150 years ago, when Macmillan England published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it set off a revolution in the art of children’s books. 75 years ago, when Walt Disney—who’d directed the live and animated Alice’s Wonderland in 1923—opened his Burbank, Calif., production lot, he set the stage for that city to become the hub of the entertainment industry. And today, Alice, art, and animation have converged there for a celebratory exhibition, “Curiouser and Curiouser.”
Burbank currently houses DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Hasbro, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and many other studios as well. It’s also where Center Stage Gallery is now featuring more than 100 works by around three dozen of the field’s most creative pros: animation concept and character designers, visual developers, illustrators, and comics artists for movies, television, toys, and video games. Naturally, most are local, but the talent is as far-flung as Paris and Taiwan. And their work ranges from paintings and prints to handmade story-themed jewelry and micro-sculptures housed in tiny bottles.
At last month’s Mad Tea Party opening reception, co-curators Casey Robin and Alishea Gibson recalled how the show originated during last year’s annual Creative Talent Network Animation Expo—in Burbank, of course. Casey, who was exhibiting Alice in Wonderland pieces, had connected with Alishea, who’d been experimenting with resin in teacups with plans to produce an Alice in Wonderland character series. As Alishea put it, “Together, we felt that the Lewis Carroll’s characters lent themselves to a wide array of artistic interpretation. And ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ gave us a chance to work with some amazing artists who demonstrated not only a wealth of talent but also a tremendous diversity of takes on the famous classic.” With Tina Price, CSG’s owner and CTNX’s director, the show is also an extension of the 2015 eXpo, which happened a few weekends ago.
Open until January 10th, “Curiouser and Curiouser” will also host special events such as a holiday open house and an artist group signing of a new commemorative exhibition catalog. And below is my exclusive interviews with Casey, Alishea, and 13 other artists in which they detail the passions, processes, and inspirations that led to some of their phantasmagorical creations.
We’ll begin at the beginning, with the “Curiouser” curators…
As an artist, I’ve always had this feeling of straddling multiple worlds simultaneously. In school, I was officially an art major, but was also deeply involved in English, theater, and art history. At Disney, I was placed first in Story and then in VisDev [Visual Development], as I had interest and ability in both areas. I even tried my hand at co-directing a short there, which was intense and rewarding. Currently, I’m balancing between the worlds of animation and book illustration. I’m passionately interested in many things, and have never been able to stop at just one discipline.
Michael Dooley: What’s been your personal involvement with Alice?
Robin: I grew up with the Disney movie, as many of us did. I remember liking the music and the colors in certain areas, but the overall film left me feeling scared and lost. In high school, I read the book and expected to really enjoy it, but, again, I just felt lost. I’ve always liked the idea of Alice: a normal girl wandering through an imaginative otherworld, but I had a hard time finding an expression of Wonderland that felt natural to me.
In 2014 I was asked to create 13 Alice pieces for a collector. Twelve of these were Steampunk portraits of characters from the book. In the course of making these, I realized that the key element I enjoyed in Alice in Wonderland was the sense of curiosity that drives the title character. Steampunk, too, is driven by curiosity. That urge to understand new and strange things is a major factor in creativity. Once I realized that Alice operated on curiosity, I was finally able to slip into her shoes and really enter Wonderland.
Dooley: And then what led you to “Curiouser and Curiouser”?
Robin: I was hoping to give young artists a platform from which to shine. There’s this stigma in the industry that if you’ve graduated school and you’re not working at a big studio, you must have missed the boat somehow. “Or maybe,” you tell yourself, “I’m just not that good.” This is nonsense! Not only is the industry super-saturated at the moment, but there are many wonderful artists who aren’t taken on simply because they don’t fit neatly into the pipeline.
I wanted not only to showcase some of the amazing talent I’ve encountered, but also to prove that things like “dream jobs” and fame are not the only marks of success. I wanted to gather a lot of truly excellent artists, all on slightly different paths, display them together and say to people: “Look! Don’t you like this picture? Never mind whether they have 200 or two million followers, isn’t this artist wonderful?” In doing this, I hope to take a small step towards making the industry a fairer and better place for artists.
Dooley: Generally, the work feels more Disney upbeat than Grimm grim.
Robin: That came down to the kind of people we included. I know most of these artists, and they’re joyful, sweet, exuberant souls. They genuinely want to bring something good into the world, and they don’t feel the need to “impress” by being unnecessarily dark or gritty. For many, “dark for the sake of dark” was a phase that we grew out of.
