Thursday, September 27, 2007

Do Brasil!

My grandmother introduced me to "The Three Caballeros" when I was just a little girl. At the time I think I was too young to appreciate this oddity of a Disney film, preferring, as most children do, films like 101 Dalmatians and Sleeping Beauty. But I grew to love it. And looking back on it I can understand why Grandma loved it too. The movie captures something of the time splendidly: not just for the 1940's women in their Jantzen swimwear and red lipstick, but especially for the music - the big band style bossa nova songs, mixed with the sultry sambas, all of them somehow still reminiscent of the wartime era.

As you may know, "Caballeros" and the film's prequel, "Saludos Amigos", were commissioned by the U.S. Department of State during WWII to build positive relations with and find allies in South and Central America. As the Wiki article notes, the most popular U.S. figure there was Mickey Mouse. Ironically, the Mouse was never included in either film, but instead Donald Duck was the highlighted star with appearances by Goofy and the newest character, Jose Carioca.

But as I mentioned before, what really stands out about the films is the fantastic use of music - something, I would definitely say, the Disney films of late have been lacking. It's so easy to talk about how good animation/concept art plays a crucial role in a successful animated feature - and it does. But Walt knew that music also had the ability to heighten the senses and draw viewers into a film. Music played a crucial role in all of Disney's film, even cartoon shorts. Admittedly I may be a bit biased here in the selection of films I'm featuring in this post to serve as an example of the importance of music in animated film as I happen to love, and I do mean love, bossa nova.

But for Walt, this was a totally new style of music and type of film. Where on earth would he find music to accompany such a unique film? According to Daniella Thompson's extremely informative website on Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, this is ultimately how Walt selected the (now) most famous of the movies' songs, "Aquarela do Brasil", better known to us now as simply, "Brazil":

In August 1941, Walt Disney visited Brazil on a U.S. State Department Good Neighbor Policy mission. In Belém do Pará, he complained to journalist Celestino Silveira that the hotel band was playing only North American tunes. Silveira asked the musicians to play Brazilian music, and the pianist played “Aquarela do Brasil,” reportedly badly. On the flight from Belém to Rio de Janeiro, Disney discussed the creation of the Zé Carioca character and the kind of song that should accompany it. He remembered “Aquarela” and asked Silveira if he knew the composer. Silveira told him that he could present him the next day. The following day, Disney and Barroso met at a cocktail party given by the U.S. consulate at the hotel Glória in Rio. They conversed about the song, and right there it acquired the title “Brazil.”

In addition to "Brazil", Disney incorporated the song "Na Baixa do Sapateiro", or "Bahia", into "The Three Caballeros" in 1944. "Brazil" has been covered by the likes of Carmen Miranda and bossa-nova legend Joao Gilberto, and evidently was voted the best Brazilian song of the Century.

Where can you hear these tunes you ask? Well, have I got a treat for you. I stumbled upon a veritable goldmine while researching the net for this post. And don't be put off by the seemingly low-brow nature the name of the website conjures: The truth is, this is a fantastic resource that converts and uploads a variety of mid-century children's records: album art, inserts, mp3 and all. So not only can you find and download music from series such as Howdy Doody and movies such as "The Three Caballeros", but you can also enjoy high-quality scans of the album art as well. It's an visual and audio treat all in one!

You can enjoy music from "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros" by clicking the appropriate link and opting to either stream the music or download the albums in their entirety. The LP album art from both movies is courtesy of the sites and copyrighted by Disney. I would also like to point out that iTunes has really impressed me of late by adding heretofore rare and hard-to-find Disneyland Records and soundtracks to its downloads. Clicking on the iTunes link will direct you to the "Saludos Amigos" album which is really a composite of "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros" music. Be warned: this isn't the music directly from the movie's soundtrack (as far as I've found out that's only available on the LP's through the site), it's a remake of all the songs and produced, again, in that 1940's style.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An Illustrated Life Indeed

Image courtesy of

I write this entry with the knowledge that this subject has already been touched on by the more popular illustration blogs around the net. But that said, it was only after my endless whining and lamenting to a close friend that everything I want to do has been done before that I was gently reminded that this blog is as much for my own fulfillment, if not more, as it is for my readers and visitors. So, despite posts on DRAWN!, Cartoon Brew, and Illustration Fridays concerning Todd Oldham's book, Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, I post nevertheless.

