Tyrus Wong is a legendary Chinese American painter, concept artist, motion picture production illustrator, and kite builder. He is best known for his work on Walt Disney's feature animated film Bambi. His strikingly beautiful concept paintings and sketches continue to influence generations of animation artists and designers.
IMMIGRATION AND EARLY YEARS
Tyrus Wong was born in Canton (now Guangzhou), China in 1910, not long before the country was thrown into turmoil by the fall of the Chinese Empire. In 1919, he and his father emigrated to America. They left behind Tyrus's mother and sister, never to see them again.
Tyrus and his father initially settled in Sacramento, later moving to LA’s Chinatown. Tyrus’s interest in painting and drawing emerged at an early age. Though they were poor, his father encouraged Tyrus’s talents by having him practice calligraphy by dipping his brushes in water and “painting” on newspaper. Indifferent to school, Tyrus dropped out of Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Pasadena, CA. to attend the Otis Art Institute on a full scholarship. There he received formal western art training while studying the art of the Sung Dynasty at the LA Central Library in his free time. Tyrus’s first job after graduating in 1932 was to paint a bra for a brassiere ad that would appear on the side of building on Hollywood Boulevard. Because Tyrus didn’t know what a bra was, his employer had his secretary model one over her clothes. For years, Tyrus thought a bra was some kind of "chest warmer."
Despite graduating in the midst of the Depression, Tyrus led an active and vibrant life as a young artist. He exhibited his work throughout the country, including a 1932 group exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute that included Pablo Picasso. Closer to home, he and other young California Asian artists, such as Hideo Date, and Los Angeles Art Student's League trained painter Benji Okubo, gained recognition by exhibiting as the "Orientalists." Tyrus was also hired as part of the Federal Arts Project, a branch of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). For $94 a month, Tyrus produced two paintings or lithographs a month. According to Tyrus, the WPA "saved the lives of many artists." Wong’s work during this period was heavily influenced by his friend, the highly regarded modernist painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright, best known for his use of rich harmonious colors (a style referred to as “synchrony”) and his integration of Chinese compositions.
Though he exhibited regularly, Tyrus and his fellow artists still struggled to survive. Their answer was the Dragon's Den, a subterranean, trendy, Chinatown restaurant that attracted Hollywood stars such as Peter Lorre, Anna Mae Wong, and Sydney Greenstreet. It stood out among the chop suey joints of Chinatown and was the brainchild of close friend Richard See. It boasted wall to wall to murals, and hand painted menus by Tyrus and his fellow artists. It was there that Tyrus would also meet Ruth Kim, his future wife.
Soon after Tyrus's marriage to Ruth Kim and the birth of their first daughter in 1938, Tyrus said he "needed a job." He soon landed a job at Disney as an “in-betweener,” drawing hundreds of sketches of Mickey Mouse. Tyrus found the work tedious and numbing. When he heard that the studio was in pre-production on the feature film Bambi, he went home and painted several pictures of a deer in a forest. These small, but evocative sketches captured the attention of Walt Disney and became the basis for the film's visual style. The concept art he created continues to influence generations of animation artists today. In 2001, Tyrus was named a Disney Legend.
From Disney, Tyrus headed to nearby Warner Bros., where he switched from fantasy to realism. He was hired as a production illustrator and sketch artist where he painted and sketched concept art for hundreds of live-action films, including Rebel Without A Cause, Calamity Jane, Harper, The Wild Bunch, Sands of Iwo Jima, Auntie Mame, April in Paris. and PT 109. He was frequently loaned out to Republic Pictures where he worked on many John Wayne westerns, a genre that would become a favorite of his. Tyrus would stay at Warner Bros. for the next 26 years until his retirement in 1968.
Throughout his years at the studio, Tyrus continued to paint and exhibit his fine art. In 1954, he was featured in a short film produced by Eliot O’Hara demonstrating Oriental brushwork techniques. His commercial work included designing greeting cards for over 20 years, illustrating magazine covers and children’s books, and painting calligraphic style designs on Winfield ceramic ware that sold in high-end department stores.
After retiring, Tyrus turned his attention to designing and building hand-made kites. His dozens of designs include multi-colored 100-foot centipedes, flocks of swallow, butterflies, and panda bears. In 1990, he and his kites were featured in the short film, Flights of Fancy.
Tyrus has three daughters. He lives in Sunland, CA. where he's attempting to train the goldfish in his pond to eat at the sound of a bell. He is still vibrant at 101 years old and never misses the opportunity to crack a joke.