Didier Ghez Discusses ‘They Drew As They Pleased’ Volume 4

The 1950s and 1960s at The Walt Disney Studios marked unprecedented stylistic directions brought on by the mid-century modern and graphic sensibilities of a new wave of artists. This volume explores the contributions of these heroes with special emphasis on the art of Lee Blair, Mary Blair, Tom Oreb, John Dunn, and Walt Peregoy. It includes never-before-seen images from Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty and discusses Disney’s first forays into television, commercials, space, and science projects—even the development of theme parks. Drawing on interviews and revealing hundreds of rediscovered images that inspired Disney’s films during one of its most prolific eras, this volume captures the rich stories of the artists who brought the characters to life and helped shape the future of animation.

First of all congratulations on the latest book in your series. It is my favorite volume to date, in large part because of my love and admiration for the work of Tom Oreb and Mary Blair. I’m curious, do you have a favorite artist among the group?

Walt Peregoy was probably the biggest revelation for me, while researching this book. Before working on this volume, I had been familiar with the personal drawings and paintings of Peregoy from the later part of his career, and I have to admit that I did not find them appealing. While researching his work for Disney, I was blown away by what I discovered: his mastery of style and colors in many ways goes even beyond that of Mary Blair’s. And his story, which was incredibly difficult to piece together (Walt was a notoriously difficult interviewee) is extremely rich and was very much worth telling.

The chapter about Tom Oreb was also one of the most exciting ones from my standpoint. First of all, while researching the career of Ken Anderson for the 5th volume of this series, I had stumbled upon a large amount of early Sleeping Beauty character designs by Oreb, which I was eager to share with the wider world. I also realized that if there was one artist whose stylized approach represented the 1950s more than anyone’s it was Oreb. Finally, it also gave me the chance to tell the story of the Disney commercials from the 1950s, a story that had seldom if ever been discussed and which would deserve a full book in itself.

Can you set the stage of what it was like at Disney Animation in the 50s and 60s?

Before the 1950s, the stylistic approach favored by Walt Disney tended towards realism or at least a style that reminded one of some of the most famous European illustrators of the end of the XIXth century and early XXth century, like Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré. Starting in the 1950s, the Disney studio and its artists started experimenting with a much more stylized approach.

The 1950s were dominated by the stylistic sensitivities of layout and background artists Eyvind Earle, Vic Haboush, Ray Aragon, Jacques Rupp, and Walt Peregoy, who were the new blood at the studio. Along with story artists Tom Oreb and John Dunn, they helped reshape the Disney style for a 1950s audience.

Earle had studied the works of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Rockwell Kent and Georgia O’Keefe before finding his own style at the age of twenty-one. Peregoy admired the Mexican muralists David Siquieros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco. Fernand Léger, the French painter and sculptor, had been his teacher. Tom Oreb was influenced by Saul Steinberg, George Grosz, David Stone Martin, Ronald Searle and Pablo Picasso. Visions of “Modernism” coursed through their veins.

The Disney studio at that time becomes much more adventurous in its artistic approach.

What stood out to you the most about the artists you picked for volume 4?

I already mentioned Walt Peregoy and Tom Oreb. Let’s focus on the three others that are featured in the book.

First of all, I have to admit that I cheated a little bit in this volume. The whole book is supposed to be about artists who were active at the studio in the 1950s and 1960s. However, I decided to include Lee Blair, who was only working at Disney in the 1930s and 1940s. His approach (watercolor) and his style is much more classical than the style of the other artists in the book, and provides a good contrast for everything that follows. There was also no way to discuss Mary Blair’s stylistic evolution without first presenting artwork from her husband, Lee, since his style influenced her so much at the beginning of her career. And I just loved Lee Blair’s work too much not to feature him in the series. The storyboard drawings he created for “Aquarela do Brasil” (to name just one project) are simply to die for.

Then you have Mary Blair, who does not need to be introduced and whose naïve style and use of colors is always a pure delight. I tried to make sure to locate artwork that none of us had seen before in book form. I especially fell in love with some pieces showing Alice in the Tulgey Wood and meeting the Jabberwocky. And, of course, being married to a Brazilian, I can’t resist her work on the “Bahia” sequence in The Three Caballeros.

