The Disney Background Artists

If there was ever a downside being a Disney animator it was not being able to work in color. Our world was a world of black and white drawings. On occasion we might use a blue or orange Prismacolor pencil but we lived in a greyscale world of graphite. I guess that’s why a few of us made visits to the background department located on the second floor of the Animation Building. There, we were swept into a wonderful world of color and I can tell you from this first hand experience it was a sight to behold.

Remember, this was a time when original artwork was not locked away in a guarded vault. Rather, it was pinned on multiple hallway storyboards for all Disney employees to enjoy. Of course the projects currently in production were on display but there were other things as well. Backgrounds and layouts from past productions were often in full view. I remember seeing one of my favorite background paintings from the Disney short, “ A Cowboy Needs a Horse.” Down the hallway I discovered another treasure. An Eyvind Earle painting from the Academy Award winning short film, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom.” I remember seeing this background while watching the movie as a kid in my home town of Santa Barbara. Now, here I am staring at the original painted background pinned to a storyboard. It was moments like these that made me realize how lucky I was to be working at the Walt Disney Studios.

The Walt Disney Studios could probably boast of having some of the finest artists in the world and most of them occupied the floors above us. Naturally, the doors were not locked so we had acess to an amazing display of mavelous art. Up on the third floor, artist, Art Reily was creating a series of beautiful color comps for the upcoming feature “Rainbow Road to Oz.” Sadly, the film never saw production, but I can tell you the artist’s work was stellar. For a total change of style you might wander down to Ward Kimball’s unit on the second floor and be entranced by the space art of Ken O’Conner, Gordon Legg and Bill Layne. Sadly, you won’t find the talented color stylist, Eyvind Earle on this floor any longer. Mr. Earle departed the Walt Disney Studio after the completion of “Sleeping Beauty.” However, should you moved down the hallway to 2F you’ll more than likely find Walt Peregoy working away on his impressive backgrounds for “The Sword in the Stone.” It would appear the Old Maestro has finally gotten over his complaints concerning “101 Dalmatians” color style and Mr. Peregoy and his bold new palette is back in favor at the Disney Studio. Walt Peregoy had practically painted the entire feature film by himself as we moved toward the end of production. Because the film had to be quickly wrapped, background artists, Ralph Hulett, Bill Layne and Al Dempster jumped in to help finish the film.

Finally, we cannot leave the Walt Disney background department without mentioning the talented women who helped create the beautiful animation art. Often overlooked when it comes to giving credit to the wonderful background work in the Disney films, I think it’s worth a mention before leaving this very special department. You’re probably familiar with the name, Thelma Witmer. You can see her in a photograph along with other Disney artists in the Art of Animation book. Thelma’s amazing work can be seen in several Walt Disney feature films. However, there are other names you should know. I met Barbara Begg when she was painting backgrounds back in the fifties. More recently, the names Gloria Wood and Ann Guenther come to mind. Ann didn’t think she had the chops to become a Disney background artist. However, once Disney veteran painter, Al Dempster saw her work she was immediately hired to work in Disney’s background department and she’s been doing stellar work ever since. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of animation color on this black & white Monday morning.

 A few of Disney's amazing background artists. There were women painters as well, in case you didn't know that well kept secret.

A few of Disney's amazing background artists. There were women painters as well, in case you didn't know that well kept secret.