How ‘Bambi’ Got Its Look From 1,000-Year-Old Chinese Art

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The Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong, who died last week at 106, was an incredibly accomplished painter, illustrator, calligrapher and Hollywood studio artist. But as Margalit Fox wrote in her obituary for Mr. Wong, “because of the marginalization to which Asian-Americans were long subject, he passed much of his career unknown to the general public.”

Work on ‘Bambi’

Mr. Wong is most renowned for his essential contribution to Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic, “Bambi.” While he worked a drudge’s job at the Disney animation studio during the day, he spent nights painting hundreds of watercolors to show his own vision of the film’s look. Mr. Wong’s style emphasized the film’s animal characters in the foreground, evoking the lush surrounding forest with minimal brushwork, gentle washes and slashes of color.

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Two of Mr. Wong’s visual development works for “Bambi.”
CreditTyrus Wong Family; Disney 2017

It was a departure for Disney, which had earned heaps of praise for lavishly detailed backgrounds in earlier films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which earned an honorary Academy Award for its innovations.


Mr. Wong’s work was stark, detailing just a few figures within a vast landscape, and imbued with a powerful and atmospheric sense of emotion.

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Another “Bambi” watercolor by Mr. Wong.
CreditCourtesy of Tyrus Wong Family; Disney 2017

“You could practically smell the pine,” said Michael Labrie, the director of the Walt Disney Family Museum, who was curator of an exhibition devoted to Mr. Wong’s work in 2013. “This was what they were looking for.”

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A still from “Bambi.”
CreditWalt Disney Productions

“The thickets and trees Tyrus paints show less of what you would see and more of what you would feel walking through a forest,” Charles Solomon, an animation historian, wrote in the exhibition catalog.

Wong’s Influences

The spare but expressive style of Mr. Wong’s work draws heavily from the landscape paintings of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279). In an interview, Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, called this period “the height of Chinese painting.”

Finely detailed elements, such as a gnarled tree or a sailboat crossing a lake, were surrounded by landscapes rendered in extremely subtle flecks and shades of ink. Although these works were made solely with black ink, artists at the time aimed to incorporate every shade of gray within their works, using deliberate brushwork and exquisite care.

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“Sailboat in Rainstorm,” by Xia Gui, about 1189–94. Ink and color on silk.
CreditMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

This almost abstract style, Ms. Berliner said, was a philosophical reaction against the tradition of realism. (A sort of 10th-century avant-garde, you could say.) Artists in this mode argued that purely representational work was “seductive” — dangerously sensual.

By comparison, Song dynasty painting idealized the expression of the artist, and the painting as a direct connection with the heart and soul of its creator.

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A visual development watercolor for “Bambi.”
CreditCourtesy of Tyrus Wong Family; Disney 2017

Mr. Wong was also innovative in his use of vivid colors, rarely seen in traditional Chinese painting.

Later Works

Mr. Wong was fired from Disney in the aftermath of a labor dispute, but soon found work elsewhere in the film industry, where he illustrated scripts, drew storyboards and painted production images for more than two decades at Warner Bros. To get the job, he created a remarkable portfolio of Aladdin illustrations, which can be seen in the catalog from his retrospective exhibition.

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A pre-production illustration by Mr. Wong for “The Wild Bunch,” directed by Sam Peckinpah.
CreditCourtesy of Tyrus Wong Family

Mr. Labrie, the Walt Disney Family Museum curator, sees a consistency throughout Mr. Wong’s work. “You don’t get just a pretty picture,” he said. “You really get a sense of being in that moment.”

Mr. Wong also painted Christmas cards and magazine covers, and made designs for dinnerware. And he spent many years building elaborate kites, which he flew on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. But his signature style seems to have crystallized around the time of those “Bambi” drawings in the ’30s: clearly rendered figures that are rampant, or dreamy, amid landscapes evoked by absence.

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A self-portrait from about 1930.
CreditCourtesy of Chinese American Museum, gift of Sanora Babb

“He had such a passion for art,” Mr. Labrie said, sharing a quotation from his conversations with Mr. Wong that he had committed to memory: “‘If you can do a painting with five strokes instead of 10, you can make your painting sing.’”



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