To pursue a career as a professional artist is to expect a lot from your job.
…more, it seems, than most people expect from their own.
Professional artists and those who aspire to the same status expect the work to be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling.
Some people seem satisfied, simply, to find a day job they don’t hate and compensate for any lack of creativity with hobbies.
…and others view their vocation as a tolerable compromise that buys time for the art they place at the center of their lives.
Regardless of which takes priority, it often seems that we have to choose: Art or a steady paycheck.
But why would it have to be one or the other?
Why couldn’t our work be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling?
Are we asking too much?
Is it even realistic to imagine?
In this first lesson of a course titled You’re A Better Artist Than You Think, we’ll introduce a crucial question that could save your art career (even if you don’t have one yet) and rethink a common belief that often prevents artists from becoming professionals.
But, as with every lesson throughout the course, we’ll begin by looking to history for answers. (History always has answers.)
Today we’ll hear the “origin story” of Mary Blair, a mid-century Disney artist whose “renown in the company,” writes historian Nathalia Holt, “was second only to Walt’s.”
In her life and work (which is on display throughout this post) we’ll find a more vivid picture of what it means to make a living from one’s creative passion, what often blocks many of us from a similar experience and how this fundamental shift in the way we think about the art vs. money conundrum can affect the quality of our work, whether we find it fulfilling, our sense of self, of belonging, of motivation and inspiration.
Click through to continue part one…
Watch The Video (Or Read On For The Transcript):
(If you watched the video, here’s part two.)
Part one ends on a cliffhanger. We’ll track the development of Mary’s career to what was probably the most significant professional decision she ever made.
…a decision she regretted.
…a decision about which she quickly changed her mind.
In part two, we’ll apply the lesson found in Mary’s career to our own and introduce the “crucial question” I mentioned earlier.
In part three, I’ll share a story from my own life when I realized that I was confidently pursuing the wrong career, what it cost me, how I solved the problem and what I learned in the process.
In future lessons we’ll cover topics from mentorship to motivation, learning from visual artists but also from musical and literary figures, as artistic professionals in every field have wisdom and inspiration for each other.
…and by the end of the course, you’ll have a clearer, more actionable plan to become a professional artist as well as a deeper appreciation for the artists who came before us.
As a kid, I thought the Small World ride was cute, but I hadn’t yet grown up enough to appreciate the scope and sophistication of its design.
Instead, I entertained my parents by zombie-walking around The Magic Kingdom with a vacant, pod-person expression, endlessly repeating the infectious anthem in crackling falsetto:
“iiiiT’s aaaa SMaaaalL wOOOOrld aaaaffffTER aaaaLLL…”
(I love the song now, by the way. Yes, unironically.)
I got serious about animation history in graduate school but, even then, Mary Blair was one brilliant artist among many. It wasn’t until a sunny afternoon in 2016 that I learned to appreciate her unique genius, thanks to my friend and former colleague Claire Keane (see right image).
Claire and I were collaborating on a color theory lesson to co-present in Rome a few months later. I brought Tyrus Wong backgrounds. Claire brought Mary Blair concept art.
She opened one of Mary’s paintings in Photoshop, selected two swatches of color, one lime green and one violet, dragged them both onto a middle-gray background and told me to “Check this out.”
Then Claire ran the “Invert” command which flipped the RGB values to produce a mathematically perfect complement of each color.
It’s extremely difficult to mix complementary colors with analog paint, but considering Mary’s reputation I expected that the result would be very close.
…but the colors didn’t appear to change at all, the swatches just seemed to switch places.
The lime green became the violet – the exact same violet – from before.
…and vice versa.
I literally couldn’t believe my eyes.
Over sixty years ago, in gouache or acrylic, by hand and without the aid of digital tools, Mary Blair mixed and applied near-perfect complementary colors in a concept painting for Peter Pan.
Marc Davis, one of the first Disney Imagineers, Mary’s close friend and frequent collaborator in the creation of Tinker Bell, Maleficent, It’s A Small World and many other projects, said she was “the most amazing colorist of all time.”
…but Mary’s color sense was only one of her many talents.
She was an accomplished watercolorist, children’s book illustrator, graphic designer, muralist and fashionista who designed and fabricated her own eccentric wardrobe.
Within the field of animation, Mary inspired Walt Disney in ways that no other artist did. She expanded the visual language and color palette of Disney productions faster and more widely than any other studio artist before or since. She was a story artist, color stylist, art director, character designer, early influence for Eyvind Earle and Maurice Noble, a harbinger of modernism, a bi-coastal pioneer of remote work and one of the first women in studio leadership.
