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Connecting with Walt: Disney Legend Eyvind Earle

Eyvind Earle was inducted as a Disney Legend in the category of Animation in 2015. Disney fans and film critics regard Evyind’s work on the 1959 feature film Sleeping Beauty as his most important contribution to The Walt Disney Studio and to the art of animation. To fully appreciate Eyvind Earle’s art and legacy we have to understand Eyvind Earle the man because his life experiences had a direct effect on his art, and that is what Craig and I did on a recent episode of the Connecting with Walt podcast.

Eyvind Earle
Eyvind Earle standing in front of the storyboard for the Walt Disney Studio short film Paul Bunyan (1958). Photo from the collection of John Canemaker.

Eyvind was born on April 26, 1916, to Ferdinand and Charlotte Earle. Ferdinand was working in the motion picture industry and Charlotte was a concert pianist. Evyind had an older brother, Ferdie, who passed away from polio as a child, called Infantile Paralysis at that time. The day after his brother’s funeral, Eyvind displayed symptoms of the disease. Although he survived, it left half his face paralyzed. Eyvind taught himself not to smile in an effort to hide the paralysis. Throughout his life, people would misinterpret Eyvind’s shyness and lack of smile as indifference and coldness.

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Eyvind Earle Three Noble Horses (1993). Image courtesy of Eyvind Earle Publishing.

Eyvind’s parents divorced when he was 10 years old, and his father received sole custody. Ferdinand asked Charlotte if he could take Eyvind to Palm Springs. Instead, he took Eyvind to Mexico, and gave him a choice to either read 50 pages of a book or paint a picture every day. Eyvind, already very personally disciplined, chose to do both. Ferdinand was very strict and a disciplinarian and did not allow Eyvind to socialize with other children. His early boyhood experiences and personal sense of discipline is very apparent in Eyvind Earle’s work. His art reflects a sense of peace, solitude, and vacancy; and is very precise and disciplined in its horizontal lines. Eyvind developed a love for nature, and his art embraces nature and rarely includes human figures.

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Eyvind Earle Paradise (1973). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Eyvind had his first solo gallery showing in France when he was just 14 years old. During the early years of the Great Depression, Eyvind worked for a time as an assistant sketch artist for United Artists studio. When he was 21 years old, Eyvind set out on a cross-country bicycle trip from Hollywood, California to Monroe, New York in 45 days. To help fund the trip, Eyvind sold a few of the 42 watercolors he created during his ride. He also kept a diary of the trip, which he later expanded into his book Horizon Bound on a Bicycle: The Autobiography of Eyvind Earle.

From time-to-time Eyvind applied for work at The Walt Disney Studio. For income, he started a Christmas card business in 1939 using designs based on his landscape paintings. More than 800 of Eyvind Earle’s designs sold more than 300 million copies from 1939 through 1995. Although many of his early Christmas card designs were lost, Eyvind and his second wife Joan, published a beautiful and large book of Eyvind’s Christmas art in 1996 titled
The Complete Christmas Card Art of Eyvind Earle.

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Eyvind Earle Yosemite (1994). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

In October 1950, Eyvind was hired as a background painter by The Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney became intrigued by Eyvind’s work in 1953 when he created the design of “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” a 3-D animated short that received an Academy Award and a Cannes Film Festival Award. Walt Disney assigned Eyvind as the lead artist responsible for styling, backgrounds, and colours on Sleeping Beauty. Other film studios were producing large, epic films to attract people from their televisions into the cinemas. Walt wanted Sleeping Beauty to be an epic film. Sleeping Beauty was to be his Sistine Chapel. Walt told his animators that Eyvind Earle had carte blanche with the design of the film. They were to take direction from him. Walt had never given one artist so much creative influence on a film. Eyvind envisioned stylized, simplified Gothic motifs for the film with straight, tall, perpendicular lines like Gothic cathedrals.

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Eyvind Earle Sleeping Beauty Concept Painting (1959). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Walt Disney asked Eyvind to design diorama scenes for the interior of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, two years before the film was to be released. Ken Anderson completed the dioramas based on Eyvind’s work. The walk-through was officially dedicated on Sunday, April 29, 1957. Walt Disney and actress Shirley Temple presided over the ceremony. Guests would use a B-Ticket, which cost 20 cents, to walk through the castle. They also received a program of the film. Images of these dioramas were included on the original DVD issue of Sleeping Beauty.

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Eyvind Earle Sleeping Beauty Concept Painting (1959). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Sleeping Beauty would end up being the most expensive film the studio had made up to that time. It ended an era at The Walt Disney Studio – never since has the studio lavished the time and work on a film.

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Layout artist McLaren Stewart, Walt Disney, and Eyvind Earle discussing Sleeping Beauty at The Walt Disney Studio. Photo courtesy of Eyvind Earle Publishing.

Eyvind’s career continued to flourish after he left The Walt Disney Studio. Eyvind would eventually start his own animation studio before returning to painting full time. Towards the end of this career, Eyvind’s work received a round of recognition. He was praised by several publications including Time Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Art News. In 1998, Eyvind was honored at the 26th Annie Awards with the Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement in the field. In 2015, he was inducted as a Disney Legend. His daughter, Kristin Thompson, accepted on her father’s behalf.

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Eyvind Earle Hillside Magic (1989). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Eyvind Earle passed on July 20, 2000, at the age of 84. However, his work continues to be shown in museums and art galleries, and he continues to be an influence in the art and animation fields and on a new generation of artists at The Walt Disney Company.

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Eyvind Earle Lady and the Tramp Thumbnail Concept Painting (1955). Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

What is your favorite creation by Eyvind Earle? After listening to Craig and I talk about his life on Connecting with Walt, let us know how Eyvind Earle inspires you to express yourself through your creativity.

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