Alice in Wonderland, 1951

Since the 1930s, talented artists have been behind the magic of Walt Disney. But, more often that not, we don’t know their names. So, here are 10 of the most famous Disney artists, and the iconic characters they created, from from Cinderella to Cruella De Vil.

Was Walt Disney a talented artist himself?

Walt Disney was not only a talented artist himself but also commercially-minded from the very start. As a child, he loved to draw and sold his first sketches to neighbours, friends and family. He hoped to become a newspaper cartoonist and, aged 18, secured a job as an illustrator for a local newspaper before moving into commercial art and advertising studios, where he met Ub Iwerks. Dissatisfied in their current roles, Disney and Iwerks ventured into animation together and in 1928 developed the animated character Mickey Mouse who first appeared in the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie. The rest, as they say, is history… and together they created other characters from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Donald Duck.

“I can never stand still. I must explore and experiment. I am never satisfied with my own work. I resent the limitations of my own imagination” – Walt Disney.

As the studio grew, Disney had hired a team of animators, illustrators and artists whose work he oversaw in the studio. The first group of these were known, and referred to affectionately by Walt himself, as his “Nine Old Men”. The group consisted of Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, and John Lounsbery.

It’s said after hours he would look in the artists’ bins, pulling out crumpled paper to find discarded ideas and drawings he thought held promise. Welcoming a multiplicity of approaches and ideas for full-length feature films, Disney worked with his colleagues to successfully produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio and Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942) and the list goes on. So here are 10 of the most famous Disney artists, from members of the original team of 9 and later animators hired by Walt himself to those still making Disney magic today.

History’s most famous Disney artists

most famous Disney artists
Concept art of the Queen’s character by Joe Grant, Wikipedia / The Evil Queen from Snow White, Wikipedia

Joe Grant

Joe Grant started his career as a staff illustrator for The Los Angeles Record, sketching weekly cartoons and caricatures of Hollywood celebrities. But when his drawings caught the eye of Walt Disney, he was hired to design caricatures for Mickey’s Gala Premiere in 1933. He went on to develop powerful characters such as the Queen and the Witch in Snow White, and contributed to the visual and character development of a number of features, including Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. He worked four days a week at Disney until he passed away, a few days before his 97th birthday, on May 6, 2005.

Mary Blair

Initially disinterested in working as a concept artist, Mary Blair became Walt Disney’s favourite artist during the 1930s, when she played a hugely important role in redefining the look of the films. In the late 1930s, her husband Lee joined The Walt Disney Company. It wasn’t long before his team sought to hire his wife, whom they considered the “better” artist. Joining the Disney studio on April 11, 1940, she started creating story sketches for films such as Dumbo (1941). However, again frustrated at being unable to express her own artistic vision, on June 13, 1941, Blair resigned.

Then, a month later, her husband came home with news that changed her mind: Walt Disney had announced that he was taking a small party of studio artists on a two-month trip to South America. Not wanting to miss out, Blair made an appointment with Disney, who rehired her and agreed that she could join the tour.

Returning to the studio, and inspired by the tropical landscapes she’d seen on her travels, Blair replaced earthy browns, blues, and greys with a more vivid palette. Disney was enchanted, as Blair remembered proudly: “Walt said that I knew about colour s that he had never heard of before”. Breathing new life into old fairy tales, Blair proceeded to work on classics from the 1940s to the 1960s, including Cinderella (1950), Alice Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). 

most famous Disney artists
Bambi Concept/Layout Drawing Original Art by Marc Davis (Walt Disney, 1942)

Marc Davis

Marc joined Disney in 1935 as an apprentice animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and moved on to story sketch and character design on Bambi, developing the characters of both Bambi and Thumper. Over the years, he animated characters from Tinker Bell to Maleficent, Aurora and the raven (in Sleeping Beauty) and Cruella De Vil. He once said, “I rarely felt confined to the animation medium. I worked as an idea man and loved creating characters, whether they be for animation or any other medium.”

