Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

When I was eight years old my family took a trip to California- and the mother of all amusement parks, Disneyland. My sister and I were each allowed one souvenir to remember our visit, and I chose an Alice in Wonderland tea set. I think it was the box with it's colors that excited me more than the actual tea set, though. I grew up loving all of the Disney films including that one, but it wasn't Alice that drew me to the story- it was Wonderland itself that I found to be the most intriguing character, and I was absolutely fascinated by all of the strange and unusual shapes and colors in that curious land.

It wasn't till I got a little older that I discovered the woman behind all of those wonderful colors that I loved, and she quickly became one of my favorite artists. Her name was Mary Blair and she was a color stylist and concept artist for Disney in the 40's and 50's, contributing to Alice and other classics like Peter Pan and Cinderella. The colors she used were completely unrealistic... I loved that. No one before had ever used color the way she did. A green moon, purple grass, red trees. It's no wonder her use of color and unique style was a perfect match for Wonderland, a place where nothing is as it seems. Here are a few examples of Blair's work and a photo of the artist:

When I found out that my local theater was putting on a youth production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I jumped at the chance to use a "Mary Blair" palette, which meant blue-greens, yellow-greens, red-violets, blue-violets, pinkish-lavenders, and so on. Shades of purple played a big role in my designing a color scheme for the set- it's a color that has the ability to evoke a sense of mystery, magic, and whimsy, and that was the mood that I wanted for this setting. One of the other elements of Mary's work that I wanted to bring in was her use of black- in combination with the other brighter colors she used, she gave Wonderland a dark and curious atmosphere without it being scary enough to frighten small viewers.

Designing a set, I have found out, is a huge undertaking and I broke it down into steps early on so I wouldn't get overwhelmed. I had my inspiration, a list of the scene changes, and I spent a few days creating a small model out of a shoebox and models of the moving set pieces (I hope to have that to post up someday, but it was lost somewhere in the theatre during the process). Afterwards I took my model to the paint store where I collected about a hundred of those paint chip cards (the employees must have thought either I had a really big house or I was extremely indecisive!) and I spent about a week getting it narrowed down from 100 to about 12. Here's the color charts and a couple of my little set piece models that didn't get lost:

Another thing I have learned about set design- you have to work fast. There isn't much time between productions, and time to prepare for the Alice production was cut even shorter due to the many blizzards this winter. But the other thing I've learned- it always gets done, the show always goes on. With a set. Here are some photos of the finished design:

Believe it or not, I actually painted the forest scene on that sliding door curtain in about three hours. I don't think I have ever painted anything that fast- it was still drying an hour before the opening show.

If you are interested in seeing more of Mary Blair's work, there is a wonderful book called The Art and Flair of Mary Blair. Also, a few years ago someone had the genius idea of putting her concept work from Cinderella, Alice, and Peter Pan into children's books with retellings by well-known children's authors... I drool over every single page. They're all available on

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Green Gables

The Green Gables is the oldest restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa- it opened in September of 1929 and recently celebrated it's 80th anniversary. The restaurant is a landmark here in town and is known for it's "world famous" hot fudge sundaes (they really are good!) and matzo ball soup (also really good!) There have been thousands of fond memories made and stories told from the servers and loyal customers over the years about their experiences at the Gables. I got to hear many of them when I worked there as a waitress my summer after college, and last spring I came to live with the Seff family (who owns the establishment) and heard many more. I'd been wanting to do some sort of illustration of the restaurant, partly because it's such a well-known and loved place, and partly as a gift to the Seff family. Last fall I got ahold of a photograph of the restaurant taken around the time that it opened- there have been additions made to the building since, but this is how it looked originally:

I inquired with the family as to the original color of the building, so I could make things as accurate as possible, but I was just told "It's always been some shade of green." I suppose that makes sense! So, it was really left up to my imagination.I purposely chose the girl and her father as my characters, because I remember being a child and what a treat it was to have a "date" with dad, to go somewhere special with a parent and have them all to yourself (siblings at home) for an hour or two.

Today is the birthday of my friend Nancy Giles- it was her father Albert Seff who opened the Gables over 80 years ago, and I really kept her in mind during my work on this.

Friday, February 5, 2010

New York City!

All the years I dreamed about going to New York City and last week actually being there- I had to pinch myself. I don't know if it's my love for Art Deco architecture, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, movies like Miracle on 34th Street or Breakfast at Tiffany's, or books like James and the Giant Peach that brought on my fascination with this place, but it seemed like this almost mythical city until I was actually standing there in the middle of it all.

And then it still seemed unreal. My hotel was sandwiched in between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station (!!) and I wasted no time the second I got there throwing my bags in my room and running as fast as I could across the street and through the doors of the iconic Grand Central. And then I couldn't move for about ten minutes... it's called grand for a reason. I've seen it in movies and famous photographs a million times, but to stand there in person... WOW.

I came back through the next evening after a day of illustrator intensive workshops and sat on the steps with a little sketchbook and started doing some gesture drawings of the characters walking in and out. I love to people watch- and there is one of the best places for it. A big sign was posted that said sitting on the stairs was strictly prohibited- I sat anyway, and figured I would draw what I could until somebody told me I had to move... which turned out to be about ten minutes later. Still, I got these:

A side note: the guy in this last one I had to sketch out of the corner of my eye. He seemed like the type of dude who might pummel me if he caught me trying to draw him.

I was very busy with the conference but made time on Sunday night to go back to Grand Central. It wasn't nearly as busy as it had been on Friday evening, and no police officer came and told me to move so I stayed for over an hour and got this down:

I could've spent an entire day there and done a dozen drawings, and there were a hundred more places and people I saw during my short stay that I would have loved to have captured in my sketchbook... there just wasn't enough time. I really did love it there, and I'm glad I had at least enough time to bring a little piece of it home with me in these drawings.