bluth-inspired world. Bluth’s style included characters with exaggerated features and expressions, and he emphasizes the use of straight and curved lines to keep characters more alive and interesting.

All you have to do is draw and color four pictures.

Using the look of Bluth’s animation, you will need to draw:

  1. Your protagonist (hero/heroine)
  2. Your villain(s)
  3. Animal or mythical creature featured in the story
  4. World image (building, natural environment, interior or exterior of a favorite location, or even a mode of transportation).

In some stories, these may overlap. If I were to try and draw an image for a book like Watership Down or Redwall, my heroes would also be animals. This is where you’ll have to think a little deeper into the story. If it is a world you love, that won’t be too hard.

I’m going to use my favorite horror/fantasy/comedy film, Army of Darkness, as an example because it just seems to be asking for the Don Bluth treatment.

So we don’t end up with a too large image, find a piece of drawing paper, either 8″ x 11″ or 11″ X 14″, and fold it in half both lengthwise and widthwise. Cut along the folds for four identical pieces of paper. If you have a small drawing pad of 5″ x 7″ paper, those will work, too.

For each picture, look at how Bluth works on the tutorial. Draw the basics lightly at first, so that you can erase what you don’t want. Be simple with your images. This doesn’t have to be a screen-worthy illustration.

Like any other simple drawing project, start with a light sketch, add the ink or more permanent outlines, then add color.

Draw over the image with more details and outlines (facial features, fur, feature or clothes textures, etc.). Always draw light enough to erase what you don’t like, until you get what you want on paper.

Go over each drawing with ink or marker to make the final image more permanent. This is a similar process to other artists we’ve looked at this season including Charles Schulz and Jackie Ormes.

Once all four images are done, find a piece of mat board or cardboard and place them together. Bluth was great at creating storyboards. Think of this as a preview for a story you want to tell.

Arrange your four images on construction paper, mat board or cardboard back ground, to bring the world together.

Finally, somewhere in the margins or center, write the title of the story. Depending on how much emphasis you want placed on the title, it can be an additional Bluth-style logo, or just simple text.

Maybe, if these four images inspire you enough, you could create a full storyboard for a favorite scene or chapter. You never have to stop creating, just because the project is complete. That’s the fun creating something based on your favorite things.

Remember what Bluth said in his tutorial clip:

“It’s very important that you please yourself when you draw,” he said. “You don’t want to draw something that you can’t connect with or you’re not passionate about.”

“Army of Darkness,” Bluth style. All images: Lisa Tate

Find that passion, and put it on paper, like Bluth did with so many of his wonderful characters.

Next week is this season’s final “Be the Artist” project, so make sure to go back and create any projects you missed…and make them your own.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekMom and GeekDad on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!