That’s not to say that the artists don’t examine the grim moments in the story. They just do so in a genuine way, rather than putting on a show of being “intense.”
Dooley: And what do you want the gallery visitors to experience?
Robin: I want the casual observer to be able to walk into the gallery and feel instantly engaged. Art galleries can sometimes be intimidating, but I believe that art is for everyone. Tina Price and her team at Center Stage have done a wonderful job of creating an inviting, interesting atmosphere around the show. You can walk through the story of Alice in Wonderland, complete with quotes and illustrations from the book acting as signposts along the way.
All in all, I hope that this is a fun, accessible show that inspires people to view an old book with a fresh eye, and maybe discover some new artists in the process. And people have been pleased with the consistently high quality of the work, the wide variety of styles, and the fun of seeing so many different interpretations of a well-known story. They also appreciate how lighthearted the show is. It’s a very fresh and lively collection.
Dooley: What inspired “Off with Their Heads”?
Robin: From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to do something with the Queen of Hearts. She is just too much fun as a character: bombastic, petty, dangerous, and larger than life. She also provides a fun contrast to Alice, who is generally sweet and polite. Throughout most of the story, Alice bows to the whims of those she encounters, constantly doubting herself. When she reaches the Queen, though, she finally finds her feet. In standing up to the Queen—defending the gardeners from her fury—Alice arcs dramatically as a character. I admire this moment of strength in Alice. I love the image of a tiny girl standing up to this blustering caricature of rage, staring her down, and saying “No!”
Dooley: Okay, now take me through your process.
Robin: With a project like this, I start with the story. I read and think, ponder and daydream, and read again. Then I usually go on Pinterest and make inspiration boards, gathering the kinds of colors, shapes, and details that I imagined in my “moodling” sessions. I then set those aside and go back to the pictures in my head.
My first drawings are made by looking inward. I don’t bring out my reference again until the second or third pass. I do this to give my thoughts some breathing room, so that I’m drawing from the emotion and ideas behind the scene rather than copying a picture. My original sketches are very rough, just working out gestures, shapes, and poses. When I find one that feels right, I scan it, enlarge it, and transfer it to illustration board. I may or may not do a value or color study, depending on how complicated the picture is.
I make my final drawing in red and blue Col-Erase pencils, using red for warm tones and blue for cool tones. From there, I build up color in thin layers of acrylics. At this point, I’ll refer back to my reference boards for specific details and color relationships. I keep layering and layering until the picture looks glow-y and full. I sometimes finish off with a small liner brush, “drawing” in the final details in a dark or saturated color.
Dooley: What about your art influences?
Robin: I took inspiration for my composition and the design of the Queen directly from Tenniel’s original illustration. I wanted to pay homage to the book and also play around with Tenniel’s designs, which are heavily Victorian and different from my usual design choices. So I swiped the pose, the hairstyle and dress for the Queen and started playing around with them. I wanted to find something that looked both old and new.
I knew from the start that there would be some Disney influence. I owe a great debt to artists like Mary Blair and Freddy Moore. Their vibrant colors and childlike approach to shapes has been a continual source of inspiration to me. Lately, I’ve also been fascinated by the works of Hayao Miyazaki. There is a quiet strength to his heroines that I find incredibly appealing. So there’s a bit of Miyazaki in there, too.
Finally, my fellow artists always spur me on to try new things, push myself, and keep growing. As other artists’ contributions to the show began popping up in my Instagram feed, I found a renewed sense of purpose and challenge. I was reminded that I was not running this race alone, but alongside many wonderful, strong, and masterful people.
Dooley: And how does the finished piece relate to your career?
Robin: For me, this picture of Alice and the Queen of Hearts is a wonderful balance of my animation and illustration aesthetics. It has a nice sense of exaggeration and caricature to it, as one would expect of animation art. However, there’s also a simplicity in the picture that seems to belong in the world of book illustration, specifically in Alice’s face and in the choice to drop out all but the most immediate elements of the background.
Beyond that, this piece reminds me that I’m at a point in my career when I’m able to help other artists by putting on shows like this. My path seems to be branching yet again. I can feel new avenues opening up.
It can be pretty scary at times, but it’s exciting, too: very much like a walk through Wonderland.
After Casey and I first had the idea of doing the show I filled my sketchbook to the brim with sketches, ideas, and possible designs from the Alice in Wonderland books. I designed pages and pages of the Queen of Hearts. I started with personality, exploring a range of emotions and actions. Then I began my research. I pulled inspiration from fashion designers like Guo Pei and Alexander McQueen and of course, Queen Elizabeth I. Research helps inform your design and include details my imagination might have overlooked such as those voluptuous Elizabethan sleeves.