From the heartbreaking “Baby Mine” sequence in Dumbo, to the sensitive psychedelia of The Three Caballeros, to the elegant whimsy of Cinderella or, finally, to It’s A Small World, her magnum opus, she was, as author Didier Ghez wrote, “the most influential Disney concept artist of the 1950’s.”
Considering her pervasive influence at Disney today (the design of the Tangled, Frozen and Monsters, Inc. franchises are just a few examples), one could make a strong argument for Mary Blair as the most influential Disney concept artist ever.
…but if not for one decisive moment in her early days at Disney, almost all of it might never have happened.
Her First Ambition:
Mary Blair, born Mary Browne Robinson, was always single-minded about her art.
Like Dorothy Gale in many ways, she was a Dust Bowl child, destined for displacement and determined to find a more vivid life than the one she inherited.
John Canemaker referred to Mary’s father as “amiably alcoholic and peripatetic” and recounted a story in which little Mary demanded money from the family’s meager budget to buy art supplies, her justification being that “Dad will just drink it up anyway.”
Her family moved first from Oklahoma to Texas, then to Northern California where she eventually enrolled at San Jose State College. During the onset of The Great Depression and the beginning of the actual Dust Bowl phenomenon in her homeland, Mary accepted one of only two scholarships to what we now know as CalArts (then The Chouinard Institute) in Los Angeles.
There she met, influenced and, apparently, became romantically involved with the winner of the other scholarship, someone who would become an animation legend in his own right…
Maurice Noble (by way of author Tod Polson) said, “[Mary] and I were the poor church mice of the school. … After painting class, children who had a lot of money would often throw away leftover tubes of paint. Then Mary and I would pick the stuff out of the trash bin. She also used to take the paper towels out of the washroom and paint on them.”
Pruett Carter, a successful journeyman illustrator, became Mary’s mentor (even beyond graduation) and helped her to form what she referred to as her “first ambition,” commercial illustration.
A Versatile Mimic, A Marquee Artist:
Lee Blair (they married in 1934) would play both helpful and harmful roles in Mary’s life. While Mary had finally clarified her professional intent, Lee, who seems to have been more of a fine art purist, pursued opportunities for each of them to develop and showcase what Mary called their “easel paintings.”
Depression-era economics, however, demanded that they both apply for jobs in the geographically convenient animation industry. Neither artist had any interest in the field and yet Mary still considered it some kind of “calling.”
At first, Mary was hired for more factory-like work but she replaced Lee as a color designer for Harman-Ising when he moved on to Disney. Mary followed three years later.
Of Mary’s first year at Disney, Nathalia Holt writes that “there was pleasure in the work, but not nearly enough freedom. While her husband enjoyed artistic liberty at the studio, Mary felt stifled in her more modest role.”
After a few months in the color model department, Mary moved to Story. Drawing from a place of deep, emotional pain, she inspired the heartbreaking “Baby Mine” sequence for Dumbo. But despite the significance of that accomplishment, opportunities to work on other interesting projects and the beginning of a precious friendship with animator Retta Scott, Mary still felt like she didn’t belong.
Because she hadn’t found her own answer to the crucial question.
Mary was a versatile mimic before she became a marquee artist. Throughout her entire career, she drew influence from everywhere, everything and everyone. However, she hadn’t yet synthesized or shaped her many influences into the industry-altering visual thesis we see in Caballeros, Cinderella, Small World etc.
As John Canemaker said of her early work at Disney, “Her drawings look like the work of three different artists.” Frank Thomas, Mary’s contemporary (not to mention one of the best character animators in the history of animation) said “She could draw like anybody else and paint like anybody else, but she wasn’t expressing herself.”
Though these comments could sound like criticism, I don’t think they are. It’s just that, in hindsight, everyone knows that Mary was destined to change again, from versatile mimic to a marquee artist.
Finding Your Style:
Before we go any further, it’s important to establish that since the medium of animation requires hundreds of artists to collaborate in a unified, visual idiom, convincing mimics are in high demand.
There are jobs for marquee artists too, but there’s a common misconception that every artist must “find their style” before they can enjoy professional success.
Artists only need to develop a unique style if the professional specialization to which they aspire requires them to do so.
A children’s book illustrator might define a unique style with the hope of being considered marketable, but there are also children’s book series that require multiple illustrators to adapt to the same, established style so the entire series has a unified look.
“Finding your style” is irrelevant when the job requires you to be a convincing mimic.
I do not believe that Mary Blair’s early work is less impressive than the marquee style for which she is now known. I see it as remarkable versatility and further evidence of her genius.
I also think it’s possible that Mary felt out of place and ultimately disinterested at Disney because, despite her versatility, and ability to disappear into the gestalt, her destiny and, therefore, ultimate creative fulfillment was to design it.
