When I visited the Tyrus Wong exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum a couple months ago, one of the most gorgeous Bambi background paintings I saw wasn’t painted by Wong but by a guy named Art Riley. The painting was exhibited as a reproduction, but nonetheless I was blown away by the subtlety of Riley’s watercolor wash technique and the majestic sense of space and mood that he created in the piece. It served as a reminder that even though certain painters like Wong and Eyvind Earle get most of the credit nowadays, the Disney studio’s background department was filled with amazing unsung talents.
Riley painted backgrounds on countless Disney features and shorts, among them Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Hockey Homicide, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree and Donald and the Wheel.
The series of paintings presented in this post, entitled Christmas in Bugville, were published in Ideals magazine in the early-1950s. I don’t know how many of them Riley created, or whether there’s a bigger story behind them, but the paintings (even in low-quality digital pic form) are worth seeing. In these paintings, Riley displays a remarkable command of composition, design, texture and color, and on top of everything, he understands how to caricature for cartoon appeal.
Needless to say, he was an accomplished artist beyond the animation world, and some of his fine art pieces, which can be classified under the California Watercolor School, are viewable on this website.
[UPDATE]: Animation director Jordan Reichek shares with us three additional Art Riley paintings. They are displayed the gallery below. Jordan tells us more about the pieces and Riley in general:
Really stunning in person and FLAWLESS/EFFORTLESSLY executed. All three are for California Artists Christmas cards, for which Mary Blair, Claude Coats, Tyrus Wong, Eyvind Earle, and John Hench, among others at Disney, did art for. Riley did a lot of extracurricular work for CA Artists, Film Fair, Coronet Magazine, Golden Books/Whitman publishing and other commercial illustration outlets…all while working at Disney. The thing about Art Riley is that he could take the work of other stylists, such as Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle, and use their exact style with more practical application to the films. He’s sort of like the BG equivalent of what Milt Kahl would do to bring Bill Peet’s story drawings to life: capture the intensity of the original while keeping 100% Disney and pumping it up a notch.