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Milford Zornes

 (1908 - 2008)
Milford Zornes was active/lived in California, Utah, Oklahoma.  Milford Zornes is known for watercolor landscape and marine painting.

Milford Zornes

Biography from the Archives of askART

Watercolor painting enjoyed a major renaissance early in the 20th Century in Southern California when a group of artists began using it as a primary medium. Scholar Gordon McClelland, in his recently published book, California Watercolors 1850-1970, places the beginnings of the California Style in the 1920s. Milford Zornes, one of the members of this group, turned ninety-five in January 2003, and is the last living artist of that pioneering movement.

Born in Oklahoma on January 25, 1908, Zornes moved west to California during the Dust Bowl years. When he turned twenty, he hitchhiked across the United States, worked as a longshoreman on the docks in New York City, and then traveled to Europe. After his return to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, Zornes studied at the Otis Art Institute. His interest in watercolor eventually led him to seek out and study with Millard Sheets, who was an art professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Los Angeles was a boomtown in the 1920s, and artists were intrigued by the blossoming cityscape.  Many of their paintings focused on the street scenes of new buildings, cars and people.  Others explored the stunning California landscapes of oceans, mountains and deserts.

Watercolor was a relatively inexpensive medium that could be easily transported for on-site paintings.  Instead of using it to just color drawings, artists began to use watercolor as a medium, substantial in itself, like oil.  Those working in this genre were part of the California Watercolor Society that included Phil Dike and Sheets. These artists expanded the vocabulary of traditional watercolor painting by heightening the expressive qualities of the medium and expanding the size.  East Coast collectors and institutions took notice and began to buy their work.

Joining the group in the 1930s, Zornes quickly became an artist of major importance.  He was given a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1933.  President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt noticed his work and selected a painting for the White House. The quick transformation from art student to a nationally-recognized artist helped Zornes launch a career that took him around the world and established him as a key figure among California Style artists.

Zornes' works are distinguished by their broad, sweeping brushstrokes and unusually large scale.  Zornes also proved to be a master in the use of unpainted areas of white to define forms in paintings such as Winter at Mt. Carmel, where painted mountains and trees are set dramatically against the bright white of the paper.

A major theme in Zornes' life and work has been his passion for travel.  Whether painting the islands of Bali in the South Pacific or a marketplace in Uganda, the climate, architecture and people of various locales have been a key inspiration.  His love for other cultures led him to South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.  After his early travels in the 1920s and 1930s, Zornes was commissioned by the United States military to accompany a division in Southeast Asia to record battles and meetings among military officials.

Zornes, as an artist and adventurer, has captured the imagination of art collectors and the general public.  He is a kind of local hero in Claremont, California, where he currently resides. Zornes has taught at Pomona College, Otis Art Institute, University of California at Santa Barbara, Riverside Art Center, Pasadena School of fine Arts, and in many watercolor workshops.  His work is included in the collections of major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Milford Zornes' life is the subject of a recently released documentary by NBC News reporter Laurel Erickson, created in conjunction with an exhibition in Spring 2003 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Milford Zornes, died on February 24, 2008 in his Claremont home from congestive heart failure. He was 100. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Pat; two children, Maria Baker and Franz Zornes; six grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren

Wesley P. Jessup, American Art Review, April 2003, February 2008 (obituary)

Biography from the Archives of askART
A prominent artist in the watercolor movement known as California Style, Milford Zornes became especially known of his application of watercolor in broad brush strokes to large sheets of paper with planned areas of white, unpainted spaces showing through. This was a new way of watercolor painting, which traditionally has been done over pencil sketches.

He was born in Camargo, Oklahoma, and moved to Los Angeles while a teenager. In Santa Maria, California, he enrolled in Santa Maria Junior College, where he had art instruction from Stanley Breneiser and lived for a period of time with him and his wife, Babs Breneiser who was an art teacher at the local high school. Zornes later referred to this time as his first exposure to a professional art teacher and mentor and said: "This was a dizzy, exciting world to a young man whose feet were not yet on the ground even though his head was in the stars." (Hal Baker)

Then at age 20, he began adventurous travel that took him across the United States, had him working on the docks of New York City, and then shipping out to Denmark as a merchant seaman, a job that eventually led to a tour of Europe. He returned to Los Angeles by 1930, and studied at the Otis Art Institute with F. Tolles Chamberlain, and at Pomona College where Millard Sheets was his teacher. 

Throughout the 1930s, he was exhibiting widely including the 1938 Art Institute of Chicago International Watercolor Exhibition, Seventeenth Year.  Zornes received a $100 prize for one of his paintings.

Zornes did murals during World War II for the Federal Arts Project of the W.P.A., and was a United States Army artist correspondent in Burma and India. Because of the distinction of his W.P.A. and other wartime artwork, he was honored with a one-person exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, and one of his paintings was selected by President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt for the White House Collection. This attention brought him much positive publicity.

