Who has had a major influence on your work? Flow asks illustrators about the designs or artworks that continue to inspire them. Illustrator Nina Cosford talks about Mary Blair, her all-time favorite source of inspiration.
“I remember stumbling across the work of Mary Blair when I was at university studying illustration. I felt a literal surge of joy as I gazed at her art; her unusual and bold color palette, her confident use of line and brushwork, and her charmingly playful subject matter. Mary Blair was a concept artist and stylist for Walt Disney during the 1940s and ‘50s, and worked on films such as Peter Pan, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. She played a massively influential role in the aesthetic and feel of those films, yet was merely credited as a ‘color stylist’.”
Making a difference
“Blair inspired me to simplify how I illustrated; celebrating the immediacy and energy of making marks and using white space, outline and block color to suggest things rather than illicitly depict them. Her work can be fun, serious, playful, emotive, light, bold, delicate, naive, sophisticated and sensitive all at the same time, which I think is amazing. One of her colleagues at Disney said she was the first person he knew to use different shades of red next to each other—something that just wasn’t usually done! I love the way she made her own rules and completely defined her own artistic style. Not only was she one of the first women to work in the Disney animation department, but she was responsible for introducing a bold and modernist art style to the company; one that was both sophisticated and childlike at the same time.”
“I first came across Blair’s work in Ruth Krauss’ children’s book I Can Fly, which Blair had illustrated. The story has a female protagonist (something of a rarity in 1950 when it was made), who is instantly likeable both in appearance and her playful tone of narration. Blair’s style works perfectly in depicting this playfulness and I remember feeling so inspired by her bright but restricted color palette, her refreshing use of white space, and the way she shows the domestic setting of the book from the perspective of a child—lying in the grass, soaring into the sky on a swing, underneath tables, crawling along the ground. For me, it really captures that feeling of being an inquisitive child looking out into the world.”
Just like a fairy tale
“I think my favorite work of Blair’s is her concept art for Disney’s Cinderella. It just blows me away. My sister bought me a book containing all the original paintings she made for it. Each piece is so atmospheric with strange color palettes and such dynamic use of scale. For example, the scene where the horse-drawn carriage is speeding towards the castle, taking Cinderella to the ball. There’s a sense of urgency and excitement in this painting, emphasized by the beautiful slant on her drawing as the elements lean towards the direction they’re travelling in. The darkening, cold colors in the background, dragged across with huge sweeps of Blair’s brush, create a slightly ominous mood which feels oddly romantic and optimistic still with the bright glowing moon and elegant illuminated clouds. There is a prominent feeling of unrest throughout the book; moody dark skies, silhouettes and shadows contrasting with the luminous protagonist and sparkling magical moments.”
“When I visited the Walt Disney Family Museum, I was absolutely delighted to find a handful of original Mary Blair paintings on display. From her Cinderella concept art in fact. Gazing at the real-life brush strokes of one of my idols was surreal and so moving it made me cry. I find so much wonder in what she made.”
- You can find out more about Nina Cosford and her work on her website.
- If you’d like to read more about designs or artworks that inspire illustrators, please take a look at the story of Valesca van Waveren.