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 Amazon.com.