THE INFORMAL HISTORY
David Willardson is a Southern California boy, born and raised just down the road from Disneyland, in San Diego. As a matter of fact, he won an "Outstanding Paperboy" contest to visit Disneyland when it first opened in 1954.
A few years later, high school graduation presented another opportunity to go to Disneyland. This time as a cast member. Briefly, he worked on the Skyway ride and even ushered Walt Disney himself into one of the Skyway gondolas. A few weeks later, he transferred to the Matterhorn, due to its reputation for hiring cute female cast members.
After graduation from the Art Center College of Design, he enjoyed a successful career in design and illustration. Then a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg in the mid-80's chartered his course on the ship of Disney once again. Katzenberg had seen an illustration that Willardson had done of a Disney character, and asked if he would be interested in creating an entirely new look for the animated movie poster campaigns that featured the reissued classics and new movies. Then for the next 17 years, Willardson was the artist of choice for those Disney campaigns.
When computer graphics took over much of the former hand illustration work, Willardson decided to make a change and closed his design studio in 2003 to embark on a bold new venture as a Disney fine artist.
David Willardson is now the creative force of the "Pep Art Movement," an innovative new genre where cultural icons are rendered with an unprecedented infusion of color, personality, and energy. Unlike traditional "pop art" however, the subject's of Willardson's "pep" imagery are not soup cans or Brillo boxes; they are classic Disney characters. "They were my childhood heroes" Willardson remembers. "I never lost that." The images in his work express an untapped inner verve bubbling within, giving us a sacred glimpse into their technicolor souls. "And they do have souls," Willardson says of his subjects.
"I certainly am a product of the pop art movement," Willardson professes, "but I also have a great love for action painting, which originated in the 1950s with Jackson Pollack and a number of other artists. Action painting is about movement, action and boldness in the painting. I have amalgamated pop art – which deals with pop culture imagery – and action painting, which is really energy painting." The result is a new genre that packs an energized visual wallop.
Lurking behind his beloved Disney characters, Willardson discovered a team of animation geniuses that had left an indelible mark on American culture. He sought about learning their craft in order to figure out what made his heroes tick. "As a young kid, I studied them in minutiae," Willardson remembers. After graduating from the Art Center College of Design, Willardson burst onto the entertainment art scene. His passion for the craft and his natural creativity opened doors which allowed him to produce internationally known images, such as the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" movie logo and the classic "American Graffiti" car hop.
However it was still the world of Disney characters that held the muse for him. "For years, I'd been studying the work of early animation masters like Ub Iwerks," Willardson says. "The early animators were world-class draughtsmen. They could draw so beautifully. The shapes and forms they used – bold geometric circles and triangles - helped create a character in its purest form. The characters from that period were absolutely perfect. I figured out what made them work - and what didn't."
In the 1970s, Willardson was asked by an ad agency to do a painting of Goofy for Walt Disney World. "I rendered it photo realistically," he says, "just a living being, with dimension, shading, core values and rim lighting." The ad ran nationally and Jeffrey Katzenburg (head of animation at Disney), spotted it. He then called Willardson and asked if he was interested in taking that same approach for a new look for the Disney animated movies, both Classic and New.
The first poster Willardson created for Disney (and Katzenburg) was for the re-release movie poster for "Bambi." His fully rendered images for the Disney animated movie posters are still the most widely used to date. This seventeen-year relationship with Disney created such well-known movie posters, such as "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "Oliver & Company," "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Robin Hood," "The Fox & The Hound," "Beauty & The Beast" as well as Classics, such as "Snow White," Cinderella," "Pinocchio", "Jungle Book" (to name a few), earning him a permanent place in animation history. With joy, sadness, frustration, and exhilaration, Willardson's characters exude personality and soul first granted them by the old masters. "They are living legends to me," Willardson says, "just like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and James Dean."