The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod             


Mary Blair, Illustrator, Disney Master of Colour, and Artist

September 26, 2011


Dreaming of a career as an artist, Mary Blair enrolled at art school to learn the essential skills. Several years later, Mary found her niche, and it wasn't plein air painting on a street corner or building a career by fine art gallery sales... Mary worked first at the animation department of Metro Goldwyn Meyer and then as part of the integral staff with the burgeoning movie maker Walt Disney. The simple lines, bright colours and exuberant atmosphere of Mary Blair's art made her a continuing inspiration.


The baby girl born in McAlester, Oaklahoma on October 21, 1911 must have arrived with a paintbrush in her tiny little hands. Graduating from San Jose State College, Mary Brown Robinson's innate talent for art brought her a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1931. Graduating from the two-year program, Mary was unable to find work duing the Great Depression years of the 1930s. Returning to live with her parents, Mary worked as a barmaid until she could find work in her creative field.

While attending Chouinard, Mary met fellow art student Lee Everett Blair. A year after graduation, the pair married on March 3, 1934. Mary's new husband was an exceptionally talented watercolour artist, becoming one of only two artists to receive an Olympic Gold Medal for a watercolour work. His award-winning painting was featured a rodeo. Lee Blair received the medal in 1932. (Olympic medals in Gold, Silver and Bronze were awarded for art from 1912 to 1948. The other watercolour artist to win was Jane Jacoby in 1928.)Lee Blair was appointed President of the California Watercolour Society when he was only 23 years old. Lee and Mary painted, showing their fine artwork at through galleries.

Illustration of Mary Blair    

In 1938, Disney Studios came calling for Lee Blair. He accepted the post as director of colour for the Pinocchio movie, according to The Art of Disney. Another company attracted Mary. She was hired on by Ub Werks painting cels in the animation department. Two years later, Mary left the studio and joined her husband at Disney. The young artist created paintings for the "Babby Ballet" segment of Fantasia, (it was a second version that was not released), and participated in initial drawings for Lady and the Tramp.

On a 3-month South American goodwill trip that included Mary, her husband Lee, Walt Disney, his wife Lillian and several other artists, Disney observed Mary's creation of art. He was impressed. The animation magnate promoted Mary to Artistic Director. Her first picture was "Saludos Amigos" in 1943 and her next success was 1945's hit, "The Three Caballeros." The painter's talents shone brightly as artistic director for many productions over the next ten years, but Mary also changed her medium. "She abandons her favorite technique, the watercolor, for the gouache," said The Art of Disney. "It is on Alice in Wonderland (1951) that her influence is most significant. She realizes hundreds of preliminary studies, which are of use as a base for the decorators."


Setting out on her own in 1953, Mary Blair left her affluent job at Disney. Her artistic success followed, as she took on freelance llustration, graphic design and advertising work for illustrious clients: Maxwell House, Nabisco, Beatrice Foods, and many more. She also put her brushes to work for Golden Books, many of them available still today such as "I Can Fly" by Ruth Krauss, reprinted in 2003 by LIttle Golden Books, and "Baby's House" by Gelolo McHugh, reprinted 2010, also a Little Golden Book.

Broadening her range from the average size art paper or board, Mary delved into much larger mediums - set design for theatre. She created sets for seasonal Christmas and Easter events at the prominent Radio City Music Hall in New York. Walt Disney contacted Mary again.

Imagination and Colours of Mary Blair  

Disney called Mary in 1963 and asked her to participate in a feature of "It's a Small World" for the New York International Fair, to be held the next year. Four years later, "she created mural art for Tomorrow Land's Adventure Thru Inner Space," said ASIFA, Hollywood Cartoon Hall of Fame. "In the same year she had also been given credit to the film version of 'How to Succeed in business without Really Trying'." The Contemporary Resort Hotel of Walt Disney World in Florida was touched by Mary's inspired creativity in 1970.


Serious roblems in her personal life took a toll on Mary in the 1970s, with alcohol adding fuel to the flames. "All this contributed to the deterioration of her physical and mental health and her art," said The Art of Disney Animation.

On July 26, 1978, Mary suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and did not survive. The artist with a huge, dramatic talent is remembered by those who knew her as a "strong-willed, confident, child at heart," said ASIFA. "Mary's art always showed a soft innocence, which contrasted with the dark and dismal mood of the time." Charming and sweet, her paintings exhibit a strength that is deceptive in its simplicity, and movement that captures the eye and imagination.

Honoured in 1991, Mary was posthumously recognized as a "Disney Legend," and in 1996, was bestowed the ASFIA-Hollywood's "Winsor McCay Award." Observed as a master of colour, design and style, Mary Blair was, and continues to be, an inspiration to fine and graphic artists and illustrators.

Mary Blair left behind her husband, Lee Blair, who died in 1993 at age 81, and two sons, Donovan and Kevin.

At the Drawing Desk of Mary Blair    

Inspiring Art by Mary Blair

© Susanna McLeod 2011