I'm ashamed to say I did not know of mid-century illustrator Charles (aka "Charley") Harper before I saw the book in all its chromatic glory lying inconspicuously on a shelf cohabited by a stack of cable knit sweaters while at work at Anthropologie a few weeks ago. (But in my defense, as I stated in my first blog entry, this blog is an educational tool for me as well.) I cannot tell you how delightful it was to feast on the visual candy that the cover alone offers. It's a large book, 17 x 12 inches, and comes in a white cardboard box that mirrors the book's cover art. Inside is a comprehensive anthology of Harper's work dating from 1950 and covering Harper's artistic high-points, notably from his well known The Giant Golden Book of Biology and his illustrations for Ford Times magazine.

Be warned: the book costs a pretty penny. The retail price is $200 (it can be found on Amazon for closer to $150), but it's still a bargain compared to The Giant Golden Book of Biology which is evidently fetching over $400 on Amazon these days. That said, An Illustrated Life is one of those books that is as much a collector's item as anything, meant to be treasured and well-maintained. As such, it's a must-have, despite the $200 price tag (I'll be adding this to my Christmas list).

Sadly, however fittingly, Charley Harper passed away at the age of 85 this past June, the same month as the book release. Harper was a man of influential proportions, inspiring, according Cartoon Brew's Amid Amidi, artists such as Cliff Roberts, Scott Wills, and Nate Pacheco. His work has been described as "highly stylized" in a manner Harper himself dubbed "minimal realism." The use of shapes in their simplest forms, as an expression of geometric figures, delineates Harpers' work from other illustrationists of the time. In a fantastic interview with Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, Harper describes the process he uses to create a painting in this way: "I start with a sketch. For the Lab's painting, I cut out a lot of bird shapes and pushed them around until I was sure they were where I wanted them to be. This let me try different combinations and different compositions very easily, and then, when I finally decided where to put them, I stuck them down with rubber cement. That gave me the basis for the painting."

Image courtesy of Men's Vogue Online

What fans may not know is that Charley had an incredibly ticklish sense of humor when it came to word play - word play that often performed a valuable role in the painting process as well as for the sheer humor illicited from its being used as a caption accompanying his paintings. This makes for twice the treat for fans like myself who have always loved the practice of melding poetry with image. What's more, is Harper's admittedly awful puns are so silly and absurd that they're really quite funny. Take, for example, the captioning (again courtesy of the Cornell Lab Interview) that accompanied his painting of a group of terns entitled "Tern, Stones, and Turnstones" originally published in Beguiled by the Wild, the Art of Charley Harper. It reads: "If you’re terned off--I mean, "turned" off--by puns, don't go away. The ol' punster has terned (make that "turned") over a new leaf. I promise not to punctuate this paragraph with such punishments as no stone unterned, no U-terns--no more awful puns. Just the facts: a Roseate Tern and some Ruddy Turnstones share a pebbly beach along the … WAIT! I CAN'T STAND IT ANY LONGER! Ternabout's fair play. No terning back now. The ol' punster has passed the point of no retern. --Charley Harper"

Harper is also credited with illustrations from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Dinners for Two. The Duotone illustrations are very reminiscent of prevailing mid-century art, but with a bit of a twist. has a nice devotional to Harper's work (cookbook image above courtesy of and describes Harper's interlude with the Crocker cookbook in the following way: "The drawings exude a sophisticated whimsy -- and they're quite funny (in a sometimes sick way). Who else would decorate the meat section with a 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' scene?"

Image courtesy of

Fortunately for us, an array of Harper's work is available in all its full-color splendor thanks to An Illustrated Life. Oldham's book is truly reverent of Harper's life and work and provides a wonderful point of reference for illustrators and illustration enthusiasts who love mid-century design (or all good design for that matter).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

And Speaking of the 1940's...

I wanted to encourage my small but loyal throng of readers to definitely check out Jenny Lerew's blog, The Blackwing Diaries, this week as I am completely thrilled with her recent post of illustrations from the storybook she acquired, Walt Disney's Fantasia's "Dance of the Hours", published in 1940. It's about time I paid my respects to Ms. Lerew as her blog has been very inspiring to me, and is foremost on my daily routine of blog stops. As a story artist at Dreamworks and CalArts graduate, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge on all things illustration/animation/concept art with a love and respect for animation of days past that is really refreshing to find (her blog should be your first and last stop for anything Fred Moore related). She always posts beautiful and rare finds, often from her own collection of keepsakes.

Fortunately for us, Jenny has taken on the laborious task of scanning and uploading images from her "Dance of the Hours" book which are really not to be missed. The above image comes direct from Ms. Lerew's blog, which I hope she will make an allowance for as the use is really intended to be a promotion for the post in its entirety which can only be viewed from Jenny's page. As always, this, along with other fabulous images, are coupled beautifully with her always intriguing anecdotes and intelligent story background. Thank you Ms. Lerew for keeping us both well-educated and well-entertained with your always insightful posts.