As a professional artist I’m usually working digitally. However, in my personal projects I try to challenge myself by exploring new mediums outside the computer. It’s important to me that I keep experimenting, learning, and growing. Resin sculptures are tactile, messy, and fun, and still share the multi-layered characteristics of my digital work.
Resin is also permanent, which forced me to be very deliberate in my process. There’s no delete button, so everything had to be well planned. Then I poured, painted, cut paper, painted some more, and repeated the process multiple times over several weeks to get the desired depth while avoiding air bubbles, cracks, and the wayward dog hair that inevitably made its way into every piece.
When I joined the show it was a a bit late in the schedule, so this piece was more of a character study than a polished illustration. My goal was to portray the glee Tweedle Dee and Dum seem to have in their recitations and to create a very fun, childish, playful version of these two. Since time was short for me on this, the idea was to keep the gesture simple and really push the mischievous joy these characters have when they talk circles around Alice.
My main inspiration came from artists such as Sir John Tenniel, Willy Maltaite, and Bill Peet. They all had a fantastic sense of shape, construction, and storytelling.
Coming from Oxfordshire, where Lewis Carroll wrote the book, my childhood was spent punting on the Thames and having picnics on the riverbank, drinking tea from Edwardian china, and hiding tiny treasures in rabbit holes. Loved my leather-bound copy of the book I had as a child.
Although there are a great number of artists I admire and who have influenced me throughout my life, I make a conscious effort not to look at too much work on a similar topic, lest I be – subconsciously – influenced and run the risk of my work not feeling my own. I revisited the book for the first time since I was about ten and remembered how I’d pictured the scene as a child. I finally looked at other artists’ Alice in Wonderland work after I completed my piece and loved all the varied interpretations I saw.
As a miniature model maker I create scale pieces for all sorts of purposes, including the entertainment industry, editorial, advertising, and for private collections. Sometimes the topic is less than exciting for me, so when asked to create something for an Alice exhibition I was delighted and ready to have fun with the subject matter. It was also a pleasure since my most recent exhibition was in Shanghai, China and I was glad to exhibit pretty much here on my doorstep.
The tea party is brilliant because it’s so English and un-English at the same time. Also there’s etiquette without decorum, riddles without answers, and finally an irritated Alice throwing her hands in the air and storming off. Like most of my miniature pieces I did some research for inspiration, sketched ideas on paper, and made a rough 3-dimensional version in cardboard. I then started to build it using wood, wire, and clay.
The piece I created is in 1:12 scale. This means 1 inch represents 1 foot in the real world. So my Mad Hatter and March Hare would measure approximately 5’5″ in real life. Almost everything was made using Super Sculpey clay, including the furniture, clothing, and food. The tiny fairy cakes – English term for cupcakes – are smaller than peas, and the teapots could fit on a penny. Working in miniature is something I love because the worlds you create are limited only by the size of your work space and your imagination.
The Alice character is very much inspired by myself, because I’m a black girl who at the time of drawing this had pink hair. As an artist of color, I try to be very diverse in the art that I create for my “Love, Teacup Kisses” art brand by including women of different skin tones while keeping my art playful, silly, sassy, and cute.
I started off with a quick sketch in my sketchbook which I re-worked until I got something I liked. I then used my handy Copic Markers and began coloring away. I was happy with the finished drawing but felt it needed a little bit more work so I cleaned up the image in Photoshop.
When my parents first introduced the book to me as a child, it was impossible for me not to be drawn to a story about a girl with a big imagination who gets transported into a fantastical world of talking animals and maniacal monarchs. Especially when I was known for having quite the imagination myself. Mr. Carroll wrote with such whimsy and fun that I couldn’t help but become a fan of the material. And my love for the story only grew when I got to watch Disney’s animated feature as well as the countless different adaptations in film and print. It made me feel as if Alice’s adventures could go on forever, and I liked the idea that her story would never be truly finished.
I picked the Cheshire Cat as my muse. He has a gentlemanly charm and and a sardonic attitude which is so distinctly cat-like despite his ability to converse like a human. Not only is he one of the more iconic characters in the stories but he also has some of the most iconic lines, one which I picked out to paint on the “drink me” bottle tag. And of course there’s his most iconic smile.
