As a starting point, the animators would have naturally looked at the only known real-life image of Pocahontas for ideas. However, the Simon de Passe engraving clearly did not provide the inspiration they required. The English in 1616 had commissioned an image of Pocahontas that would emphasize her acceptance of English ways, so they dressed her according to the English fashion of the time. For Disney's purposes, the image had little to offer, and we might guess the animators shared the view of 1600s John Chamberlain, that "Here is a fine picture of no fayre Lady." However, I have been unable to find a legitimate quote by the animators describing exactly how they reacted to this image. Likewise, the Disney animators do not seem to be on record as having been influenced by the William Ordway Partridge statue that stands in Jamestown, though arguably that conception of Pocahontas shares some features with the Disney version, if you ignore the vertical feather.
"And as they stood there, I mean ... I took a picture of both of them, and between their faces was Pocahontas’ face in my mind – I could see her.
They were both beautiful, they had a nobility in the way they stood. All the way through the film, I had that photo on my desk there as a reminder of that. Because it was real, I was animating something that I believed. And I think you really have to believe in what you’re animating."
Amazingly, even the animator backstory has a Disney-like, fairy tale quality to it. Since it comes from Keane himself, it appears that one or both of the Custalow women really were early models for how Pocahontas might appear.
A Pocahontas sketch (right) accompanies the article, but with no explanation, it's unclear if it's an actual Glen Keane concept drawing at an early stage of animation or just some random fan art thrown in to fill space on the page. A photo of Debbie White Dove (described as Devi in the Steed article) is posted here to help readers imagine Keane's early encounter with the Custalows and how it may have resulted in a sketch. This photo was not in the Steed article, but cropped from a photo (probably a screen capture from a Pocahontas documentary) that appeared in The Log, Volume V, Issue 5, SepOct 2007.
After the Custalow sisters, a long list of models and actresses have been named in articles as elements combined to create the final Pocahontas character. Ultimately, there's no single person who is a dead ringer for the Disney Pocahontas. If the animators are to be believed, she is a composite of roughly 15 individuals. Model, film-maker and charity founder, Christy Turlington, is one person who has been named, Varying hairstyles and makeup give her a number of looks, so it's sometimes difficult to see how she fits into the Pocahontas mix, Apparently, her inclusion came about because her image appeared frequently in fashion magazines that the Disney animators thumbed through for inspiration back in 1992 or '93..
A person who has been largely forgotten, probably because there seems to be no decent public photo available of her, is a California woman of Filipino descent named Dyna Taylor, a university student at the time of the Disney production. In the run-up to Pocahontas, she was extensively filmed and sketched. In one instance, 15 animators were said to have drawn her face from various angles. Supervising animator, Glen Keane apparently gave her a signed picture of Pocahontas that says, "To Dyna, with gratitude for the inspiration you gave us," She also got a $200 modeling fee and no screen credit, However, she did score a television appearance on "Entertainment Tonight" and an article in the New York Times. Link to article
Live Action Reference
Several models and actresses have been named as live action reference for the Disney character, Pocahontas. These include Charmaine Craig (right), Natalie Venetia Belcom (left), Irene Bedard (below) and possibly a mysterious Jamie Pillow about whom I can find little information and no official credit. Both Craig and Belcon can be found in the Other Crew section of the IMDb Pocahontas cast page with credits as "video reference cast." Charmaine Craig is now an author, and Natalie Belcon is a jazz singer.
The Art of Pocahontas
by Stephen Rebello (1996)
There are many Disney images floating around the internet, but it's sometimes difficult to know if the images are actual Disney art or fan-made studies. With this huge and heavy coffee table book, we can be confident that what we're looking at is actual Disney concept or storyboard art and even which artist created which image. The huge number of drawings, many of which look nothing like the final product, are interesting for how they show (vaguely) how the concept of Pocahontas developed. The early images of Smith, Powhatan, Kocoum, Ratcliffe, and the background scenery are all worth a look. On the other hand, the text seems to be mainly promotional copy by Disney, and rarely explains in concrete terms how the images came to be or how they were received at the time. To be fair, Disney probably didn't feel the need to document the creation of the art in that much detail at the time, or perhaps they did and the details can be found elsewhere. This book is mainly useful for its images and for documenting artist names.
A little random, but ...
I'm not sure if I'm providing a service here or only pissing people off, but here's an image found on Screen Rant, attributed to artist Elena Provolovich for Dr. Aesthetica (a UK-based cosmetic clinic) that re-imagines Disney princesses with body shapes that reflect "average UK women's measurements."
Yes, I understand that Pocahontas was not a "UK woman", but some may make the case that she died as an English woman, though we can't be sure she had a choice in the matter (the English part, not the dying part.)
For more images of this type, see the Sept. 2020 article by Cassie Hurwitz on the Screen Rant website.