• A Look Back at: Milford Zornes

    Milford Zornes was one of the major watercolorists of the twentieth century, and a recognized leader in the California Style watercolor movement which began in the 1920’s. He was born January 25, 1908 in Carmago, Oklahoma. The first drawing we have from Zornes was of a little girl, possibly his sister, drawn at the age of ten.  A prolific painter, he spent his whole life as an artist. Today, on the anniversary of his birth, we celebrate his art and his life. “I think you’re an artist when you change the lives of other people through your paintings.”

    Exhibiting a spirit of adventure that we would be hard pressed to find today, at age 21 he hitchhiked across the country. Finding himself in New York, he worked on the docks and paid passage to Europe with his wages.  He toured the continent traveling through Holland, Germany and France. Upon returning, he settled in Southern California. 
    His ability grew with his years, and by the age of 25, he had been given a one man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. President Roosevelt honored him, and chose one of his watercolors – “Old Abode” - to hang in the White House. 

    A natural teacher - having taught at Pomona College, Otis Art Institute and Pasadena School of Fine Arts – Zornes was passionate about sharing his knowledge with others. Earlier in his career he had sat under Millard Sheets and F. Tolles Chamberlin and he had an enormous wealth of wisdom to give his students.  “You learn to teach, and you teach to learn” he said

    He was elected president of the California Water Color Society in 1941 and the next year executed the fresco “Ramona” at the Ramona Bowl in Hemet, Ca., an enormous 16’ x 18’ piece created with the help of his Otis Art Institute students. 

    There seemed to be the greatest urge in this man to paint, to create, to replicate the world with an abstract realism that was sublime.  “All art is abstract, because art is an abstraction of the truth” he said. “I don’t paint things as they are, I paint them as they could be.”

    While serving during World War II, he was assigned to be an official artist in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. Many of his watercolors and drawings are still housed in the Pentagon - part of their collection of war art.  

    After the war, Zornes settled in Claremont, California to paint and teach. He spent 6 to 8 months a year during the ‘50’s, working at Thule Air Base, located in Qaasuitsup, Greenland. He would paint the surrounding landscape in his free time. 

    Travel was a great part of Zornes’s life, venturing to Nicaragua and Uganda, he painted landscapes and people in their everyday environment.  He took private students on exotic voyages for “on location” classes and excursions to destinations such as China, Alaska, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Hawaii, and Cuba. Regardless of where he found himself he made art. He sketched and painted, he took the world in, and gave it back to us in the form of beauty.  “A thing stated as fact or as reasonable is one thing, but art is the ability to express things beyond what can be expressed purely as fact or reason.” 

    With a fresh evocative style, he had an easy hand and teased the viewer into seeing the images behind the painting, directing the eye to details he wanted to highlight. He was a master at constructing a simple line that told a story with hints and whispers told in bold colors and subtle promises. “Painting is a way of thought” he said, “It’s a language. What you say with a line is important.”  

    In his later years, Zornes sight was progressively limited by macular degeneration, but it didn’t stop him from painting, it just changed how he painted. His lines were softer, the colors more vibrant. “Due to my failing eyesight, I feel in many cases, I can actually see and concentrate on the shape and value of objects without the distraction of excessive detail.” 
    Zornes' paintings are represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the White House, and the Library of Congress, and among many private collectors. 

    A life lived with a sense of adventure and filled with creativity, Zornes was a man remembered fondly by all who knew him.  He attended his 100th birthday party, a celebration of his lifelong artistic career, on January 26, 2008 at the Pasadena Museum of Art. He died the following month, on February 24. 

    Men like Milford Zornes seem to be somewhat a thing of the past. This last century has mellowed many men, softened the work ethic and reduced the grand gesture of struggle to a soft whine of complacent indifference. Zornes on the other hand was passionate about life, about work and about exploring the truths to be found in the everyday world he lived in. He painted every day, up to a few days before his death. Zornes lived in color, and he painted as only few can paint.

    Writer: Laurie Morrison | Curator: Gene Sasse

    View more art by Milford Zornes here.

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