Artist Breathes New Life into Disney Icons
By John Sammon
Because of his skill and artistry, Kenny Yamada is able to portray Walt Disney characters in new poses and situations and thus breathe new life into iconic figures beloved by the American public for generations.
“I’ve always loved Disney characters since I was a kid,” Yamada said. “The joy of this work is I feel I’m passing on the same legacy and feeling of wonderment I had when I was growing up to today’s children.”
Yamada for 24 years has been a freelance artist drawing and painting characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, to be displayed on merchandise sold at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California.
People visiting the Disney Parks want to purchase gift items that have artwork on them new, fresh and uniquely one-of-a-kind. Though Yamada’s artwork is traditional in one sense, the background scenes and details it depicts are freshly minted.
“The characters like Mickey Mouse have the classic Disney look, but we want something new for people to buy, so we need something new for Mickey or Minnie to do,” Yamada said. “You don’t want the same old thing to buy year after year.”
The poses or situations of the characters are consistently changed to keep them fresh.
“For example, every year Disney World has a Christmas program and they want a different scene, perhaps Mickey in a Santa Suit with a brand new setting and background,” Yamada said. “The situations depicted on the merchandise help keep them unique.”
The process starts when staff people at Disney give Yamada an assignment to do a painting for a merchandise piece to be sold in stores at the theme parks. It can be for a tee shirt, coffee mug, autograph book, packaging for dolls and toys or other items.
“Usually they’ll give me an idea something they dreamed up, and a direction of how they want it,” Yamada said. “It comes to me as a rough layout, usually a simple pencil drawing for me to go on. Staff is always thinking of new things for the Disney characters to do. I take their drawing and do my own what’s called a clean inking. That’s a more detailed, black and white drawing. Then I render it in color and do the shading and highlights. From there I create a finished painting.”
The work is done on computer using Photoshop software.
Yamada said many of his representations portray what are known at Disney as “The Fab Five,” Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. However some depictions include dozens of Disney characters from famous animated movies over the years including Snow White and Cinderella.
Items often have the current year date added to them, 2016, which also helps make the item a unique gift.
Yamada said his painted creations can take anywhere from a single day to several weeks or more to complete.
“One with lots of characters and detailed background can take two months to finish,” he said. “There can be a large number of characters to portray and one of my works had 80 Disney characters, including such well known stars as Mermaid and Pinocchio.”
Yamada said it gives him great pleasure to see his artwork enjoyed by visitors to the Disney parks who purchase keepsakes.
His success in the job led to a recent honor, being asked by Disney to exhibit artworks at a special “Artist Showcase” and autograph signing event to be held Aug. 20 at the Disneyana Gallery on Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. Yamada paintings will be sold to collectors.
“These are paintings I created on my own as an independent artist,” Yamada explained.
The Disneyana Gallery signing event is open free to visitors with a valid park admission.
Yamada grew up in Lodi, California.
During World War II when the U.S. government locked up 115,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast in concentration camps because of their ethnicity, Yamada’s parents Ted and Connie were imprisoned in a camp in Jerome, Arkansas.
“Before the war my dad had run a grocery store in Florin (Sacramento),” Yamada said. “After the war they returned to California and
Lodi and took up the same kind of work.”
Yamada attended UC Berkeley as an Art Major.
“I was interested in becoming an artist early-on,” he said. “After Berkeley I was accepted into the San Francisco Academy of Art and at the time I wanted to do movie posters. This was the era of the popularity of the Star Wars movie of the 1980’s.”
One of his first jobs was painting logos for the California Golden Bears Football Team, Cal Berkeley’s college football team.
“I painted scenes with bears, also the football stadium,” he said. “I wanted to work with Disney and kept sending them my portfolio and eventually they hired me to do a project for Euro Disney (Paris, France), which opened in 1992.”
What began as a tryout blossomed into more work assignments as Disney officials learned they could count on Yamada to produce great work and meet deadline schedules.
“One project led to another,” he said. “I did more assignments. It was a workload that evolved. I was an outside contractor with Disney and did work for different divisions in the company, for example their publishing arm and the consumer products division.”
Married with children, Yamada also credited his success to his wife Millie for her support.
“She’s an artist too,” he said. “She helps by doing background work for my paintings, while I do the characters and their situations.”
Asked what the hardest part of achieving such a career is, Yamada said first of all the ability to have faith.
“You have to believe doing this type of work is possible, you have to have that in the beginning,” he said. “When you decide it can be done, you’re on your way. You believe in it and then justify it.”
The Disneyana Gallery artwork signing event on Aug. 20 (Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California) will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For more information on the Disneyana Gallery go to https://disneyland.disney.go.com/shops/disneyland/disneyana