John Dunn was a much more complex artist to research. I knew practically nothing about his style before starting this project and there was extremely little information about him floating around. Little by little, I managed to piece together what his stylistic approach had been (both whimsical and modern) and I also realized that the best way to tell his story was through the science projects he had handled for Ward Kimball (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, Mars and Beyond, etc.). In the end, I was able to kill two birds with the same stone in that chapter: discussing John Dunn but also piecing together a detailed and precise account of the scientific projects from the 1950s which had always intrigued me.

There’s a lot of art in this book that hasn’t been seen anywhere else. Can you talk a bit about your process of gathering all this amazing material?

I always try to tap into five sources of information and illustrations without which none of the books would be complete: the Walt Disney Archives, which preserve written documentation; the Animation Research Library, which preserves artwork; Disney’s Photo Library, which contains the photographic material; the family of the artists, who often have documents (and not just photographs) which are not preserved anywhere else; and private collections and archives. If you read the next answer, you will see that in quite a few cases, you have to link all of those dots to get the full story.

And as was the case with the previous four volumes 90% of the information and of the illustrations included in this book have never been seen in book form before.

Without giving away too much, what were some of the more startling discoveries you came across with respect to this group of artists?

Let me mention three of the most moving moments in the research process. When I was researching the work of John Dunn, I decided to interview producer Joe Hale who had worked with Dunn in the 1950s. I was trying to get a sense of who John was as an artist and as a human being. What I did not expect was that Joe would mention that he had worked with John Dunn on an abandoned project for TV called Abdul Abulbul Amir. I knew that a file about that project existed at the Animation Research Library, but I had no idea that Dunn had been the artist who had created the artwork for it. Joe’s clue was critical and allowed me to include artwork from that project in the book.

While researching the work of Tom Oreb at the Animation Research Library, Jackie Vazquez (my key point of contact at the ARL) and myself had the pleasure of stumbling upon some artwork created by Oreb for the clubhouse of the Mickey Mouse Club while looking for something totally unrelated. I still remember our delight and out excitement that day.

Finally, again while researching Tom Oreb, I stumbled upon a document at the Disney Archives which made clear that the last project that Oreb had worked on at the studio was a planned adaptation of the Baron Von Munchausen for television. Sadly, I also knew that no artwork from that project had survived at the Animation Research Library. I knew that the only option that might exist to find an example for Tom’s work would be if the storyboards he had created at the time had been photographed. I decided to find out. For this, I went to the Photo Library and started checking the negative lists one by one, week by week. I was about to give up, when I jumped on my chair: I had just found a negative description labelled “Baron Von Munchausen boards.” Thanks to this discovery you can get a sense in the book of what Oreb was trying to achieve.

Do you have any honorable mentions, artists that you wish you could have included in this volume, but simply did not have room? Will they be included in future volumes?

Eyvind Earle is one artist that I would have loved to include in this volume, but space did not allow it. I also knew that the Walt Disney Family Museum had released a great book about him, which alleviated my guilt. In the previous volumes of the series I would have loved to feature Tyrus Wong and Dick Kelsey. But again, one has to make some very hard choices…

Also, when I started writing this series, I thought I would skip both Mary Blair and Joe Grant since so much had already been written about them. Thankfully I realized that there was no way for me to do this in good conscience (and with all the new material I uncovered about them). So you see Mary Blair featured in this volume and Joe Grant will appear in the last volume in the series.

As we move into the 70s and 80s for the next volume, who are some of the artists we can look forward to seeing profiled?

There are two more volumes of the They Drew As They Pleased series in the works before completing this ambitious venture. I am currently working on the layout of the 5th volume which will discuss the 1970s and 1980s (The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Black Cauldron, etc.) and especially the careers of Ken Anderson and Mel Shaw, my two favorite Disney artists. And I am starting to write Volume 6 (the 1990s to the present) which will discuss the careers of Joe Grant, Mike Gabriel, Mike Giaimo and Hans Bacher. Exciting, to say the least!

Thanks Didier! We look forward to volume five!

 

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