My process is pretty typical. I steep myself in books and the works of artists that inspire me. I put on tons of music ranging from the early 20th Century to Disney classics. I work chiefly at night, when the foot traffic around my house – and the world at large – is at a minimum. Caffeinated beverages also play a major role in the artistic undertaking.
There are so many artists whose works I’ve come to admire – from the early pieces of John Tenniel and Mary Blair to the artists who participated in this show – that it’s difficult to quantify how much they impact me and my art. I’m always mindful of them to a certain extent. They are all over my work in terms of style and choice of color palettes. If not literally, then they’re certainly the fuel in my creative engines. But at some point during the process you have to focus on your present piece and trust that you’ve researched enough to springboard you past an initial idea and to get you somewhere that’s your personal, original territory.
Delve into the vibrant history of contemporary illustration with Fifty Years of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts.
I think I own my passion for books and stories to Little Alice. It’s been my favorite book since I was a little kid. I just wanted to be Alice so bad, and be part of that world. And I wanted to see how I could create Wonderland. When I started, well, I was scared because I didn’t knew what to do. Plus I knew I was going to be in the gallery surrounded by amazing artists as well, and I didn’t want to make something bad. But I took the challenge because I love challenges. I create mini-worlds and stories professionally, and every story I do is a new challenge. I tried to think outside of my comfort zone, so I went to the craft store and, well, I went crazy! When they were selling me a frame I was already seeing a tea party inside, and I could already see and hear Alice with her squeaky voice. I just got a lot of random stuff and got super excited about putting it together.
This is going to sound very bad, I think, but I don’t really admire that many artists. I can do art, so I spend most of my time looking at other things that I can’t do, and that inspires me a lot. I admire photographers, sculptors, writers, film makers. I think my work has a bit of all that. And I suppose that’s why it’s so random as well.
I’ve been a fan of Alice in Wonderland because of its surreal and creative interpretation of reality. I love Carroll’s variety of weird and intriguing characters, so full of peculiarities and a mix of sweetness with a bit of a dark undertone. The Queen is such an intimidating person with her fury and rage that we can almost relate to some real world people that we know. Alice, on the other hand, is apparently a sweet little kid that we come to know as a powerful and brave girl who is not afraid of going into this world of nonsense.
The process was interesting. It was going to the unknown and diving in without knowing what was next. I started these pieces without any thumbnails studies and ended up with something I was pleased with. I was going in a cuter direction but I ended up with a darker tone. I always admired Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations. I felt like it was right to go back to the traditional pen and ink style, which also relates to my work and who I am as an artist.
In this piece I wanted to reflect a fantastic but yet sweet moment between Alice and the White Rabbit, and to add a bit of humor as well. My goal is to make the viewer relate, smile, or feel something more than looking at a pretty painting. I would say if they have smiled they made my day!
My first introduction to Alice was through the iconic animated Disney movie. I remember being terrified of it as a child. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so mean to poor Alice! Nowadays, I’m always up for a creepy retelling of the classic series. After painting several other, shall we say, “brighter” scenes from the book, I knew I wanted to paint something darker. Something moodier. And no one is more moody than the Queen of Hearts! I imagined the Queen as being some sort of evil fashion icon that incorporates her victims into her architecture and wardrobe. Then later I thought, “What would happen if the Queen did capture Alice?” I’d like to think this stylish maven would keep Alice around for a while… before turning her into some sort of mantelpiece. But Alice won’t be trapped in the mirror forever!
Whenever I think of dark fantasy and opulence, I always think of couture. Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood have always been a huge source of inspiration for me, and I definitely wanted to bring that same energy to this piece. If I had my way, everyone would dress as extravagantly as their girls.
Whether it’s a movie or an illustration, the creativity behind Alice’s look is something that can be approached from so many different perspectives. It’s amazing to see how one person’s idea of Alice can be so different from another’s, and yet still have those elements of her character that we find easy to relate to. One quote that has always stood out to me is: “And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.” I love this because, to me, it relates back to imagining how to design what character might look like. How do you imagine something that doesn’t exist? And then little bits and pieces come together, like floating puzzle pieces, and suddenly you’ve got a combination of little square hands, puffy hair, and a face, that you start to end up kind of liking.
I was sitting at a coffee shop, sketching while waiting for a friend. I had just been invited to the show, and didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do yet. It was kind of an accident that I drew Alice while waiting. One minute I was exploring shapes, and in the next came Alice. Once I drew her, I wanted to keep drawing her, over and over again, slightly changing little things every time.