After the war, he lived in several locations in California, and traveled in Alaska and Greenland, and ultimately developed the idea of traveling watercolor workshops. Zornes has also taught watercolor workshops all over the world including in China, Alaska, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Hawaii.

In 1963, Milford and his wife, Pat Zornes, bought the Maynard Dixon summer home and studio in Salt Lake City, Utah from Edith Hamlin, wife of Maynard Dixon, to have a place for regular watercolor workshops. 

Paintings by Milford Zornes are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Butler Institute of Art, National Academy of Design, San Diego Museum of Art, Laguna Beach Museum of Art, U.S. War Department Collection, Library of Congress Collection, Pomona Public Library, the Fontana Public Library,and Shatford Library, Pasadena City College, Gardena High School Art Collection, all in California.

Zornes has been an active member of the National Academy of Design (A.N.A.), American Watercolor Society (past president) and West Coast Watercolor Society.

Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
The Thunderbird Foundation
Gordon T. McClelland and Jay T. Last, "Milford Zornes",  California Watercolors 1850-1970
Hal Baker, Son-in-law of Milford Zornes

Biography from the Archives of askART

Some bibliography in PSCA, no. 8.


Laguna Beach Art Assn., per PSCA, no. 11.

Source: Nancy Dustin Moure, "Santa Cruz Art League Statewide Art Exhibition Index, First through Twenty-seventh, 1928-1957 (Publications in California Art, No. 12)"

Biography from Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts
1908 - 2008
"Master of the Brush"         
Written by Susan Bingham

Milford Zornes work is characterized by large shapes, abstracted forms and compositions that are strong and powerful. At the age of 92, while performing a workshop demonstration in the old Dixon studio that he once owned, with brush in hand, a colorful palette of watercolors and a large sheet of watercolor paper, he began: "It all begins with a line, with shapes and with simplifying what you see.  That is how you will end up with a powerful composition" he said in his very deep, commanding voice, holding the attention of all 30 attendees who had traveled near and far to participate.

Traditionally, watercolors were more like colored drawings, the drawings being detailed to a certain degree and then filled in with color. Of course people like Mary Cassat, J.M.W.Turner, Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent had brought this medium to a high art form, beautiful in their luminosity and loose, broad brushstrokes.

In the 1920's Los Angeles was a thriving place for artists. The climate and the scenery were exciting and drew artists from all over the United States.  Artists were able to paint out doors on a regular basis and watercolors were portable and cheap and a great way for the artist to get quick studies for later studio paintings. Millard Sheets, who taught at the Otis Art Institute, began to paint watercolor more like the way one would approach oils, with the medium becoming the drawing, rather than coloring in pencil drawings. Painting the landscape of California, it's back roads, farms, beaches, and people, the "California Style", somewhat similar to many of the regionalists in other parts of the country but with a definite California look, began to evolve. 

The California Watercolor Society had many members and Milford Zornes is one of the more well known along with people such as Millard Sheets, Phil Paradise, Phil Dike, Emil Kosa, George Post, Paul Sample and many others. Watercolor painting throughout the nation was greatly influenced by this group.

Milford Zornes was born in Cumargo, Oklahoma and the family moved to Los Angeles when he was just a teenager. By the age of 20 he had sought adventure by traveling across the country and ending up in New York where he worked on the docks. He boarded a ship to Denmark as a merchant marine, and subsequently traveled throughout Europe. By 1930 he was back in Los Angeles and had decided to become an artist and thus enrolled at the Otis Art Institute.  He studied with the California impressionist Frank Tolles Chamberlain and also took classes from early modernist Millard Sheets. It was this association that led him to become a professor of art at Pomona College where he taught for many years.

Throughout the 1930's he began to exhibit his new style watercolors all over the United States. In 1938 he received a cash award for one of his paintings exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago's seventh exhibition "International Watercolor Exhibition." He also turned his attention to murals at that time, working for the W.P.A. , the Federal Arts Project established to put artists to work during the depression.

Called to serve his country in World War II, Milford was assigned as an official artist of the United States Army and was sent to Burma and India to record activities there. Because of the distinction of his W.P.A. and other wartime artwork, he was honored with a one person exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. One of his paintings was selected by President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt for the White House Collection.  This publicity and attention widely enhanced his career.

After the war, he lived in several locations in California, and found time to travel and paint in Alaska and Greenland. After teaching at Pomona College he began to also develop the idea of traveling workshops which took him all over the world including China, Alaska, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Hawaii.