On June 13, 1941, just fourteen months after she was hired, Mary Blair resigned from her job at the Disney studio.
She felt her Disney work was “interesting” but not enough to “sidetrack” her “first ambition,” to be a commercial illustrator like Pruett Carter (see left image).
But just two months later, she returned.
…and with uncanny rapidity, transformed into her final form, the queen of mid-century animation.
What changed her mind?
What changed her work?
No, it wasn’t pixie dust.
It was the crucial question…
Next, In Part Two:
The crucial question is important, but it offers no magical effects.
It’s a challenging, complex question that, I hope, will help you make more confident decisions as you plan and navigate your art career.
We’ll also get the rest of Mary Blair’s origin story.
But before we can even begin to explore that in part two, we have some journaling to do…
Lesson 1.1 Homework:
Throughout the course we’ll keep a journal.
At the end of each lesson, I’ll offer a set of journaling prompts that I think will help you process the experience and clarify a plan for the next season of your art career.
Here’s your first journal prompt:
1.) Draw two columns. Label the left column: “Creative Fulfillment.” Label the right column “Financially Sustainable.” Keep the chart blank for now.
2.) Copy the same 2-column chart onto another page so you have two identical charts. Label the first chart: “Hell YES!” and the second chart “Hell, NO!”
3.) Get quiet. Get still. Breathe. There’s no rush. We’re going to take our time with this.
4.) As words, feelings and ideas come to mind, begin to fill in your “Hell YES!” chart.
List the aspects you would consider “creatively fulfilling” in an artistic career and put them into the corresponding column. Of course, this is the “Hell, YES!” list. (We’ll do the “Hell, NO!” list next.) These are the professional aspects that make you want to say “Hell, yeah! That kind of career is definitely for me!”
If you feel like you don’t know enough about all the opportunities for professional artists, that is not a problem. Things will become more specific over time. Right now, just focus on qualities. What kinds of qualities do you feel are essential for your art career?
For example, do you find the most fulfillment in working alone or in collaboration?
If close collaboration and frequent social interaction doesn’t sound appealing, then animation probably isn’t for you.
If, on the other hand, you like to work the vampire shift and you’re super-into cloaks and swords, maybe it’s time to explore the specifics of Sci-Fi/ Fantasy illustration.
…and, with the understanding that no career will ever love you back, consider which qualities you feel are reasonable to expect from it.
5.) Now do the same thing with the “financially sustainable” column.
Again, these are the positives. However, I use the word “sustainable” because the goal here is not to become rich and famous.
Some artists do become rich and famous, I guess, but most of us are not motivated by that.
I think most professional artists just want balance, simplicity and sustainability.
So take enough time to clearly define what you, personally, consider sustainable.
Not rich and famous but also not broke af.
6.) Take a break (a few hours, a day, whatever you need). Then, do the “Hell, NO!” chart.
What aspects would be dealbreakers?
There are some easy answers, of course. For example, “toxic work culture” is probably a “Hell, NO!” for all of us.
But there are certain aspects that can be more challenging to categorize.
For example, some artists want to work at Disney but they haven’t considered the consequences of moving to Southern California.
We’re not trying to be hopelessly negative here. We’re beginning to find focus by eliminating options.
We often need “Hell, NO!” to find “Hell, YES!”
Nobody expects their career to be perfect.
…but we all want to find the best fit possible.
7.) Take another break. Come back in a day or two and consider what your completed charts reveal about what to hope for and expect in your career as a professional artist.
Please email them to Support@ChrisOatley.com. If we receive questions to which our responses apply more generally, we’ll create bonus lessons and share them along with the main course content.
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Special thanks: To Storybook Steve for providing the music in the video accompanying the lesson, to the team at Disney Editions for providing a review copy of Marc Davis In His Own Words, our Production Coordinator Mari Gonzales Curia and Content Producer Mona Lloyd for editorial contributions to this post.
The Mary Blair art and citations in this lesson came from the following resources. We recommend for further reading:
The Queens Of Animation: The Untold Story Of The Women Who Transformed The World Of Disney And Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt
They Drew As They Pleased Volume 4: The Hidden Art Of Disney’s Mid-Century Era by Didier Ghez
The Art and Flair Of Mary Blair: An Appreciation by John Canemaker
Ink & Paint: The Women Of Walt Disney’s Animation by Mindy Johnson
Tinkerbell: An Evolution by Mindy Johnson
Marc Davis In His Own Words: Imagineering The Disney Theme Parks by Pete Docter & Christopher Merritt
The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble And The Zen Of Animation Design by Tod Polson