CELabrating Disney Ink and Painters

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

While giving artist Herb Ryman a tour through the Hyperion Studio prior to his employment, Walt Disney pointed out that the animator’s drawings were sent to the ink and paint department to be transferred to celluloid in a precise and painstaking job delegated to the patience of women.

“They are transparent and highly flammable; the celluloid sheets, of course,” joked Walt. (These and more Ryman stories can be found in the newest biography of the talented artist: Warp and Weft: Life Canvas of Herb Ryman at this link.)

I really enjoyed a recent article about the ink-and-paint girls at the Disney Studio in the March issue of Vanity Fair (here is a link to the entire article). I do know that several books focusing on ink-and-paint girls, who I consider the unsung heroines of many Disney productions, are supposedly in early preparation, including one that will include multiple interviews with Evelyn Henry Coats, the Inking Department supervisor on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Many years ago, I supplemented my then-meager public school teacher income by partnering with a good friend in the Los Angeles area and selling animation art at conventions, collectible shows and through the mail. I was amazed at the frenzy of cel collectors and even more amazed at animation studios that were producing a seemingly endless stream of limited edition cels, sericels, and more to take advantage of this market. There were even counterfeit cels. In 1982, Walt Disney Productions filed suit against William Needham and Old Friends-Cine Gallery for having reproduced and sold counterfeit animation cels of Disney characters (and in addition, had counterfeited the seal and labels used on authentic Disney cels).

Just as Xerography eliminated the need for someone to hand ink an image onto a cel, the introduction of computer coloring while offering flexibility (and faster time and less labor) and a wider range of colors, also eliminated the need for a physical cel entirely. To those who I knew who worked in animation, cels were just one of the steps in the assembly line process of animation, and sometimes animators would explain that a lot of the life of the character was sometimes lost in that step. Cels were considered just a disposable item once they have been filmed and were thrown away, abused for fun (like creating a homemade slip and slide), posted on the walls of children’s rooms or sometimes saved by an artist at the studio who worked on that character.

I recently ran across my catalog for merchandise from the fabled Art Corner store in Tomorrowland at Disneyland that I visited in the early 1960s. (The Art Corner closed September 1966.) One description immediately caught my attention:

“Walt Disney Cartoon Character Guides. These 16-page guides contain the actual model sheets used by the artists at the Walt Disney Studios in drawing the various Disney characters. Each book covers all the proportions, positions and characteristics of one particular character. An invaluable source of information for the budding young artist. $1.16 each.”

The always fascinating and erudite animator Michael Sporn has posted the interiors of several of these How to Draw books on his site (link). They were laid out and put together by Disney animator Paul Carlson (who later also did a How to Draw Mr. Magoo book in a similar format when he was working at U.P.A.). Anyway, from an interview with Carlson, here are the credits on those books: “Bob Carlson and I did the How to Draw Donald Duck book. John Lounsbery and I did the Mickey book, and John Sibley did the How to Draw Goofy and How to Draw Pluto. Bill Justice and I did the Chip ‘n Dale one, and Jerry Hathcock and I did the Jiminy Cricket.”

While we think of Ward Kimball when we think of Jiminy Cricket, for a period of time in the 1950s, it was Hathcock who was considered the Jiminy expert, and he was the one who did the key animation for the traditional Jiminy Cricket in things like the original Mickey Mouse Club animated shorts (“I’m No Fool,” “You the Human Animal,” “Encyclopedia” and more) and the commercials for things like Baker’s Instant Chocolate mix.

I am a big fan of Jiminy Cricket and I somehow found the money as a kid to purchase at the Art Corner an original cel of a strutting Jiminy Cricket probably I realize now based on artwork by Hathcock. In that Art Corner catalog was this description:

“Walt Disney Original Celluloid Drawings. Walt Disney ‘originals’ are hand inked and painted in full vivid color, and mounted on heavy colored 9”x12” matboard ready for framing. Not copies, transfers or duplicates of any kind, but the actual hand-drawn art work used in photographing a recent Walt Disney picture. These beautiful pictures are a most appropriate souvenir of Disneyland. Ideal for children’s rooms. Now available are Lady and Tramp and some other characters from this feature. Also Goofy, Donald Duck, Chip’n’Dale, Humphrey the Bear, and Jiminy Cricket, from recent Disney pictures. Please specify your preference, but order is subject to stock on hand. $1.47 complete with souvenir mailing envelope.”

