Sunday, 23 January 2011

Background Artist Richard H. Thomas

There’s something about the southwestern United States that attracts artists by the colony. As someone who was born a weary seagull’s flight away from the Pacific Ocean and has spent most of my life not far from beaches, mountains and sundry shades of green, I’ve never understood the attraction of the desert. Yet it’s more than just a baking, barren brown land. Perhaps that’s why artists flock to it; cartoon background artists especially. Joe Montell of MGM settled in Arizona, Bob Gribbroek of Warner Bros. loved Taos, New Mexico (and felt uncomfortable during a sojourn to the U.S. Pacific Northwest), and so did Dick Thomas, known to inveterate watchers of cartoon credits as Richard H. Thomas. Taos is where he finished the last few years of his life.

By coincidence, both Montell and Thomas were hired the same year to work at Hanna-Barbera in 1959 when it was starting up The Quick Draw McGraw Show and Loopy De Loop theatrical cartoons.

Richard Hastings Thomas started in animation on the Warners lot at age 22 in 1937 when the art on screen was quickly evolving. Leon Schlesinger had employed old-timers like newspaper cartoonist Griff Jay and Art Loomer to take care of settings on its cartoons. Soon, the ranks were staffed with new artists like Gene Fleury, Paul Julian and Bob Holdeman (Johnny Johnsen, Avery’s background man, was also an old newspaper artist). The backgrounds started looking less simplistic, even in the black and white cartoons. Thomas had gone to Hoover High School in Glendale with Bob Clampett and, perhaps coincidentally, was put in the Clampett unit, which was later put in the hands of Norm McCabe, then Frank Tashlin, then Bob McKimson.

The Hole Idea, 1955 (layouts by Dick Thomas)

Hillbilly Hare, 1950 (layouts by Cornett Wood)

Cat-Tails for Two, 1952 (layouts by Bob Givens)

Thomas is probably best known as McKimson’s background man and was one of the few people who returned to the studio to work with McKimson after the 3-D shutdown in 1953. But McKimson couldn’t keep him, either, and he bolted for Disney a couple of years later (a former Disney artist named Bob Majors took over), then landed at Hanna-Barbera when people who had worked on Sleeping Beauty started being let go.

McKimson was the least adventuresome of the Warners directors in the ‘50s and Thomas seems to be the least adventuresome of the background artists when he arrived at Hanna-Barbera, even when constructing layouts by UPA-loving Ed Benedict. Daytime skies were blue, grass was green and trees were generally shaped like trees, not a symbolic blotch of colour. Still, they provided good backdrops for the cartoons and that’s the job of a background artist. You can see the reflections, light and shadow; very traditional.

Gone to the Ducks, 1960 (layouts by Bob Givens)

Tee Vee or Not Tee Vee, 1959 (layouts by Bick Bickenbach)

Thomas’ backgrounds weren’t as abstract as, say, Art Lozzi’s, which made him ideal to paint the settings for Jonny Quest (1964); he did at least one-half hour all on his own. Realistic backgrounds came in handy when Thomas went to work on Grantray-Lawrence’s Spiderman series in 1967.

Thomas stayed when Ralph Bakshi took over production (Grant Simmons led a unit in Los Angeles). The cartoons became increasingly bizarre. This could be his work in the cult favourite Revolt in the Fifth Dimension, which shares virtually the same story and artwork with the Rocket Robin Hood cartoon Dementia Five (both 1970). John Vita and Bob Owen share background credits but the second frame below reminds me of Thomas.

Revolt in Fifth Dimension/Dementia Five, 1970 (layouts by Gray Morrow)

There’s very little about Dick on the internet and, as you might expect, some of it is wrong. The Animation Guild site points out he spent some time in the ‘60s at Eagle Animation Corp., on Cahuenga right across from the Hanna-Barbera studios. Eagle looks like a fascinating story in itself. It was owned by Dale Robertson and produced a feature called The Man From Button Willow with animation talents that were, in some cases, slumming from across the street, and a voice cast that included Robertson, Herschel Bernardi, Verna Felton, Cliff Edwards, Pinto Colvig, Thurl Ravenscroft and Ed Platt (the Chief on Get Smart). Martha Sigall’s wonderful memoir mentions Dick had an interest in a company called Spectacolor that made acrylic paint for cels.

When Dick finally retired from animation after work on Garfield in the late ‘80s, he settled in Taos Canyon, New Mexico in February 1994; a daughter was going to college in the state. It wasn’t easy at first. They claimed “discrimination against the handicapped” and filed a civil suit against their landlord. Both Dick and his wife had medical problems. He was in a wheelchair in September and broke his leg the following month.

Dick and his wife were together for 31 years when he died December 30, 1996 (internet sites which say he died a day later are incorrect). The Taos News wrote a wonderful feature on January 23, 1997 which tells us a bit about his personal life. I’ve deleted paragraphs about his survivors and funeral.

