The strength and beauty of the Disney legacy lies in an unparalleled commitment to visual storytelling. This is made possible by the many exceptionally talented illustrators that have told (and continue to) tell Disney stories. I had the good fortune to become part of this amazing commitment when I first walked into Walt Disney Imagineering, the creators and builders of the Disney theme parks. Story illustration was well established in the Disney animated and live-action films and had been brought to theme parks with Walt Disney’s desire to bring these animations to life—creating a Disney physical universe. He wanted to create a story experience for children of all ages to enjoy.
"Tom is someone who pushes the envelope in the most positive sense of that term. While he's a traditional artist, he trained for several decades at Disney. Surrounded by some of the most multi-disciplined artists in the world, he was equipped with the skill sets to be a fine artist—moving from the illustrator class of artists to a fully accomplished artist in his own right. I was drawn to him because he was willing to experiment and develop a style of his own. An identity not to be confused with other artists. Gilleon’s unique style engages the viewer, giving a glimpse into how he looks at the world in a way that causes you to interact with his art and learn more about yourself."
- Tom Petrie, Former Chairman Bank of America | Founder Petrie Institute of Art | Trustee C.M Russell Museum
Disney illustrators use fine art principles to create a standard of enduring excellence using elements such as perspective, value, color, line, rhythm, form, and harmony. Perspective is a technique that allows objects in the background to appear smaller than those in the foreground and allows the illustrator to pull the viewer deep into the painting, creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface like paper or canvas. Value is the contrast of light and dark areas in an illustration that creates tension, drama, thrill, surprises, and delight. The illustrator paints in pure emotion through color. For me, that pure emotion comes from the childhood memory of getting a brand new box set of 24 crayons with their original points smelling of warm wax. Seeing all those colors, I was excited by their potential to express mood and feeling. Color is the property of light and objects have the ability to reflect light but they have no color of their own.
If the illustrator wants to create danger and the unknown as in the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, the light is turned down and in the darker setting even the brightest colors change their tone to match the mood. Line allows the illustrator to establish boundaries and borders. Paul Klee, well known 20th-century Swiss watercolorist and painter, referred to a line as a dot that went for a walk. This is also a great way to say that line has movement and direction. Rhythm is based on repetition and drives the ebb and flow of movement. The slats of a picket fence moving from the foreground into the background of the painting create a clear repetition of pattern that allows the eye to move comfortably through the illustration.
With form, the illustrator creates the shape of the images that tell the story. The shape of Big Ben signifies the story of England and the red apple foretells danger for Snow White in both the movie and the ride at Disneyland. Technically speaking, form is an object or shape that has its edges defined by a line, color or by a lighter or darker area. Harmony is the repetition of the same or similar elements creating pleasing images that comfort us and create a cohesive composition. We use it when harmony enhances the story. These are the tools that we use to tell our stories visually.
"Disney illustrators use fine art principles to create a standard of enduring excellence using elements such as perspective, value, color, line, rhythm, form, and harmony . . . Here then are a few of the amazing people I had the great fortune to work with at Disney and learn so much from. These are some of the greatest fine art painters in the world."
- Tom Gilleon
All Imagineering artists, designers, and illustrators are visual interpreters. And there are some story illustrators who have the ability to follow their illustrations in development as designers and into the field as art directors. When the designer hat is worn, I see this job as a compilation of keeping the integrity and look of the story whole and fulfilling financial, client, management, and physical requirements that have to be met. Thinking of it this way, the designer is like a composer putting all the required notes together to produce pleasing music. And at other times, the designer acts like an orchestra conductor because the range of assignments is so great. In designing the Pirate’s of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the designers, primarily Marc Davis and Claude Coats, were acting as composers, later when this attraction became a classic element of the Disney theme parks the designers acted more as the conductors because the existing pieces were re-mastered using core scenes with new technology. With the myriad of responsibilities that go with bringing an idea from its inception to the guest experience the portrait of the attraction is the creative vision that we strive to achieve.
I look back on this experience as a bubble in time because I began to work with such people as: Herb Ryman—noted MGM storyboard illustrator, animation art director on Fantasia, and the illustrator for the first sketch of Disneyland. Walt Tyler—art director and production designer for Herbie Rides Again (a nod to Herb Ryman), The Odd Couple, The Ten Commandments, and sixty-eight other films. Boris Levin—art director and production designer on seventy-six films including such classics as West Side Story, Anatomy of a Murder, and Sound of Music. Bob Clatworthy—art director and production designer who worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Psycho and Academy Award winner for production design on Ship of Fools. Jack Martin Smith—film art director making over one hundred thirty films with nine Academy Award Nominations and three Oscars for Cleopatra, Fantastic Voyage, and Hello Dolly,
And, then there were those legendary Disney talents like John Hench, Claude Coats, Sam McKim, X. Atencio, Frank Armitage, and Walt Peregoy to name a few. I was put into the middle of all this extraordinary talent, an amazing magic bubble of the “who’s who” of illustration, creativity, and accomplishment. And being new, I thought that it had always been this way and would always be like this. Little did I know how brief this Camelot was to be and what was to come.
Here then are a few of the amazing people I had the great fortune to work with at Disney and learn so much from. These are some of the greatest fine art painters in the world.