Tyrus Wong: The Man Who Helped Create a Classic Animated Film

The whimsical paintings of the Chinese-born American painter

It’s highly likely that you became acquainted with the art of Tyrus Wong at a very young age – you just might not have known it at the time. Wong was the lead production illustrator on Disney’s 1942 film Bambi, in which his lush pastel paintings served as the forest backdrop for the iconic animated characters. Wong's delicate watercolors, using traditional Chinese brushwork established him as one of the most important Asian-American artists of the 20th century, as well as influencing many fellow animators and artists, such as William Pajaud.

Born in Guangdong Province, China, Wong had a rags-to-riches life and career. When he was nine years old, his mother, whom he was never to see again, sent him to the United States. There he reunited with his father, who worked in Sacramento, and the pair later moved to Los Angeles, where they lived for several years in a community house for single men on Chinatown’s Ferguson Alley.

Chinatown in Los Angeles

Wong’s father encouraged his son to practice calligraphy on old newspapers and helped him secure small painting commissions for neighborhood businessmen. A schoolteacher also recognized Wong’s talent and recommended him for a summer scholarship at Otis Art Institute, where he became the youngest student ever to receive such an award. He eventually earned a full working scholarship, doing odd jobs around campus in lieu of paying tuition.

After graduating from Otis in 1930, Wong painted advertisements and worked at Chinatown’s Dragon’s Den restaurant, a popular hangout for artists, until it closed under Depression-era financial duress. Wong found work with the Federal Arts Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, painting oils and watercolors for a small monthly salary. Along with several other Asian-American artists, sometimes referred to as the "California Orientalists", Wong's work combined Chinese elements with the Western modernism he was introduced to during his education.

Chinese Celestial Dragon, by Tyrus Wong, 1941(From the collection of The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles)

As the Depression began to subside, Wong was hired as an artist for Disney, working as an "in-betweener" at the studio where he was tasked with drawing the series of sketches that take a character from one scene to the next. However he quickly rose to fame after he impressed Walt Disney with his preliminary pastel sketches for the film Bambi; his impressionistic style provided the ideal backdrop as it was beautiful but simple enough to foreground the colorful characters of the story. His art was used singularly throughout the finished picture, a rarity in Disney’s animated features. This process was an immense creative undertaking for which he was honored with the title “Disney Legend” in 2001.

In the aftermath of an animators’ strike in 1941, Wong was forced to leave Disney before the release of Bambi in 1942, moving on to Warner Bros. (with intermittent work at Republic Studios), where he painted and sketched concept art for live-action classics such as Rebel Without a Cause, Around the World in 80 Days, Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Wild Bunch. He retired in 1968.

The Cove, by Tyrus Wong, 1960s (Courtesy of the Hammer Museum)

In addition to working in Hollywood, Wong had a lively presence in Los Angeles galleries and museums and participated in several cooperative ventures, including Eleven Associated, a gallery active in the early 1950s that showed primarily African American work. Wong also successfully translated his fine art practice into best-selling Christmas card designs as well as dinnerware for Winfield Pottery that was subsequently mass-marketed in department stores across the United States.

Hailed for his watercolors and ceramics, Wong was influenced in part by his Otis mentor Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who encouraged his student’s combination of traditional Chinese brushwork, taken from both calligraphy and landscape painting, and natural subjects in movement. Wong demonstrated these techniques in a short film made in 1954 for the Encyclopedia Britannica by Eliot O’Hara, an influential American artist who helped popularize watercolor painting through instructional films and books.

Deer on Cliff, by Tyrus Wong, 1960s (Courtesy of the Hammer Museum)

Wong was featured in the 2011 exhibition Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Now Dig This! documented the development of a major community of African American artists in Southern California, as well as a network of friends who helped and championed them. Like Wong, these friends were not always African American.

Wong's life is the subject of a feature-length documentary, directed by Pamela Tom, titled Tyrus (2015). The film also brings to light the larger context of Chinese and Japanese artists working in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, a topic first explored in depth by writer and independent curator Lisa See, whose 1995 book On Gold Mountain details many of Wong’s exploits as a young artist in Chinatown.

His work of the last few decades consisted of intricately fashioned kites in the forms of dragons, birds, and myriad other animals that he would fly over the beach in Santa Monica.

Wong passed away in 2016 at the age of 106. Having been an artist for the better part of a century, he demonstrated an inexhaustible commitment to creative expression and his imagination left a lasting impression on the art world and Disney fans all around the world.

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