About the Art

In the period between 1850 and today, California has been the home to a large number of extremely talented and versatile watercolor artists. While some became nationally and internationally recognized, most were largely overlooked until recent years. Since the 1970s, art collectors and museum curators have developed a serious interest in California watercolors and have been seeking these works to collect and display.

The group of artists working in this style often chose to paint watercolors depicting scenes of everyday life in the cities and suburbs of California. They were considered an important part of the American Scene or Regionalist movement that swept across the United States during the mid part of the twentieth century. The best of their works were painted directly with little or no preliminary pencil drawing, had bold design, creative use of the white paper as a “color” and featured the transparency of this unique medium. With the increased popularity of watercolor painting in recent years, the innovations of the California style have become part of the mainstream of American art.

"California Watercolors 1850-1970" by Gordon McClelland & Jay T. Last.

After World War I, many American artists rejected the modern trends and European influences such as those from the School of Paris. Instead, they chose to adopt academic realism in depicting American urban, domestic and rural scenes.  Paintings that feature local and small-town scenes are often referred to as "American regionalism", while those depicting urban scenes with political and social consciousness are called "social realism." 

The artistic focus of the early twentieth century ran counter to America’s rapid technological advance.  Artists were drawn to subject matter that inspired them to paint.  With a population boom in the United States, artists began to document urban growth that had never been seen before. The move to take advantage of economic opportunities found in urban centers was transforming America from its small-town roots to a new, exciting and socially diverse metropolitan way of life.

Much of American scene painting conveys a sense of nationalism and romanticism in its depiction of everyday life. These artists documented and illustrated American cities, small towns, and rural landscapes with a richness never seen before.  Some did so as a means of returning to a simpler time, far from the industrial ways of the twentieth century, whereas other artists sought to make a political statement with their art.

Many of the scene painters held formal positions in the art community working for companies such as Disney, Paramount, and MGM. A few also held teaching positions at well-known art schools such as the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, a school funded partially by Walt Disney to provide a steady flow of talented artists for his popular animated films and movies. Although these artists worked tirelessly throughout the day at their professions, they always found a way to paint in their spare time. 

These young artists became internationally celebrated.  Over a dozen of them were selected by their peers to become Academicians of the National Academy of Design, the highest art honor in our country. Numerous others were members of the American Watercolor Society and the California Watercolor Society and have displayed their art in countless museum exhibitions.

Please visit our ART BOOKS section for more great literature on the "California Style" and "American Scene" art movements.