Walt Talks Art

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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One of the chapters that had to be eliminated because of length from my recent book, The Vault of Walt (link) was devoted to unusual, never-reprinted quotes by Walt Disney from obscure or forgotten magazines and newspapers. Fortunately, I was able to weave some of those out-of-the-ordinary quotes into some of the other articles in the book. So, if you like them as much as I do, go buy a copy or two of the book as a Christmas gift.

One of the things that I discover in my research is that the title of an article might only have the slightest connection to what Walt really wants to talk about when he is interviewed. For instance, in this article, Walt goes on at great length about his thoughts on art and what it is, although that is not the title of the article. Perhaps it is because Walt is being interviewed by a well-known (at the time) newspaper artist that the conversation veers toward that topic.

Many of us tend to forget that Walt Disney was indeed an artist and, looking at some of his earlier attempts at cartooning, he was certainly quite a good cartoonist. However, Walt very cleverly realized that he could hire artists who were much better to realize his vision. Yet, he retained his “artist’s eye” when looking at the work of others and visualizing new triumphs.

At the time this article appeared, Walt was basking in critical and financial success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He was in the midst of working on Pinocchio, Bambi and, of course, Fantasia. In fact, in the article, the writer states, “[Walt] foresees famous musicians and playwrights collaborating in films which could not be made if real people were to appear in them and which will depend upon drawings for their heroes and heroines as well as their villains.”

The interviewer also points out that Walt “like disguises and sleight-of-hand tricks”. He also briefly summarizes Walt’s early life and mentions that Walt received $35 dollars a week working at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.

At that point, Walt interjects: “I knew I wasn’t worth it but I decided to try it. It was with the slide company that I got my start in the animated-cartoon game. We made animated advertising films and my boss let me take home an old camera. I set it up in an unused garage and began experimenting in my spare time.”

The writer, Samuel Johnson Woolf, was also an illustrator and graphic artist and noted for his portraits from life of celebrities like General Pershing, Herbert Hoover and Mark Twain. For the New York Times article about Disney, Woolf sketched a charcoal sketch of Walt (along with two dwarfs draped on him and a pleading Mickey Mouse with scary small ears down below).

Woolf’s thoughts as an artist on studying Walt before drawing him were:

“He always uses ‘we’ in speaking of himself where his work is concerned. He refuses to take all the credit for himself. Disney is bigger and huskier than he seems at first impression. He wears his straight, dark hair fairly long and one rebellious lock has a habit of drooping over his right eye. His heavy eyebrows almost meet above a thin, high-bridged nose, and a short-cropped mustache, markedly lighter than his hair, does not hide his small but full-lipped mouth.

“The day he posed for me, he wore a gray, loose-fitting suit and a gray-green shirt and tie. A hat of the same color, which was carelessly thrown on a sofa in his office, had a tiny red feather in its band. In the buttonhole of his lapel he wore a little blue-green silk flower. Despite these two touches of adornment, you could not miss the modesty of the man—an evident desire to remain in the background—an attitude that was almost shy and awkward.

“As he sat there, he brought to mind another humorist who posed for me years before. There is the same serious outlook on the world in the creator of Mickey Mouse as there was about the man who breathed life into Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Both men were first looked upon as entertainers for children, but what was originally thought to be fare for juveniles was soon seen to appeal to grown-ups as much as it did to youngsters. The bushy-haired Mark Twain was as typical of his time as Disney is of his.”

Let me take a moment to dust myself out from digging deeply into old files and share with you from the New York Times of July 10, 1938 the article titled “Walt Disney Tells Us What Makes Him Happy” by S.J. Woolf. As always, I have cut away the surrounding basic biography of Walt and the process of animation to get to just Walt sharing his thoughts:

“What is art? How should I know? We are just moving picture producers. Our aim is to amuse. If we do that, we feel that we have accomplished our purposes and if the public likes what we turn out we just hold our thumbs and consider ourselves lucky.

