"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Closer Look at Background Paintings

Ending credits for The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
In my published essay on layout and background artist, Richmond "Dick" Kelsey (1905-1987), in Volume 14 of Walt's People (2014), I go into detail about Kelsey's approach to background paintings, but without the support of visuals.  This blog allows me to do so, and for this occasion, I have chosen specific backgrounds of Injun Joe's cave that Kelsey did for Hanna-Barbera's The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1968-1969).

Ron Dias (1937-2013) was instrumental in helping me dissect his mentor Kelsey's approach to backgrounds and illustrations in children's books.  The background art images shared here were stored away in Ron's garage for years, and thanks to his partner, Howard, they were rescued and copies were sent to me via Ron before his passing in 2013.  Here's what Ron had to say about Kelsey in one of my interviews with him in 2011:
Well, Dick Kelsey worked with pastels even in final backgrounds…and people used to kind of be upset about [this] because they said you know all that pastel is picking up on the cels and the camera…but he would have a big brush, he would dust it, dust it, dust it...he would lay something in and then he would come back with a...shadow with pastel – a little here, a little there and you see it a lot in his book illustrations too.  Nobody else...would use pastel like he would do for the book illustration and especially for the final animation background.  I learned so much from him.  He would...lay in a flat color...[for] a trunk of a tree and a block for a hedge, and then he would come with the darker pastel and do a little bit here and on the shadow side of a tree then he’d tint it with a few highlights and put a little drawing back into it and spark it with a few little really warm highlights, and then walk away.  The damn thing was all done!  And, he attacked it like no other painter I had ever worked with.  Most painters paint in areas and flat end sections and then come back and render.  He would use a brush almost as a pencil.  And if there was grain in something he’d separate the bristles of the brush and come back with just a few strokes – all of a sudden all of the grain would be drawn into something; not literally painting each little piece of grain – he would let the brush work almost as a pencil and he’d draw with it.  He had a really different approach and different way of painting and handling, and you see it…you see it in his book illustrations a lot.  Like the background tree or something is a brush stroke and then the branches…
To support Ron's observations of Kelsey's work, here are scans of the copies that he sent me in the mail with Ron's notations:

If it hadn't been for Ron saving these treasures, they may have been lost forever.  At the time that these paintings were made, Ron was a little over thirty-years-old, and still absorbing advice from artists like Dick Kelsey and Paul Julian.  When Ron spoke of mentors like Kelsey and Julian, he said, "...They really were treasures in my life.  They were just incredible on every level.  They will never know that they taught me more than four and a half years of art training ever did." 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Mary Blair Through the Eyes of a Child

To launch Women's History Month, my third grade reading class has put together a Mary Blair exhibition right outside our classroom door.  As a way of introducing my students to Blair and her singular style of art, I read to them Pocket Full of Colors:  The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville with illustrations by Brigette Barrager.  This delightful book's recounting of Blair's barrier-breaking role as a female artist at the Walt Disney Studio bursts rainbow bright with each turn of a page.  Through it, my students were offered a special glimpse into Blair's world of art while stepping into her shoes.  The wonderment of children knows no bounds, and within each of my students a secret world was revealed upon seeing Blair's conceptual art displayed in our hallway.

Each child was given the opportunity to select a conceptual piece for themselves.  For both boys and girls alike, I challenged them to look beyond pieces that were considered "girly" or "boyish" and to choose something that called to them.  The art selections ranged from conceptual art that Blair did for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), The Little House (1952), Peter Pan (1953), illustrations from children's books, and designs for it's a small world.  The students dived in eagerly; inspecting their respective piece through the wonderment of their eyes.  They were tasked with describing Blair's art from their perspective and to elaborate on feelings invoked by her original style and choice of color.  Their attempts, and finished writings (as you will see below) are not only commendable, but inspired.  In a society where children bear the brunt of national standards that are developmentally inappropriate and data reigns supreme, this sojourn into Blair's world provided my students a meaningful escape.

On behalf of myself, my assistant Jill, and all the boys and girls in my reading class, we hope you enjoy our labor of love.  Each writing is preceded by the conceptual art that a specific child chose.  As you read each narrative, keep in mind that they were penned by eight and nine-year-old children.  I hope you enjoy the journey as much as we did.