One of the great privileges of being a Disney fan working at Disney is getting the chance to see things you previously only dreamed of seeing in person. A visit to the Disney Publishing Golden Book Archives, where original artwork (created by the likes of everyone from Lorelay Bove to Eric Goldberg) is housed is undoubtedly one of those experiences.
The archives are not open to the public, but lucky for you, we, along with Disney Publishing Vice President of Global Art, Ken Shue, are taking you on an exclusive tour of the collection!
We’re kicking things off with a look at one of the oldest and most beloved Disney Golden Books, the 1952 Walt Disney’s Peter Pan.
This book was illustrated by Disney Legends, John Hench and Al Dempster. John started in the Disney Story Department all the way back in 1939 and was a lead designer of Disneyland. He eventually went on to become Executive Vice President of WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering).
At the time of the book’s release, John was an art supervisor on Peter Pan and was asked by Walt Disney to illustrate the Peter Pan Big Golden Book. Jon recounted his experiences working on the book to Ken saying, “When Walt asked you to take something on, you knew you had to do more than anything like it before. In this case, illustrating a book.” John enlisted Peter Pan background painter Al Dempster to help him. Both worked under the art direction of Mary Blair, who color-styled the film, sequence by sequence.
The duo enjoyed the opportunity to work interpretively, not being driven to create artwork that had to look exactly like the film, and yet they maintained Mary Blair’s color and the atmosphere of her production design.
John created the layouts and pencil lines for each page. He also painted the backgrounds of each illustration in a “wet-on-wet” technique—using gouache, a water-based paint. Then Al painted the characters in casein, a milk-based paint that has more opaque qualities.
The silhouettes of the characters were especially hard to illustrate as they had to be drawn in full detail in order for the final painted version to have maximum personality and recognizability.
To add some extra “magic” to the pages, John created small vignettes at the top and bottom of many of the pages. These contained additional “visual subtext,” something that a child could be looking at while being read to.
Compare this photo to the photo of the full piece and you’ll get a sense of the skill and precision that went into illustrating a Disney Golden Book. Painting a character at this size and in this style was like cutting diamonds!
Both artists worked very fast to produce their works. Believe it or not, an average page would take the artists only three hours to complete! They’d spend two hours on layouts, pencils, and background paint, and one hour for final paint. After a piece was completed, the boards were cut in half to make them easier to print.
John explained to Ken that since this page was illustrated only six years after WWII, an aerial view of London was not a good source for the illustration, so he and Al improvised the river, bridge, and cityscape.
The closeup below showcases the wet-on-wet technique over pencil lines. The stars in this painting were styled by the actual artists that styled the pixie dust for Disneyland, and tons of other animated footage!
The below close-up is a great example of Al Dempster’s ability to improvise with casein. Casein is more opaque than watercolor or gouache, so the yellow (right out of the tube) maintains its hue and does not mix with the blue below. The overall illustration is blue, proving that nighttime does not have to be painted in black!
This piece is from The Little Mermaid Golden Book, illustrated by Ron Diaz. Diaz created many Disney Little Golden Books, all using hand-painted watercolor backgrounds with character art on hand-painted cels, to replicate the exact same materials the film was made with.
This next crop of illustrations showcase works created for the Pixar Golden Books. All the layers of this heavily stylized Finding Nemo design were hand-painted in gouache and scanned for final digital illustrations.
In addition to published prints, the archives also feature unpublished ones. This is an unpublished illustration of Buzz Lightyear circa 2002 from Disney Art Director and Visual Development Artist, Lorelay Bove.
This is another unpublished illustration of a Toy Story train concept, circa 2002, by Bove.
Below is an original storybook illustration created for the Mulan classic storybook art pool. An “art pool” is a body of illustrations that feature film story moments (up to 70 per film) that can be creatively repurposed into different types of storytelling products—books, magazines, ebooks, apps, signage, social media, websites, style guides, etc.
These pools of artwork provide layers of character art, backgrounds, props, and other details that, in the eyes and hands of talented designers throughout the company, are used to develop and produce a large scope of products and guest experiences.
This final piece is an original watercolor painting for the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Classic Storybook art pool created by the Disney Storybook Art Team in 2015. Despite today’s modern tools, the team decided to hand paint the piece in order to best match the artistry and production design of the 1937 classic. “We strive to not let technology dictate the art styles we want,” said Ken in regards to the piece. “We use our eyes first, and then grab the right tools for the job!”
Using the DNA of the original books with the talent and sensibilities of the Disney storybook artists, Disney’s Publishing division is more vibrant and multifaceted than ever before. We can’t wait to see what comes out of this department next.
What’s your favorite piece of art from a Disney Golden Book? Let us know in the comments!