The Disney Color System

Many moons ago S/R Labs acquired the Disney paint system. I felt like Moses receiving the holy tablets and, in fact, the complete story is something of a miracle, you might say. I will leave the details of how that all happened to a book some day. Suffice it to say that when the late Roy E. Disney learned the details he was both surprised and delighted.

What is the Disney paint system?. It’s a lot more than a laundry list of colors and much more significant. It is the totality of Disney animation paint colors broken down into what are called top or full-strength colors, their mixes and various combinations, with their names, numeric designations, and references, which is why it’s called a system. There’s more, but that will do for now.

That first step was only the beginning of an even longer journey. You see, pigments are usually sold in 50 and 100 pound bags or even larger. Because paint formulas rarely call for all pigment, but contain various kinds of extenders, a 100 pound bag of pigment can last decades. The Disney Studio purchased large quantities of pigment so they really never had to refresh their supply over a multi-decade period. Too, Walt’s cost consciousness told him that if you buy a large quantity, you’ll get a smaller price per pound. Of course that makes sense. Later on, much later on, this created a real monster. The pigments purchased years before had become, to a great extent, extinct. That’s right. Gone, never to be made again, because either the company that made a certain pigment discontinued or updated it, or ceased operation and sold the line, or….well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say that dozens of pigments were well out of date by the time we received the Disney paint system. Now here comes the brilliant part. Just after The Black Cauldron finished production the Studio decided it would change the structure of its paint lab and disposed of all powdered pigments. No, I couldn’t believe it either. Many pigments were literally irreplaceable. I tried to rescue them, but the Studio feared some or all were so old they could present a health hazard, and they were correct. The pigments were sent to the dump and the old paint lab was dismantled.

Now, here’s is good part. The National Society for Paint and Coatings Technology has an active retirees club, and the old timers, who hadn’t lost their love of paint technology, would voluntarily help when members needed a hand. We needed lots of hands. Oh boy did we need hands. It took a while, but they put their heads to it and tracked down old cronies. References, and formulas long lost. Was it worth it? Does a bear eat fish? Oh yeah. In time we had a whole new palette of colors that were, by any other name, the old Disney palette.

We had to make several adjustments, but inside of nine months we had the old Disney paint lab completely reconstructed at S/R Labs. Instead of the slow stone mills Disney used, we used a high speed stone mill able to create any Disney color in about 10 or 15 minutes. Colors that are unavailable commercially could be made on short notice, and color matching, when you have the right tones at hand, is a snap.

We are often asked if Disney paint is really magic. In a way, it is. First, the colors are pure, meaning the colors themselves are not combinations of pigments, but are whole and clean. This is a lot more rare than you’d think and makes for a rich appearance. Also, they are ground superfine to the consistency of buttermilk. They flow off the Kolinski sable brushes we use like, well, magic. Their natural gum base is made of a rich combination of chemicals that helps the paint actually flow onto the cel and dry to a soft, satin finish that’s even, flexible, and flat.

With a few adjustments we can create matching ink colors that “stand up” and have the familiar high top that makes Disney cels so remarkably DISNEY. You cannot achieve the same affect with any paint medium available commercially today.

We learned a lot once the Disney paint system was in place. One of my teachers, Emelio Bianchi, who was the last Disney chemist, taught us Disney color theory. For instance, there is no green pigment in Peter Pan’s jerkin. Steve McAvoy, the chemist prior to Emilio, taught us how to create the paints of Sleeping Beauty, which called for certain additives to give them a glow on the screen unlike any paints made before or since.

We’ve learned a great deal in our 36-plus-year history. It is one of the things that gives us the ability to make your art so beautiful and stable.

Next time, I’ll get out my notebooks and tell you the story of finding Disney’s Aqua-fix© and the magical part it played in Disney artistic history.