Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2009 by permission of Martin Krause. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the authors directly at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through this phone number or Web address:


Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs: An Art in Its Making

by Martin Krause and Linda Witkowski


"You should have heard all the howls of warning when we started making a full-length cartoon. It was prophesied that nobody would sit through such a thing. But there was only one way we could do it successfully and that was to plunge ahead and go for broke -- shoot the works. There could be no compromising on money, talent, or time," said Walt Disney in 1937 as he assessed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs prospects.[1]

Walt Disney employed 750 artists during the film's production between 1934 and 1937, making it the largest collaborative art project ever undertaken in the United States. The film was an immediate and unqualified popular and critical success with 1938 revenues at ten million dollars from both foreign and domestic release. It won a special Oscar, consisting of one big and seven small statues, second best film by the New York Film Critics, and voted best picture by the nation's critics in The Film Daily.

The man behind the success started his career in 1920 with Kansas City Film Ad, where his first task was stop-action commercial animation. In 1923, Disney struck out for Los Angeles with his brother Roy, where they produced a series of shorts that were shown before feature films. By 1926, they opened the Walt Disney Studio on Hyperion Avenue with a production team of six. After a long series of shorts and much success, Disney decided to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a full-length animated feature, after seeing the 1916 silent film, Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark in the lead role.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was created with cel animation, which uses transparent sheets of cellulose nitrate, cels, as the drawing surface for the characters. These sheets are placed individually atop a drawn or painted background and photographed sequentially. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the backgrounds, painted in watercolor, have recently become the focus of increased attention by the art community. Although the backgrounds of the film have received less attention than the cels, they stand alone as works of art without the characters, which were painted separately.

At the outset, Disney anticipated the need for new and more skilled artists for the feature. He instructed Don Graham, who headed the now full-time Disney Art School, "I need three hundred artists -- find them."[2] All the artists, new and old, were strongly encouraged to attend, both on the clock and off, various classes that Don Graham held from eight in the morning until nine at night. Instruction stressed line drawing over color, and in life classes the artists drew from the live model and from animals brought onto the lot. The most important instruction received by the young artists came through their working proximity to more experienced men.

With these skills the artists set out to complete the laborious project. Harry Tytle, the test cameraman for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, reconstructs the process of cel animation for the film:[3]

Test camera begins with the story sketches, which were the first steps okayed for production. Then it went to the animator who did his roughs. These formed the test reels that the director could look at and make his changes. And then, when he thought it was right, he'd call Walt in, and Walt would look at it and say, I want this changed or that changed or I want more personality in it. Then it was okayed and would go to clean-up animation. Then, that was okayed for inking and painting. At the same time the background was being painted. Then it would go to the Camera Department. The camera would shoot it. Then you would get a daily and you would see it. And that's it! When you got a whole combination of dailies put together, you had a finished picture.

As a character evolved from clean-up animation to the painted cel, the background artist began working on the production background for the scene. He first created a series of thumbnail color sketches that suggested the overall mood for the scene. While executing these sketches he referred to the final layout drawing of the background and the corresponding color model cels of the characters. The director and the layout artist then selected the color key for the scene from these sketches, after which the artist often created a preliminary background or color study of the background in the appropriate colors. Some were painted with Winsor & Newton watercolors on Strathmore medium-weight, cold-pressed, smooth-surface paper, though other types of paper were used as well.[4] The preliminary background usually served as the model from which the production background was painted.

The painted background used in production had to accurately correspond in scale to the final layout for a scene, as all character and special effects animation was registered to it. The final layout also served as a guide to those areas that had to be empty so that the elements within the background did not compete with the character action. Prior to applying any paint to the watercolor paper, the background artist soaked the paper with water, blotted off the excess, and stretched the wet piece of paper to a flat surface. Once dry, the paper remained flat, regardless of how many washes of watercolor the background artist applied.[5]

For some scenes the production background may have included overlays because the character action occurred behind certain elements, such as the left pillar in the foreground of Snow White's wishing well. The overlays were executed on separate pieces of watercolor paper with the same materials and techniques employed in the production backgrounds. Once completed, the overlay was carefully trimmed from the watercolor paper and attached to a clear sheet of celluloid the same dimensions as the production background. A background artist worked in this manner on up to five backgrounds at one time, which aided the visual continuity of color from background to background.

As many as 729 different backgrounds were required for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The color schemes and overall tone had to be carefully planned and followed from background to background for there to be visual uniformity in the final film. Transparent watercolors, however, have the inherent liability of being unalterable once they are on paper. If an animator, working from the final layout tracing, decided that more time or space was needed for the action at hand, he would add it. The drawing would then go back to layout, where it might be altered. This could also necessitate a change in the background, which had been painted from the same original master layout. A finished watercolor background often had to be discarded.

When the artist finished a group of backgrounds, he pinned them to a large panel in their appropriate sequence. The color model cel for each scene was placed over the background and the readability of the character was again checked against it. If the color relationships and mood within a scene worked, and worked as well with those scenes on either side of it, the completed rendering received final approval, signified by an inked authorization stamp usually placed on the back of the background. If one background painter had produced each fully detailed watercolor background (as was generally required for each of the finalized 729 scene changes in the film) at a rate of one per day, he would have been at work for 121 weeks.

