George Scribner takes us on his once-in-a-lifetime journey of painting the construction of Shanghai Disneyland.
Painting Shanghai Disneyland
By George Scribner
“I want this for Shanghai.”
The year was 2013 and I was reading an email from Bob Weis, creative executive Shanghai Disney resort, and now leading the effort to build our newest Disney theme park in Shanghai. He was responding to some of my recent paintings of the Panama Canal Expansion. For seven years I’d been painting a series of oil paintings chronicling the construction of the expansion and occasionally I would post some of my work online.
Of course, I thought he was kidding, and he’d want me to add Tinker Bell to all my paintings.
“No, I want exactly what you’re doing for Panama.”
I was born and raised in the Republic of Panama and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to pursue a career in animation. I became a character animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation and in 1988 directed Oliver and Company, a full-length animated feature. I’ve now been with the Walt Disney company for 36 years and am currently a contractor directing animated projects and creating concept art for Walt Disney Imagineering, the division that designs and builds our theme parks.
I now divide my time between Disney Animation work, my own paintings, and teaching workshops at Disney and around the United States.
We agreed that I would do three to four paintings per year over the three-year construction of the park and travel to the construction site to paint location studies for reference. I’d complete the finished paintings in my Los Angeles studio using my studies and pictures taken on location for reference.
Before my first location trip to Shanghai, I painted a few small studies to help me find the color palette and look. I also wanted to make sure Disney would be happy with a looser and more suggestive style of painting. Nothing like finishing a painting and then getting the “that’s not what we had in mind at all…” look. No fun.
Painting on Location
In November of 2013 I made the first of seven trips to the construction site to paint small studies and shoot reference photos. Generally I’d scout the first couple days, searching for the sites I’d want to paint and locations that had a good probability of me not getting run over by construction equipment. Somewhat important.
My studies were small, no larger than 11” x 14” painted on Masonite with water mixable oils (Cobra brand) — they were easy to clean up and I didn’t have to travel with turp or mediums.
I’d paint for no more than a couple hours, note the color relationships in a scene while dodging the never-ending movement of workers, dump trucks, loads of concrete, rebar, fuel vehicles, etc. If I ran out of time, I would jot down the colors on the edge of the board.
It was even more fun when it rained. Using water mixable oils created some lovely abstract paintings with very little effort.
My interpreter later told me how much it meant to them to be able to walk away with their own drawings. It was a pretty cool feeling.
Over the years I’ve learned to travel light: small easel, portable tripod, a few brushes (mostly Brights), and a limited palette of water-mixable oil paints.
All my equipment fit in a backpack that I would pack into a small suitcase. I’d occasionally get a nice note from TSA that they’d opened the luggage but that’s about it.
I traveled with about six to eight colors, a warm a cool of the primaries plus a few “guest” colors (as a friend of mine at Disney put it) — titanium white, yellow ochre, yellow cad light, red cad light, alizarin crimson, cerulean blue, and ultramarine blue. I also carried burnt sienna and black. I’m a big fan of burnt sienna and use it constantly to get grays (lovely with ultramarine blue) and darker warmer flesh tones.
I also traveled with an iPad Pro (or Surface), a tablet I could draw on. It was a great tool for painting on location when I couldn’t set up when weather decided not to cooperate. One very handy tool for working out the value and color.
I tried to see as much as I could over the three years I was on the project and tried a few times to set up and paint in the city. Not an easy task and usually I’d end up sketching on my iPad.
Once back in my LA studio I completed four to five finished pieces a year in various sizes using the studies and photo reference. The paintings varied in size depending on the subjects. I’d generally use smaller canvases for paintings of the construction workers and larger canvas for the more expansive views, like the Disneyland castle.
In my LA studio I used a Best Easel II and worked from an iMac monitor next to the easel. I prefer working from a monitor versus a print. There’s more light in the image (revealing more color in the shadows), plus the picture can be tweaked on the spot (in Photoshop or most painting software) if need be, zooming in for more detail or to add more saturation and lightening the shadows.
I use Classic Artist Oils colors, which I order online. I took several workshops with the late Ken Auster, who recommended them, and I’ve been using them since.
Along that note, Ken was probably the best teacher I ever had. He was the first instructor to offer simple, practical painting advice: warms advance, cools recede, tips for measuring shapes, let the viewer finish the painting, the power of a limited palette. Plus, what a sense of humor. Once when we were reviewing our paintings at the end of a day, he told me to keep my day job. His wife later told me he said that to everybody. It took me years to get over… okay, a day or two. 🙂
A few of the finished paintings:
That’s it — a cool and fun journey. I was telling one of my Disney colleagues how much I’d enjoyed working on painting this project and all the infrastructure. After a beat he called me the “Sultan of Steel.” I like it.