Actually, there were two styles listed: the Regular size (9-inch by 12-inch with a solid pastel color background) and for $2.25 there was the Jumbo size (12-inch by 14-inch with a full-color background, that might be from an entirely different production than the character). I’ve also seen cels with multiple characters (usually from different productions) that were sold for up to $5 at the time. Since I got my cel as a kid, I had no idea it should be kept out of the light and heat and framed in plexiglass so while it has survived, some of the paint has dried and flaked off in places because after all, a cel was only supposed to last as long as it needed to be filmed underneath the camera and then were tossed away.

Jack Olsen (who supplied art supplies to the Disney Studios) was persuaded by Walt Disney to run the Art Corner shop for him. It was Olsen who rescued cels from the garbage cans, cut them down to image size, and prepared them for sale at Disneyland with a rectangular gold sticker that read: “This is an ORIGINAL Celluloid drawing actually used in a Walt Disney Production. Released exclusively at Disneyland.”

Disney artist Malcolm Cobb was told to sort through the cels, and throw away any he thought weren't worth a dollar. Between 1955 and 1973, Disneyland sold hundreds of thousands of these souvenir cels featuring artwork from such films as Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians (even the penguins from Mary Poppins popped up for sale). They were so popular as souvenirs that in addition to the Art Corner, they were also sold at the Emporium on Main Street and in Fantasyland.

You can see some of these unusual cels at Jeff Pepper’s always excellent Web site (link).

Around 1970, the Disney Company became aware that dealers were purchasing these inexpensive treasures and re-selling them, often for as high as $100 each. So Disney created the Disney Art Program and, beginning with Robin Hood in 1973, offered its cels at higher prices, roughly $50, through its theme parks and various mail-order dealers. The cels were sometimes laminated for protection, a process that actually caused the cel to deteriorate faster for lack of oxygen.

Disney began the trend of releasing animation artwork for sale to the public. The first official selling of animation art started in 1938 when Guthrie Courvoisier arranged to sell the original art from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, including not just cels but backgrounds, animation drawings, and story sketches. Of the approximately 500,000 cels used in the animated feature, the Disney staff selected about 8,000 of them and supplied appropriate backgrounds. Courvoisier matted them and included a sticker stating: “This is an original painting on celluloid…it is one of a select few that has been released to art collectors. The remainder have been destroyed.”

The arrangement was so successful that, by mid-1939, the Courvoisier Gallery in San Francisco was also selling artwork from several Disney shorts, including Ferdinand the Bull and Donald’s Golf Game, among others. By the time of Pinocchio in 1940, even a small number of multiplane shots on glass were released for sale. Some of these items sold for as high as $70, which was quite a considerable sum in those days. The licensing arrangement lasted until late 1946 when Courvoisier closed his gallery and went into manufacturing, but just a few weeks ago, the Disney Company decided to create an interesting new collectible.

“Today we’re making every animation art collector’s Courvoisier dreams come true,” said Michael Young, president of Collectors Editions, publisher of Disney Fine Art and exclusive global distributor for Courvoisier Miniatures. “I am thrilled to announce the immediate availability of Courvoisier Miniatures, an important and unique line of Disney vintage-style animation art.”

“The idea behind the new Courvoisier Miniatures program was to turn back the clock and rekindle the Disney flame of those bygone times and bring the techniques that personified Disney art in 1937 to a whole new generation,” said David Pacheco, Disney Master Artist and art director for the program. “It has been more than 60 years since Disney produced artwork like Courvoisier Miniatures. Now Disney art devotees and collectors can not only acquire real handmade Disney fine art, but acquire it at an affordable price, as well.”

Each Courvoisier Miniature is produced in extremely limited numbers and is 6.75-inches by 8.5 inches in size, or one quarter of a standard 16-field animation cel. Utilizing only the finest conservation-grade materials and craftsmanship to preserve and display the art, Courvoisier Miniatures are framed using Neilsen-Bainbridge ArtCare acid-buffered mats, the same materials used in the United States Library of Congress to protect national documents.

For a list of authorized galleries featuring Courvoisier Miniatures visit: www.disneyfineart.com or www.courvoisiergalleries.com.

