Milford Zornes, best known as a watercolorist, was also a noted art educator. A highly skilled artist, he enjoyed a national reputation, about which he was always modest.
Born in Camargo, Oklahoma, Zornes moved with his family first to Boise, Idaho, and when he was a teenager, to San Fernando, California. After graduating high school in 1925, he attended Santa Maria Junior College to study journalism. He spent the next few years traveling around the US and then in Europe, without any sense of purpose or direction. Zornes traces his sense of vocation as an artist to his encounter with the work of Millard Sheets:
I came back to California and there was this show of Millard Sheets’ work—pictures of farm scenes, street scenes, railroad stations. Somebody told me he was just a young fellow. It turned out he was only a year older than me. Then it seemed so simple: You just go out and paint things you know, that you look at . . . Millard was oriented to painting what he knew and what he saw, and once I got the idea that’s what painting is I had the feeling, Well I can do it. From then on, I was a lost soul.Original author’s italics. Quoted from James Milford Zornes and Bill Anderson, Milford Zornes: Nine Decades with a Master Painter: Milford Zornes at the Vincent Price Gallery/Museum (CITY: Earthen Vessel, 2005), 47.
Zornes began his study of art at the Otis Art Institute in 1928. When his father bought an orange grove in Ontario, Zornes came into the orbit of Pomona College, where he completed his BA in 1934. There he became close friends with Tom Craig, and they often traveled together in California between 1931 and 1935.
Like many other artists of his generation, Zornes worked for the Works Progress Administration. In 1942, he married Patricia Mary Palmer, and the following year he had a one-person show at LACMA that established his reputation. Like other artists, including Sheets and Craig, Zornes served in the military during the war. In 1941 he had joined the US Army Air Corps Engineers and soon became a master teacher in techniques of camouflage. Along with Sheets and Craig, he was sent to China, Burma, and India, where they produced illustrations of a variety of military operations. After the war, Zornes taught at Pomona College until 1950, and he also taught at Otis.
In 1963, he purchased the former home and studio of western artist Maynard Dixon (1875–1946) in Mt. Carmel, Utah, just outside Zion National Park. He gave watercolor workshops there regularly, and because they were in great demand, he traveled widely to conduct them in other places. Zornes’ works are in numerous public collections, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; LACMA; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the San Diego Museum of Art; and Utah State University in Logan. Zornes served as president of the California Watercolor Society and wrote two books on watercolor painting.
Zornes celebrated his one-hundredth birthday on January 26, 2008, by giving a two-hour watercolor demonstration. He died at his Claremont home less than a month later.
In 2010–11, the CCMA mounted a major retrospective of Zornes’ works and published two related books. The museum is privileged to own seven high-quality watercolors by the artist.
Over Cayucas (1987)
Cayucos State Beach and the associated town are just north of Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County. Here, rich natural colors evoke the dry hills of much of the central coast of California. Zornes used the watercolor medium to create something both abstract and specifically identifiable as a landscape, a vista both timeless and immediately recognizable as coastal California in the summer. On his characteristic full-sheet composition, his handling of the medium is confident, free yet controlled. Each touch of the brush is precise, serving to define individual plants on the hillsides. The patch of sea, the distant hills around the bay, and the sky are rendered in large, smooth horizontal strokes that contrast with the vertical touches that describe the plants in the foreground. The overcast sky, visible over the tip of the jutting landmass, is brightened by the glow of yellow paint evoking sunlight.
About painting the sea, Zornes said:
I think of all subject matter that I attempt to deal with in my painting, the sea will always be the most demanding. Regardless of all my interest in other subject matter, I always come back to the sea. . . I find in dealing with the movement of the water, the patterns on the shore, the rocky structure, the land facing the sea, there are endless varied ideas for composition.Zornes and Anderson, Nine Decades with a Master Painter, 90.
This beautiful image of pleasure seekers at the sea probably depicts Monterosso al Mare, one of the five towns of Cinque Terre, the famous resort on the Ligurian coast of Italy. Zornes uses the full-page scale to great advantage. The composition is purposefully unbalanced: the landmass on the right leads the viewer’s eyes diagonally from lower right to upper left, but the artist creates a central focus, positioning the white tower in the exact center of the paper.
Zornes achieves great economy of means without sacrificing illustrative detail. The varied earth tones of the landmasses enhance the viewer’s perception of distance. The subtle green of the foreground beach shadows is echoed in the landmass, upper right. The figures, rendered with precise touches of paint, are individualized: it is easy to pick out the dark-skinned women in the foreground, the man in the brown shirt and black shorts facing out to sea, and the smaller figures, possibly children, in red and blue shirts. Three bands of color, reddish brown, tan, and beige, define the boat hull, its upper edge outlined in white paint
Gordon McClelland, Milford Zornes: An American Painter (Los Angeles: Transcontinental Art Exhibits, 2008).
Gene Sasse, The Art of Milford Zornes: Friendships & Inspiration (CCMA 2010).
Gene Sasse, The Art of Milford Zornes from Private Collections (CCMA 2010).
Zornes, James Milford, and Bill Anderson. Milford Zornes: Nine Decades with a Master Painter : Milford Zornes at the Vincent Price Gallery/Museum. Earthen Vessel, 2005.