“Why should anybody be interested in what I think about art? To begin, how can any one say what art is? You see a painting which may mean nothing at all to you. I may look at it and be stirred. To you it is a daub. To me it is art. One man covers a canvas with paint, picturing perhaps a bunch of block and keyholes and another spoils a perfectly good piece of marble by hewing out a monstrosity. Both men say they are artists and a lot of people agree with them.

“Another chap makes a piece of furniture with graceful lines, a piece of furniture that serves its purpose and is beautiful, and he is considered a cabinet maker. I think some one who makes a bed with good lines, in which you can sleep comfortably is more of an artist than the one who paints a picture which gives you a nightmare.

“Have you ever looked at a masterpiece and wondered which was crazy—you or the man who painted it? I think it is impossible to say what art is—for often what is art, for the goose is not art for the gander. We can only paint things as we see them, and few people see things alike.

“I have no favorite painters. I don’t know anything about painting. Oh, yes, I go to exhibitions and I envy the men who can paint a figure of a landscape. But for me there must be something more in a picture than the literal rendering of an object. If that were all that is necessary, a camera would be a better artist than Rembrandt.

“A man must have something to say. He must see things in a new and individual way. He must be stirred by the play of light on flesh or by the glow of the sun on trees and he must be able to put some of the emotion he feels onto his canvas. If he succeeds in doing this, then he is an artist. But, unless he can draw, unless he knows the grammar of his art, I do not believe he is equipped to express his emotion.

“I never felt I could be a painter. When I went to art school, I wanted to be a cartoonist. Line in itself has always appealed to me. I’ve always been interested in caricature. Out at our studio we have lots of young men and women who are great caricaturists, and I have noticed that those who are the ablest draftsmen are the ones who make the best caricatures.

“All art must contain some exaggeration. Every portrait painter unless he is one of those buck-eye painters who copy photographs, exaggerates some of his sitter’s characteristics. But you be careful and don’t give me ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears!

“The artist is handicapped. In one picture he must portray what we try to do in hundreds of pictures. Think how impossible it would be for any one to express all the characteristics of a person in one view of him. But we do not use drawing alone. Mickey Mouse’s voice aids in giving a complete picture of him. He is portrayed happy and sad, quiet and active, and this is accomplished not alone by means of drawing and sound but with the assistance of a thousand and one technical tricks. That is why I say we are not artists but only moving picture producers trying to offer entertainment.

“After we decide upon a story, I give my ideas about how I think the characters should look. I do this in words, not in drawing. The characters must then be developed. They must act consistently and, no matter what the situation, they must preserve their individuality.

“After the artists get a clear idea of what I think the characters should look like and how they should act, then work starts. Penciled drawings are made of the suggestions I have given.

“When the picture is in progress, the entire studio is happy—the men who make the pencil drawings, those who render them in pen and ink, the girls who color them, the camera man. As long as the work goes on everything is marvelous. But at the completion of a picture, there is always a letdown. No matter how many times we have done over parts of it—and, believe me, that often happens—at a first complete showing every one of us feels that we could have done it better. That is the great trouble with this business. We are never satisfied. The returns are not what counts. It is the satisfaction of doing something the way you want to do it—of putting into tangible form what you see in your dreams.

“The fellow with money is not always the one who is happy. I know chaps almost starving in garrets who are painting what they want and getting more fun out of life than a lot of millionaires. There was a boy working for us who had a great future in our studio. But his heart wasn’t in his work, and he decided to chuck it all and paint what he wanted to paint. We gave him a great send-off because we admired his spirit. He had a struggle but he arrived. Even when he was struggling, he was happy for he was doing what he wanted to do.

“That’s why I’m happy. I’m doing what I want to do. I will confess that at times I’d like to take up my art studies again, but I haven’t got the nerve to enter an art class, though I get a lot of fun making sketches for my own amusement. My only regret is that I can’t draw better.

“Say, I’m talking as if I were an artist. In that piece you are going to write just make it clear that I’m not---that all I am is a moving-picture producer.”