A Legend at Work: The Life and Bambi Art of Tyrus Wong

Disney Legend, Tyrus Wong—the artist whose work served as the blueprint for the artistic stylings ofc—passed away this past January. He was 106. Today, they’re honoring the life and legacy of this Disney legend by taking a look at the vibrant paintings of this illustrious artist, widely considered one of the most celebrated Chinese American artists of the 20th century. To fully appreciate Tyrus’ art, one must travel back to the beginning.
Born in 1910 in a small village in the Guandong Province, Tyrus emigrated to America at age nine with his father in hopes of economic opportunity. At the time, the thought of a Chinese American being a professional artist was almost unheard of. And yet amidst working as a houseboy, a janitor, and later a busboy, Tyrus forged on. The artistic spark began with nightly calligraphy lessons from his father. The family couldn’t afford ink and paper and so Tyrus would dip his brush into water and draw on newspaper.  The fleeting nature of the drawings helped inform Tyrus’ style—one in which minimal brush strokes are used to evoke worlds of emotion and feeling.
It was this style that caught Walt Disney’s eye as he was thinking of adapting Felix Salten’s Bambi, a Life in the Woods into his next motion picture following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While the backgrounds in Snow White were incredibly detailed, Disney was struck by Wong’s ability to create lush, impressionistic backgrounds that sing with color, minimalistic brush strokes, and feeling.
“His styling made it different from any other Disney film … you feel the dampness and moisture of everything in the forest, but you didn’t draw every single leaf–they were beautiful,” recalled Marc Davis, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. Composed of Disney’s core group of animators, the Nine Old Men helped bring some of Disney’s most celebrated works, from Snow White to The Rescuers to life.
At the time, Tyrus was an “in-betweener” at the Studio, an entry-level position in which artists would illustrate drawing after drawing to fill in the gaps separating key pose to key pose. However, when Disney discovered these drawings, Wong became the unofficial art director for the film, helping to influence the film’s music, coloring, special effects, and more.
After Bambi, Wong continued to work in the film industry, helping provide concept and story art for films such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild Bunch, and more. He also continued his art career in a variety of mediums including Christmas card designing, ceramics, toy creation, and mural art. In retirement, he fostered a passion for kite-making and created and flew intricate and colorful kites at the Santa Monica Pier.
Today, Wong’s legacy lives on in his beautiful work that has served as inspiration to countless artists working at Disney and Pixar today.

Thank you, Tyrus for your incredible contributions to Bambi, Disney, and the world of art.

Do you have a favorite Tyrus memory? Let us know in the comments!

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