Over the years, I have interviewed several ink-and-paint girls who worked at Disney and, after listening to them, I would have no desire and no skill to do what they do. I have painted cels for animated productions and, in fact, have taught others how to paint cels. Puddle and pushing the paint is not as easy as it sounds. While animators were warned not to dip their pens into the “company ink,” many animators ended up marrying ink-and-painters, including Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston and even Walt himself.

What did the Disney ink and paint girls look like in the 1930s? Check out this link.

My good friend and talented (but underappreciated) writer John Cawley (link) interviewed Phyllis Craig in 1992 for a book we were working on and here are a few excerpts from that interview that you might not have read.

Craig started as a painter on Peter Pan (1953) moved up to do inking, and, eventually doing color key work on Sleeping Beauty (1959). She left Disney in the 1960s to raise a family, but soon found herself back in the business at Hanna-Barbera’s and then Marvel Productions and Film Roman.

What was it like working as a painter?

“It really was fun. It was like working on a college campus," she said. "This was back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Walt was alive. The painters in those days. We always called each painter ‘a Disney Girl.’ It seemed all of us had a lot in common even though we came from different backgrounds. If you lasted as an inker or a painter you seemed to assimilate this sameness. We all became social friends. When someone new came to work there, you could almost say, ‘she’s going to make it and she isn’t.’ The girls all had a feeling of camaraderie. It was a privilege to be working at Disney. There was never any negativity that I knew of. But then I wasn’t management!

“The paints were a gum-based paint. We used them quite thick in consistency. The painters floated them on and had to be very careful not to overlap colors, like you can now, because a lot of the Disney colors bled. You had to know which colors held their pigments better. They mixed the paint at the Disney studio from pigment, so each production had its own palette. The palettes had fun names like ‘smog green’ and ‘dreiss’ which was a color named after one lady who always wore a chartreuse green. It was just a fun period. We had any amount of colors and any palette we wanted. If they didn’t have what we wanted, they’d make it.

“The inking department was considered very much above the painting department, because they had to have special skills to become an inker. I became an inker for a time. We had charts showing the ink lines going through what would almost be a hair line into a heavy line for the animation we did for television. They had the inking department upstairs, which we never understood. We inked so fine, the people had to shuffle through the corridor. You couldn’t walk through or it would shake the floor and ruin the inking.

“The one thing about Disney, compared to everywhere else I worked is that you had time. When we did a feature, we did it until we finished it. There wasn’t a pre-determined ‘finish date,’ a time we had to be done by. At least I was never aware of one. We took six years to do Sleeping Beauty.

“It was really a different world. The surroundings were unique. We could go to the backlot on our coffee breaks and watch them filming a movie or tv show. We could go into the music department and watch them recording. Everything was there and it was a wonderful place to be.

“Most of the painters didn’t even know how a cartoon was made. They knew nothing but their jobs. That was it. They had no idea of how anything else worked. We were not really allowed to mix with the animation people. We were jokingly called ‘The Nunnery’ in those days. It never bothered me, because I was already married.

“Until I came, and some others who were my age level showed they were interested in learning more than one job, the girls were pretty much tunnel visioned. The only people who worked with and met other departments were color key and Grace Bailey who was head of the entire Ink and Paint department. So even the supervisors of ink and paint really had no direct contact with any of the animation people.

“When the Xerox process came in, we ended up with all the inkers being laid off, except two or three to do registration. Disney then offered to put them on the Xerox crew or the few that had painted could, horrors forbid, go back to painting. A few of them went to WED. In fact one of the top inkers ended up at WED working on the Tiki Room and eventually became a supervisor at WED. But at first it was scary because of the layoff. Of course, the inkers and painters still in the studio did not want to work on the Xerox crew. They felt that it was production line work. The inkers were very upset about it. So were the painters because they didn’t like painting to the Xerox line. After a couple of years, everyone got used to it and it just became another part of the process.

“I think that the hand-inked cels that we did at Disney in the old days, as opposed to the Xerox cels, are a piece of art. The hand inking was fantastic. I did it myself then, but I couldn’t do it now. It often took longer to ink a cel than it did to paint it. King Stephan and King Hubert from Sleeping Beauty had about 16 colors of ink, so you’d have 16 ink jars lined up in front of you. Everybody’s ink lines had to match. Everybody’s ink line had to have the same tapered feeling to it. It was really an art form. I had to agree with Grace Bailey when she said, ‘You don’t just learn to ink, it’s something you have to really work at.’ Any of the old, hand inked cels are really pieces of art.”