Herb Ryman – Walt Disney’s Artist on Call

On this day in 1910, Disney Legend Herb Ryman was born in Vernon, Illinois. Ryman had an illustrious Disney career and cemented his legacy as the artist Walt Disney turned to when he needed someone to translate his dreams of Disneyland onto paper so his brother, Roy, could attract the financing required to build the park. 

Herb Ryman and Walt Disney

Ryman worked as a storyboard illustrator at MGM before joining the Walt Disney Studio in 1938. He would work on animated features, including Fantasia and Dumbo. During Disney’s World War II slowdown, Ryman would leave Disney to work at 20th Century Fox before receiving a fateful call from Walt. On September 26, 1953, Walt called Herb Ryman over to the studio and they spent the weekend putting together concept art and pitch documents for Roy to take to New York for meetings with potential investors. The Disneyland concept map drawn by Ryman over the weekend was the first comprehensive look at what Walt was planning. Ryman’s pencil drawing was drafted on thin vellum paper so that it could be later used to create additional maps that could be colored on paper and used in presentations. While a few colored maps dating back before Disneyland was built remain in existence, the original Ryman pencil drawing was thought lost before it was located rolled up behind a file cabinet in an Imagineering storeroom. The pitch meetings featuring the Ryman drawn maps were ultimately successful and with key funding in place – thanks primarily to a deal Roy struck with ABC – Disneyland was on its way to becoming a reality. 

Herb Ryman’s Disneyland Concept Map from 1953

Among Ryman’s many contributions in the design of Disneyland was the look of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Ryman visited the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, which became the inspiration for the castle, and provided sketches that were then used by legendary Disney model maker Harriet Burns to create scale mock-ups. Ryman then painted the models, including the sky blue tops for the turrets which are a signature of all Disney Park castles. 

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle concept art by Herb Ryman

Ryman was proud to work on the Disneyland project and contribute to its success despite the expectations of many that Walt’s park idea would be an epic failure. In a 1983 interview, Ryman said:

“You see hitherto, before Disneyland, there had been just shabby carnival parks where people weren’t safe and it was dirty. But Walt had the idea to make a secure, safe, beautiful place, a fantasy world to which people would come. And even after Disneyland was finished, the top men of the entertainment industry came out and looked it over. They saw the opening day, and all with the exception of Harry Batt from New Orleans, they all predicted a dismal failure within six months.”

As the design work for Disneyland moved forward, Ryman drew concept art for areas of the park including Frontierland, the Jungle Cruise and Main Street, U.S.A. Constructing and opening the park in less than a year was an extraordinary experience for those involved.

Frontierland concept art by Herb Ryman

Ryman said “It was frantic, frantic work on the part of everybody. In fact, now that I look back on it, I don’t know how it got done. I really don’t.”

Years later, Ryman worked on designs and concept artwork for New Orleans Square, Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom, portions of EPCOT’s World Showcase, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. Ryman also mentored fellow Disney artists and developed a collaborative culture within the company and, specifically, Disney Imagineering.

Ryman recognized that Walt’s concept for Disneyland are rooted in an emotional connection that guests make with the fantastical environments. He once explained: “there’s magic inside of it and there’s magic all in the streets and you can believe when you walk down Main Street. You don’t criticize the scale of it. No one is critical of it. They accept it and they believe it and they believe the size of the train, they believe wherever they go. You get on the Mark Twain, nobody says, “Oh, this isn’t like a Mississippi steamboat, this is just a toy.” Nobody makes a fuss about it.”

Jungle Cruise concept art by Herb Ryman

As many artists are, Ryman was his own toughest critic. In fact, years later he explained the reservations he held about his infamous Disneyland concept drawing:

“I think I was lucky. And now and then people like Walt Disney would enter into the picture and approve of me and approve of my contribution and I thought, “Well Herb, you must not be too bad because Walt Disney wouldn’t keep you here if you were no good.” And he wouldn’t call and ask you to do a picture like that if he didn’t have any faith in you. Of course I look at that preliminary drawing for Disneyland now and think it’s dreadful. I think it’s terrible, but under the conditions that it was done, it’s remarkable.”

On This Day People

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