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Bill Cone and Plein Air

Bill Cone and Plein Air

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Blue Friday (pastel)

Pixar production designer Bill Cone had stopped doing his own fine art outside of work for about 10 years before he began working with pastels. “At some point, when you’re married and have kids, you don’t have lot of free time,” he says. “But when I started working with pastels for the movie A Bug’s Life, I enjoyed them so much that I began using them on my own.”

“I’d put them in a daypack along with some paper, and at lunch I’d ride my bike to a nice spot and paint,” Cone explains. “Then I took vacations and painted with pastels. For a while I had them in a little box in a backpack; eventually I decided to pack them better. And I started working bigger to do fish portraits. Up in Canada my in-laws liked to fish for rainbow trout, and I painted their prize catches.”

Cone started to realize he was gaining a deeper understanding of qualities of light and atmosphere by painting outside, and that no photo could have taught him those things. “Watching changing light taught me a lot, how shadows move and change color,” he says. “I became more aware of how dynamic and complex nature is. It began to affect how I felt about light, and how to try to describe it. How to get the sense of the ways light from the sky illuminates the world even when you can’t see sun, or to understand the nature of shadows. I think I became more sensitive about how to use these effects in film, which was of great value for my work. I went out to explore nature and get away from work, but what I learned there came back to work with me.”

Now Cone is constantly observing effects of nature. It’s not only helped his work but inspires him on many levels, and he plans to keep painting, He’s started to exhibit his work annually, and for the last three summers, he has organized painting expeditions into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, inviting some people from Pixar who like to paint, along with fine artists such as Randy Sexton, Clark Mitchell, Kevin Courter and Paul Kratter.

Perhaps we’ll see some of those landscapes in a movie one day.

Bill Cone cites disparate influences—Mad magazine and the fine art of painters John Singer Sargent, Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud—as inspiration for his more than 14 years of highly respected design work at Pixar Animation Studios. He lives in Moraga, California, with his wife, two children, two dogs and three cats. See his more of his work on his blog at


Look for Maggie Price’s book, Painting With Pastels: Easy Techniques to Master the Medium (North Light Books, 2007) at See her artwork at
To read “The Nuts and Bolts of Hi-Tech Animation,” an article about Bill Cone and the role of the fine artist at Pixar, see the March 2008 issue of Magazine.



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Watch the video: Scott Ruthvens Ultimate Plein Air Gear How-To Guide (June 2022).


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