In 1961 Davis transferred to Disney’s design and development organization, today known as Walt Disney Imagineering. He was responsible for character design for both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion attractions at Disneyland, also contributing to the Enchanted Tiki Room and Jungle Cruise, among many others.

most famous Disney artists
In Earle’s hands, Maleficent transformed into a terrifying dragon, Heritage Auctions

Eyvind Earle

Earle moved Disney’s look on when he came to the Disney studio in 1951, bringing strong shapes and silhouettes to the aesthetic. He worked on background artwork and illustrations for Peter Pan, as well as other short films, but the pinnacle of his work for Disney was the landmark 1959 feature film Sleeping Beauty. He was responsible for this classic film’s overall production design, including styling, background, colour and character development, bringing the likes of Maleficent to life, as a terrifying black dragon. He’s inspired many artists working today, including Michael Giaimo.

Ken Anderson

In 1934, Ken Anderson was Idriving past the Walt Disney Studio when, on a whim, he pulled over to apply for a job. Good thing he did, as he fast became a key player in some of the studio’s most well-known animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. Among Anderson’s character creations were the evil Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, as well as the playful dragon Elliott in Pete’s Dragon. He was also the artist behind the Aristocats, taking a whole eighteen months to develop the adorable cats.

Who are the best Disney concept artists working today?

most famous Disney artists
Tim Burton The Black Cauldron Horned King Animation Drawing (Walt Disney, 1985). Heritage Auctions.

Tim Burton

In 1980, Tim Burton began his cinematic career as an apprentice animator for Walt Disney Studios. Early on, he worked as an animator, storyboard artist, graphic designer, art director, and concept artist on several films, including The Fox and the Hound (1981), Tron (1982), and The Black Cauldron (1985). However, Burton’s contributions never made it into the finished films, as it was agreed that his gothic aesthetic didn’t suit Disney’s style and audience – children.

Although recognising Burton’s talent and supporting some of his projects, Disney let him go. However, in the 1990s the pair reunited to create and produce The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Based on a poem Burton wrote in 1982 (while working as a Disney animator), it tells the story of Jack Skellington, the King of Halloween Town who stumbles upon Christmas Town and plots to take over the holiday. Continuing to collaborate with Disney, Tim Burton’s most famous Disney characters and titles include James and the Giant Peach (1996), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016).

Tony Fucile 

During the first fifteen years of his career, Tony Fucile worked with pencil on paper to help bring life to characters including Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mufasa from The Lion King. A great storyteller, he then moved into computer animation at the studio Pixar, working on the films Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and The Incredibles, for which he was a supervising animator. 

Michael Giaimo

Highly influenced by Eyvind Earle, Michael Giaimo brought his dramatic style to the designs for Pocahontas. As he has explained: “We took some research trips to Virginia, and after observing the flat planes and Virginia pines, I suggested that the Eyvind Earle aesthetic was the way to go. The cool and the warm temperatures against each other. Like Eyvind, I was not afraid to use black in our characters. I gave our villain Governor Ratcliffe a palate that was very unnatural to the forest, because he was the intruder.” He has also worked as visual development artist and director on the Frozen films where, once again, the strong verticals from Earle, appear in the characters, landscapes and even the snowflakes!

Norm and Griselda ‘Griz’ Lemay

Norm and Griz Lemay are a husband-and-wife duo who both work at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Norm is a storyboard artist who’s worked on Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana. Griz works as a visual development artist specialising in character and costume design and her contributions can be seen in Frozen 2, Wreck It Ralph 2, Moana, Penguins of Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and Puss in Boots.

Best books about Disney history and artists

If you want to discover more about the most famous and inspiring Disney artists, then here are some of the best books about Disney history. These have helped my own research and double up as beautiful coffee table books!

Ink & paint : the women of Walt Disney’s animation, Disney Editions, by Mindy Johnson and June Foray, 2017

The Walt Disney Film Archives by Taschen, 2022

Art of Pixar: The Complete Colorscripts and Select Art from 25 Years of Animation, 2011

AND I also LOVE the boxes of collectible postcards featuring concept art by Disney artists (pictured above). I bought myself ‘The Art of Disney: The Golden Age (1937-1961)’ as it includes artwork by Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle, among others

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