The ABC's of Illustration

For those of you who were worried I'd left and was never coming back... have no fear, I'm here with a vengeance to make-up for my lapse in posts! Since I last posted I picked up this ditty: ABC Alphabet Cards. Kitsch, I know. Useless, I know. But totally adorable and worth having, yes. The cards are made by Cavallini Papers & Co., Inc. They really make the most splendid printed items: napkins, notebooks, and other useless frivolities like these cards which I admittedly bought just for the sheer pleasure of the adorable illustrations. The illustrations are vintage inspired with the "milk" for "M" painted delicately in an old glass bottle and the "garage" for "G" housing an old 1940's car inside.

I haven't quite figured out how to justify the purchase by making a practical use out of them. Of course in my head I like to think about saving them away until I have a little boy or girl and can add them to the assortment of other vintage inspired toys in his or her little nursery. Items like these really satisfy my need for both the whimsical side of art and creation and the more obsessive compulsive side of me which loves to see patterns and organization. This dichotomous obsession is probably also responsible for my love of illustration plates (such as the botanical prints featured in one of my earlier posts).

Further, anytime one can make learning time play-time as well, and vice versa, I'm an immediate fan. (Granted I have moved beyond my ABC's at this point.) But for children, the pairing is simply novel. Make education fun and children will remember what they're learning. So for the day I guess I'm reliving my childhood by learning my ABC's in a new and whimsical way. I hope you enjoy some of the illustrations as much as I do.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How Walt Disney Cartoons are made

This is really entertaining, and even a bit educational, for those of you who haven't yet seen this video on YouTube. Here we see Walt Disney looking young and dashing in this documentary which doubled as a great press opportunity to advertise Walt's first full length feature film. What's really amusing is just how dated the film proves to be. The monotonic voice of the spokesman is made even funnier thanks to the repeated allusion to the ink & paint department's "pretty girls." (and they were even lucky enough to have an air-conditioned and well-lit room to perform their work in too!) The film also has some rare glimpses of the animation process back in the 1930's in action and a view of Snow White's test run in the movieola projector. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Of Paintings and Pumpkins

I've been dying to put these up. Just dying - ever since that inconspicuous brown box from arrived on my doorstep a week ago. And it's really a crime that I didn't do this sooner, but what are you going to do? What box, you ask? My long awaited copy of Walt Disney's book Cinderella retold by Cynthia Rylant and last, but most importantly, illustrated by Mary Blair. Just when I think my faith in the Walt Disney company couldn't sink any lower (*ahem* see post: "Disneyland's Saddest Hour"), they blow me out of the water with something like this. Amen sisters.

But all joking aside, this really is a fantastic book. First of all, it's authored by Newberry Medal winner Cynthia Rylant. In true Disney fashion, this book appeals to both children and adults alike. The prose is both simple and poignant - a testament to Rylant's remarkable writing skills. The back of the book reads simply "In silence, Love found them."

Rylant's beautiful storytelling ability is bested only by Mary Blair's illustrations. Words really can't describe them. They are simply lovely, as all of her work is. As we all know by now Mary Blair is without a doubt my favorite concept artist. Perhaps even my favorite artist of all time. Clearly John Canemaker's The Art and Flair of Mary Blair is a book collection essential for fans of her work, but that book doesn't contain the wealth of concept paintings from Cinderella alone that Walt Disney's Cinderella does.

Seeing Blair's illustrations right alongside the story's words, it becomes clear why Mary Blair was such an outstanding storyboard/concept artist. Despite the flatness of colors and the simple forms Blair is able to accurately capture something so many artists miss: the mood. Blair had an uncanny talent for harnessing the contrast of dark and light to create an incredibly accurate mood that words alone cannot adequately portray. In other words, they translate.

Over and over again what I hear about animation, cartoons, and story-telling in general is that the images must translate. If an image doesn't translate, it's pretty much DOA - Dead on Arrival. A successful illustration must translate, and then it must relate. It's no wonder that Disney, despite the flatness of her designs and lack of realism in her paintings, was a huge fan of Blair's work. Her job wasn't to animate objects in a believable manner, it was to conceive, conceptualize, a story and to set the tone and mood for the animators to follow. Disney certainly knew what he was doing when he hired Blair. Her illustrations helped bring two of Disney's most successful films to fruition: Peter Pan, and, of course, Cinderella (I'd like to argue for three successful films and include Alice in this list, but sadly, at the time it premiered it was pretty much a flop. See: Through the Looking Glass- Reflections on Alice).