In 1963 Milford and his wife Pat had raised their daughter and decided to have another adventure. A longtime friend, and widow of Maynard Dixon, Edith Hamlin Dixon had decided to sell the home and studio she and Maynard had established in 1939 in Mt. Carmel, Utah, near Zion National Park. Milford purchased the property in 1963 and taught workshops every summer for many years there. Years before, in 1939 he had met with Edith and Maynard in San Francisco, and they had told him about the property they had purchased and built a home on, and suggested to him that he come there and begin to establish an art colony with them. His life led him back to California after the war where he established his teaching and art careers and he didn't visit Utah until 1963.

Milford was a tall, strong man with a remarkable resiliency both in his physical stature and in his art career. He painted and gave workshops well into his 90's even doing workshops in Mt. Carmel after it was purchased by the new owners in 1998.  

In 2008, Milford purchased an expensive watercolor brush, a purchase some may have called frivolous. But he stated: "I am going to do a demonstration on my 100th birthday." And so he did. A large retrospective of his work was mounted in a gallery in California, and Milford though weakened from congestive heart failure and in a wheel chair, rose with his beautiful new brush, his watercolors and talked about his work and demonstrated his methods to an admiring crowd.  

The master put down his brush for the last time, passing away at his home in Claremont California on Feb 8, 2008, one month after his 100th birthday celebration. In June of 2009 a memorial site was established on the old Dixon, Zornes property. His ashes were scattered on a hill high above the studio and a rock under a Cedar tree was designated with a plaque of remembrance. Pat passed away in 2008 and her ashes were scattered near Milford's and a plaque was placed on the same rock with Milford.

Milford is survived by his daughter Maria Baker, son Franz Zornes, six grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren.

COLLECTIONS:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Butler Institute of Art, National Academy of Design, San Diego Museum of Art, Laguna Beach Museum of Art, U.S. War Department Collection, Library of Congress Collection, Pomona Public Library, Fontana Public Library, Shatford Library, Pasadena City College and many private collections worldwide.

ASSOCIATIONS:  National Academy of Design, A.W.S. (American Watercolor Society) past president, West Coast Watercolor Society.  He is considered one of the most influential of the "California Style" Movement which began in about 1930.

It is with great pleasure that the THUNDERBIRD FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS, presents this very important collection of paintings by Mr. Zornes which date from the 1940's to 1996.  

Biography from
MILFORD ZORNES (1908, Camargo, OK-2008, Claremont, CA).

Studied: Otis Art Institue (Los Angeles, Pomona college (California).
Member: National Academy of Design, American Watercolor Society, California Water Color Society.

Milford Zornes grew up in Oklahoma, Idaho and California.  He loved to travel, so at twenty years of age, he hitch-hiked across America, worked on the New York docks, and then shipped out for Europe.  By 1930, he was back in Los Angeles studying art with F. Tolles Chamberlin at the Otis Art Institute.  He became very interested in watercolor painting and took additional study in this medium from Millard Sheets at Scripps College.

By 1933, he was exhibiting his watercolors and receiving awards. As a result of his art production for the P.W.A.P. art Project, he was given a one-man show at the Corocan Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  One of his watercolors was selected by President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt to hang in the White House and an enormous amount of publicity followed. Within a very short amount of time, Zornes went from being a California watercolor student to being a nationally recognized artist.

Over the next few years, he concentrated on painting a number of high quality watercolors for exhibitions in Califonnia, Texas, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Kansas, New York, Illinois and other parts of America. When Larson P. Cooper formed the California Group traveling show in 1937, Zornes was one of the twelve artists picked to represent California watercolor painting. On the West Coast, he also became known as a gifted instructor of watercolor painting. Throughout this period, he was an active member of the California Water Color Society and was president of that organization in 1942.

When World War II broke out, he was drafted into the United States Army and was assigned to be an official war artist in the China, India, Burma theatre. For nearly three years, he painted on location in those countries and turned most of the art over to the War Department art collection housed at the Pentagon. He also had an art show in Bombay during this time.

After the war, he moved around California for a while, and eventully settled in Claremont.  From there, he took a trip to Alaska and a series of trips to Greenland. All the while he was painting, teaching, and exhibiting nationally. Gradually, he developed the idea of traveling watercolor workshops. This combined his favorite things to do; travel, paint watercolors, and help others to enjoy the same. Zornes became one of the finest watercolor instructors in America and has been to nearly every part of the world at one time or another.

In addition to painting and teaching, he has worked as a mural artist, authored a book about his art and travels in Nicaragua, produced fine art prints, and was the subject of a book, which he co-authored, titled MILFORD ZORNES published by Hillcrest Press, Inc. in 1991.

Biographical information:
Interview with Milford Zornes, 1983
California Watercolors 1850-1970 By Gordon T. McClelland and Jay T. Last.

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About  Milford Zornes

Born:  1908 - Camargo, Oklahoma
Died:   2008 - Claremont, California
Known for:  watercolor landscape and marine painting