Even though production of the film was well planned, the finances were not as coordinated. Money problems became critical in mid-production in 1937. Disney recalled the situation years later:[6]

Then came the shocker. My brother Roy told me that we would have to borrow another quarter of a million dollars to finish the movie. I had to take the bits and pieces [of completed film] to show the bankers as collateral... On the appointed day, I sat alone with Joe Rosenberg of the Bank of America, watching those bits and pieces on a screen, trying to sell him a quarter of a million dollars worth of faith. After the lights came on, he didn't show the slightest reaction to what he'd just seen. He walked out of the projection room, remarked that it was a nice day, and yawned! Then he turned to me and said, "Walt, that picture will make a pot full of money."

The success of the film and overtures by Guthrie Courvoisier, owner of fine art gallery in San Francisco, convinced Roy and Walt Disney that original artwork from the film should be made available for sale through art galleries worldwide. They selected only those works from Snow White that could hold up well when viewed as individual units. Most of the animation drawings were saved for the animators' future reference and are housed in the Disney Animation Research Library. Once photographed, many of the remaining cels were destroyed or washed for re-use. During 1938 only selected painted cels from the film were released for sale. However, a March 7, 1939, listing of the artwork from Snow White that eventually sold through Courvoisier Galleries consisted of 150 backgrounds, 206 story sketches, 500 animation drawings, and 8,136 celluloids.[7]

Until September 1946 original Disney animation art was prepared and sold solely via Courvoisier Galleries. From 1946 until 1955 Walt Disney Productions periodically released hand-painted cels. When Disneyland opened in 1955, the marketing of original Disney art, commenced on a regular basis in the Art Corner gift shop.[8]

Whether animation should be considered a legitimate art was a question that Walt Disney preferred to leave to the art historians. Regardless of where the debate is today, many of America's art critics felt that Disney had already transformed the humble cartoon into a new art form even before he began Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1934. The previous year the widely published art critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dorothy Grafly, had remarked, ''Walt Disney has at last given the world what should have come through established art channels -- the creative exploit of the animated cartoon in color, probably the first genuinely American art since that of the indigenous Indian."[9]

In 1940 the Los Angeles County Museum organized a Retrospective Exhibition of the Walt Disney Medium. It was a complete overview of twelve years of Disney artistry, from Steamboat Willie through Fantasia, as told through the gamut of drawings from the preliminary story sketches to the backgrounds and cels. The exhibition traveled from cross country from Los Angeles to Worcester, Massachusetts. The Art Digest gave credit to the director of the Los Angeles County Museum for doing what art museum directors ought to do: "He is helping to make his museum a more vital part of his community by bringing to it greater understanding of a new art medium."[10] The purpose of the exhibition, its catalogue stated, was to bear witness to a considerable achievement: "In twelve years Walt Disney has elevated animated pictures from a crude form of entertainment to the dignity of a true art. No other medium has such plasticity."[11]

Stephen H. Ison, owner of the largest private collection of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs animation art, from which this exhibition is drawn, has worked for almost a decade to reassemble and preserve the few remaining original production elements from the classic film. When Ison is asked why he collects, he responds, ''Though I enjoy and appreciate animation art from other vintage Disney features and shorts, I always liked the idea that Snow White was the Studio's first animated feature and felt it was a way of paying tribute to a man I admired since childhood. I also chose...Snow White art for its personal story appeal and artistic style."

He said, "I often go into the special gallery I had constructed for displaying my Snow White collection. As I walk frame to frame, I sometimes feel I really don't own this collection, but am instead merely its steward. In a sense you're only borrowing the art for a while in hopes that someday someone will take up where you left off."



1 Quoted in Howard Green, "Epics of Animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Cinemagic 36 1987):44.

2 Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 124.

3 Harry Tytle, interview with the author, February 23, 1994.

4 Maurice Noble, background artist, interview with the author, February 21, 1994.

5 Shamus Culhane, Animation form Script to Screen (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), p. 247.

6 Quoted in Green, "Epics of Animation," pp.44 - 45.

7 Cecil Munsey, Disneyana: Walt Disney Collectibles (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1974), p. 189.

8 Ibid., p. 190.

9 Dorothy Grafly, "America's Youngest Art," The American Magazine of Art 26:7 (July 1933):337.

10 "Disney Museumized," The Art Digest 15:6 (December 15, 1940):11.

11 Retrospective Exhibition of the Walt Disney Medium (Los Angeles County Museum, 1940) n.p.


About the Authors

Martin Krause is curator of prints, drawing, and photographs at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He holds a B.A. in art history and an M.A. in museology and art history from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He is the author of Realities and Impressions, Indiana Artists in Munich and The Passage: Return of Indiana Painters from Germany, 1880 - 1905; and co-author of William McGregor Paxton, N.A.

Linda Witkowski is a senior conservator of paintings at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where she has worked since 1985. She holds a B.A. in studio/art history from Michigan State University and an M.A. in art conservation from the State University College at Buffalo, where her thesis focused on animation art. She has been a professional associate of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2009, with permission of Martin Krause on behalf of himself and Linda Witkowski, which was granted to TFAO on August 5, 2009.

This article appeared in the December 1994 - January 1995 issue of American Art Review. It was adapted from Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: An Art in Its Making, published by Indianapolis Museum of Art and Hyperion.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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