Animation artist Richard H. Thomas dies
Bugs Bunny ran all over Richard H. Thomas’ work, and so did Sleeping Beauty and the Pink Panther.
But Thomas loved working among the antics of countless cartoon characters who romped, shot at, splattered, chased, guffawed and mugged their way across movie screens during the heyday of cartoon animation. Now, one star in the Looney Tune horizon has dimmed.
Thomas, 81, died Dec. 30 in Taos of kidney failure, according to his wife, Fran Thomas.
The couple had moved here three years ago and lived on a quiet street near the center of town. Lured by a friend at Warner Brothers studios who had visited Taos years ago, Richard Thomas wanted to live in a place that was conducive to his health and his creativity. He found both in this northern New Mexican community famous for its pleasant climate and a vital colony of artists and writers.
“He loved it here,” Fran Thomas said.
Richard Thomas was born Jan. 3, 1915, in Hackensack, N.J. He attended the Greer School in New York and graduated from Hoover High School in Glendale, Calif. He later attended Cornish Art School in Seattle, Wash., and Otis Art School in Los Angeles, on scholarship. He completed several years of study before serving in World War II in the United States Merchant Marines.
“He was a very quiet man,” his wife said. “His parents had split up during the Depression, and he was put in an orphanage. He really had a terrible childhood. But for someone who came from that background, he turned out to be a wonderful father. He had eight children altogether from two marriages. One died before him. But he adopted my three children, and then we adopted two more together.”
Thomas lived for many years in Malibu, Calif., and worked during the golden era at Warner Brothers Cartoon Studio, creating their unique background style. He worked with famous cartoon directors Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett. He also spent five years working the Walt Disney Studio doing art direction and background scenes for their "Sleeping Beauty” feature.
In addition, he worked for nine years at Hanna-Barbera Studios and 10 years at Depatie-Freleng Studio, where he worked on the “Pink Panther” series of cartoons.
“He was a wonderful person who did his art work and, working in the studios for almost 60 years, he didn’t get involved in (studio) politics,” Fran Thomas said. “He just did his art work, because he was just a very good person. I have over 30 sympathy cards, and everyone said, ‘He was a good man.’ And I thought, ‘That’s all you can ask for.’”
Currently, many of the scenes he painted for classic cartoons are part of an exhibition touring Germany, in the Frankfurt and Potsdam film museums, this after appearing in a Warner Brothers exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Asked once by a journalist how he found the inspiration for creating his distinctive backgrounds, Richard Thomas said, “Well, I just knew that’s how they had to be.” It was that kind of instinctive approach that made Thomas’ contribution to his work and his life, as a man, a father and a husband, so valuable and enduring.
Thomas was a member of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Trancas Riders and Ropers in Malibu and the Taos Rotary Club.

Oddly, while an earlier obituary revealed “He formerly sponsored Malibu Girl Scout Troop 242 for six years and donated much time to Boy Scouts and school programs in Southern California”, nowhere does it mention his middle name.

Finding pictures of old artists is a challenge. There’s a Warner’s Club News photo of the McKimson unit from 1945 that is so small, it can’t be blown up too well to see Thomas. However, Thad Komorowski, who is always happy to share animation historical matters, recently posted the 1938 photo of the Bob Clampett unit. The arrow points to Dick Thomas. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Mike Barrier did a full interview with Dick about 20 years ago. Perhaps, some day it’ll be published. We hope this post will do for now.


  1. The desert has an appeal like no other. Things aren't too tall or over grown. You can see far off and feel the shift of colors as the sun rises and sets. Night skies are spectacular and rich with to love the desert.

  2. Wonderful writeup.

    Thomas was a mainstay at DePatie-Freleng as their BG artist. He replaced Tom O'Loughlin roughly around 1969 and stayed until the studio closed in 1980. He's credited as a BG artist on all the DFE theatricals produced after O'Loughlin's departure (save for the handful produced overseas)

    The way BGs were done at DFE was a bit unusual. What they would do is they would xerox the layout drawings onto cels, paint certain areas, and then place it over a separate color board. Tom Yakutis developed it for Inspector and continued to be used by O'Loughlin and Thomas.

  3. A very nice write up. I always like Dick Thomas, he was really good at painting realistic backgrounds. His late 1940s work for McKimson is some of the most beautiful art I've ever seen.

  4. Very great post about him Don. Like Zartok says, his works for 1940's McKimson are among the greatest.

  5. Taos also has the advantage of being high enough in the southern Rockies so that you really don't have to go too far from one place to the next to experience a major change in the landscape, which may also have been an appealing factor to those joining the art colony there. Desert below 7,500 feet or so, pine forest (with lots of winter snow) above that elevation.

    With his H-B background work, much of it could just as easily be paired with the characters in a late 1950s Warners cartoon or a 50s MGM CinemaScope release and you really wouldn't notice the difference. Given where the background work in general would be headed in a few years, that's not such a bad thing.