My work is always inspired by other artists, and I love browsing Pinterest and finding things I just have to add to my pin boards. My phone is full of screenshots, taken when I’m out and about and see a friend post something amazing. I think that collecting helps to inspire me to try things I’d like to learn how to do better.
When I was a kid, my grandma gave me a pop-up book of “Jabberwocky,” one of the nonsense poems from Through the Looking Glass. My mom eventually got rid of it without telling me because it creeped her out. The art in it was both creepy and mesmerizing, and I was enchanted. On a recent family visit with my grandma, the subject of the poem came up and, much to the surprise of my family, we were able to recite it together in tandem on the spot. I think I was really drawn to Carrol’s ability to make a cohesive story out of nonsense. It’s a lot like when you look closely at a painting from far away and see a picture, but find that the brush strokes look like random blobs up close.
My process is very methodical, perhaps too much so. First I re-listened to Alice on audiobook in my car, and made lists of everything I thought might be fun to illustrate. Lists are usually a key part of my process. I get stuck if I don’t organize all of my ideas. Then I did a lot of research, pulling inspiration on Pinterest. Pinterest is amazing for image searches since it’s “curated.” Unlike a Google, every image was chosen by a human and saved because it’s pretty. Then I did thumbnails, and procrastinated until I saw a picture on Instagram of a girl making a funny face, and I thought of the Cheshire Cat with his too-wide smile.
I really like the Cheshire Cat, because he’s the only character who seems to be comfortable in Wonderland, rather than a confused victim of the ever-changing whims of other characters and Wonderland itself. Alice is pretty forlorn through much of the story, and only gets really useful help from the Cheshire Cat. It’s only at the end of the story that Alice really takes charge and stands up to the Queen and her court. I liked the idea of showing Alice goofing off with the Cheshire Cat, because I imagine them to be friends, and I think she learned a lot from the Cat about the right attitude toward Wonderland, to just be yourself and roll with the nonsense.
I work as a toy designer at Disney consumer products, designing dolls and toys for girls ages about four to twelve. Best job ever! I spend a lot of time thinking about how little girls play, and they’re generally extremely silly. Alice is six years old, and very imaginative, so although she’s often portrayed as quite proper, I think of her as being a total wacky goofball. I wanted to show her just being a happy, confident and playful kid. I think this also comes across in her toes [laughs].
I was also surprised to discover that there’s almost no physical description of Alice’s appearance anywhere in the book! Because this show is based on the book, I consciously made an effort not to dress my Alice like the iconic Disney character, even though a blonde girl in a blue dress with a white apron and a black headband is very recognizable. Instead I dressed her sort of how kids dress themselves when they pick their own clothes, because I feel like Alice is a girl who would make her own decisions.
And sometimes I “redline” my own work. When I find myself just staring at it thinking about all the things that bother me, I circle all of the problem areas and write myself notes about them. Then I fix each one and erase the note. Lately I’ve also been making myself a color scheme before I start, and sticking to it! This is always a challenge since I want to use all the colors. I’d also been really struggling with the composition, until I found a technique called “Informal Subdivision” that I recently learned about on Kali Ciesemier’s blog; she originally got it from Andrew Loomis. I used informal subdivision for the first time in this piece and it really helped.
I also show my work in progress to my other artist friends, and vice versa. Katia Grifols, who’s also in the show, came over to my house one weekend to work on her piece while I did mine, which made it extra fun. We managed to avoid burnout by taking a break in the middle of the day to go unnecessary art supply shopping: the best kind!
When reading the book I always thought the court scene was very powerful to me. It reminded me of my nightmares as a little girl. In my nightmares I felt like everything is out of my control and I’m too little to save myself. With this piece I wanted to make the viewer feel like they were Alice, small and powerless.
I was influenced by Orientalist masters that I’ve been looking at lately. One of them I really admire is Jean-Léon Gérôme and his way of using composition to tell a story. I’m using a triangle composition that mainly focuses on Alice and the Queen. I chose to do a three-point perspective: looking up to make the Queen more powerful and Alice at our eye level to give the illusion of being there with her.
I’ve been very influenced by Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations, and a lot of other artists inspired my work: Frank Frazetta and Norman Rockwell, Rodin, Claire Wendling, Ivan Bilibin, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, etc.
Through my art I like to bring people back to their childhood, to playfulness and interesting memories. Peter Brown is one of my favorite children’s book artists. I like his simple graphic style a lot, and am inspired by him.
Below: “Curiouser and Curiouser” Mad Tea Party Opening Reception photos by M. Dooley