I commend Disney for overseeing the release of this lovely book, I really do. It's refreshing to see quality children's books being published, especially with dazzling illustrations. And, just when I thought I couldn't take any more excitement, rumors have been stirring about that Disney Press has both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan books with Blair's illustrations in the works. I tell ya folks, I couldn't be any happier than a five year old kid on Christmas.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Back to the Old Drawing Board

Today's post comes about from a smattering of posts around the bloggosphere that I've noticed lately concerning a very fundamental, but oft overlooked truth about creating art. Whether illustrating children's books, animating cartoons, or creating charactures (list not exclusive), it is absolutely crucial that an artist be well-educated (and well-practiced) in drawing. Friend and skilled draughtsman Brent Eviston (his art featured above) beautifully describes the importance of having a thorough understanding of the foundations of drawing in this way:

There are numerous master painters throughout history who have insisted on seeing only aspiring apprentices drawings, not paintings, in order to see whether they had any future in art. I believe that this is because of the immediacy and honesty of a drawing. The immediacy of a thought translated directly into line and the honesty of a medium which, unlike paint, cannot be easily covered or edited. Every line drawn rests on the surface as a record of exactly what the artist was thinking.

When you think of it this way, all the other fluff you add to a drawing like color and texture is really just, well, fluff.

There is a sad phenomenon happening in many of the art schools around the country. Lately, it seems, colleges and universities are more intent on cultivating "creativity" and "free-thinking" than students who are armed with the fundamental skills that launching an art career requires. And please, before you start labeling me as one of those hyper-conservative, stodgy old-fogey types who's hell-bent on poo-pooing anything new or revolutionary, understand that I value creativity and free-thinking as much as the next liberal. But sheer creativity does not an artist make. There have been plenty of "creative" and "free-thinking" inventors, scientists, doctors and politicians. And many of them contributed invaluable tools, laws, and medicines that would never have been possible had they lacked the necessary "creative" and "outside of the box" thinking that those contributions required. But the same is true for all of them as it is for artists: behind every successful "creative genius" lies a person armed with specific learned tools of the trade - tools that make the implementation of creativity successful and that give ideas the necessary structure to flourish.

It's something so instinctual, something so ingrained in us since childhood, yet still so easy to just gloss over. Just as a student can't be expected to calculate mathematic derivations without first knowing how to add, subtract and multiply, neither can we expect an artist to successfully create a believable landscape in oils unless he or she understands the basic principles of line, perspective, and light. And too often for artists drawing becomes a chore ("ugh I should be keeping my sketchbook with me and doing short studies while I'm riding the metro in the morning"). But just as doing higher order trig functions requires years of practicing times-table drills, so does creating successful art require putting in hours of quick sketches and gesture drawings.

The ASIFA Hollywood Animation Archives had a fantastic post up last week about artist Carlo Vinci. Behind this man, a master of animation, was someone skilled across the board in a host of types and styles of art formally trained at The National Academy of Design in New York City. The moral, as the article points out, is this:

If you're an animation student, focus on your core art skills, regardless if you plan to do hand drawn, CGI, cut out or puppet animation. Computer programs will come and go...Demand that your school provide you the same quality of education that Carlo Vinci had. Work hard. Study to become an ARTIST...Vinci's job was to animate, but his occupation was ARTIST. The same was true of most of the other great talents in animation- Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Grim Natwick... The reason they were great animators was because they were great artists.

Vinci, best known for his animation of The Flinstones, was also responsible for producing outstanding drawings like the one featured below (courtesy of the ASIFA website).

I was really inspired this week by some fantastic figure drawings by Pete Emslie on his Cartoon Cave blog (see my noteworthy links). He posts some fantastic examples of gestures (see below for some of the drawings courtesy of Pete's blog) as well as more detailed portraits of one of his regular models, Heather. What's particularly fascinating is seeing Emslie's transition between close-to-life drawings and the caricatured product. I strongly encourage you to look at the drawings on his website to see how important that base in good technical drawing skills is to producing well-constructed caricatures and cartoons.

There really is no substitute for a solid background in drawing and the fundamental concepts of line and construction in an artists repertoire of tools. Similarly, there are no shortcuts to having outstanding drawing abilities save taking the time to sketch on a regular basis to keep yourself sharp. So this week, for all of you artists reading, take some time to give your art, whether paintings, graphic designs, cartoons, or illustrations, a solid scaffold to run on and get back to the old... well, you know.