Milford Zornes

Inside Art
Milford Zornes

When art meets reality on canvas, the viewer knows that something of historical significance has occurred. Such is the work of California Scene painter Milford Zornes (1908-2008), whose paintings are featured in an exhibit at the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Old Towne.

Known for his representational art that depicts everyday life—in particular scenes of California from the early 1900s-1980s—Zornes was a prolific artist, whose career spanned 80 years. His paintings found in collections throughout the world depicting people going about their daily routines have become historical reference points.

“Milford’s art portrayed the average American’s life in the early 20th century—from farmers to foundry workers to auto mechanics,” says writer, art curator and artist Gordon McClelland, who became good friends with Zornes when he interviewed the artist for his seminal book, The California Style: California Watercolor Artists 1925-1955. Later he wrote two books about Zornes, including Milford Zornes: An American Artist

Humble Beginnings

Born in Oklahoma into a poor “Okie” family, Zornes also lived in Idaho and California. In the early 1930s, he studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles under award-winning artist F. Tolles Chamberlin. He also learned from the founder of the California Scene painting movement, Millard Sheets, with whom he became good friends.

Zornes enjoyed traveling, which led to hitchhiking across the U.S. and visiting Europe. At the time, which was early in his career, he painted regional scenes wherever he went. During the Great Depression in 1934, Zornes signed up to work as a painter for the P.W.A.P. art project, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Project Admini-stration) program. He ended up doing more paintings than all of the other artists in the program combined.

Roosevelt selected one of Zornes’ watercolors to hang in the White House. “The notoriety Milford earned from having his work displayed at the White House gave his career a big boost, and he became nationally recognized,” says McClelland.

“The Canyon”

During Zornes’ rise to fame, he painted the piece featured in this issue that depicts New York City’s Wall Street. Known as “The Canyon,” the term at the time for streets framed by skyscrapers, the painting is one of his most well-known. The Hilbert Museum recently acquired the piece, which is featured in the exhibit.

The story behind “The Canyon” that Zornes shared with McClelland is an amusing one. When the artist married his first wife in 1935, they traveled to New York City on their honeymoon. He set up an easel on Wall Street in order to create his own rendition of the street’s hustle and bustle.

Trouble soon arrived in the form of a police officer, who said that he needed a permit to sit on the sidewalk and paint. Zornes asked the officer to watch his painting supplies while he ran to city hall for a permit. The quest took longer than expected, so the policeman scolded Zornes when he finally returned. Despite the interruption, the artist completed three-quarters of the painting on site.

California Scene Painters

“‘The Canyon’ fits perfectly into our collection of Milford Zornes’ work,” says Mary Platt, Director of the Hilbert Museum. “Though the painting doesn’t represent a California Scene, it is the work of a California Scene painter. Milford was one of many great artists who came to Los Angeles in the 1930s-1950s to work for Disney and Warner Brothers,” she says. “The artists spent their time off painting watercolors, which became the body of work known as California Scene paintings, many of which can be found at the Hilbert Museum.”

“The Canyon” is a good example of Zornes’ brilliant work, says Platt. “Milford almost magically portrayed in his paintings qualities of light and air. There’s always a sense of action, such as people walking down Wall Street. He’s a master at incorporating beautiful swatches of color that seem to catch the sun, and his skies are always spectacular.”

In 2016, Mark Hilbert co-founded the Hilbert Museum with his wife, Jan, after the couple collected California Scene paintings for more than two decades. He’d seen “The Canyon” featured at exhibits over the years and felt drawn to it, so when the opportunity came up recently to acquire the piece, he jumped at the chance.

“The painting, done during the heart of the Great Depression, is probably one of the best renditions of Wall Street at that time,” says Hilbert. “The piece depicts people going about their business, and its view of the canyon gives you the language of what’s going on at the time, including the fashion. It’s the epitome of what the Hilbert Museum is all about­–telling stories through snapshots of the 20th century. Like all of Zornes’ paintings, this one has a sense of movement and energy that anchors you in that time and place.”

Storied Art Career

Following the Depression, Zornes joined the military during World War II and recorded behind-the-scenes war efforts through charcoal drawings mixed with opaque watercolors. When the war ended, he returned to California and became almost exclusively a watercolor painter.

“Milford painted with watercolors on location,” says McClelland. “His painting technique was a difficult one, because you only have one chance with watercolor, which can’t be changed like other mediums, such as oil. One of his techniques involved leaving white paper to show through.”

Zornes, who also enjoyed teaching, including as an art instructor at Pomona College, traveled throughout the world to share about his art. “People were fascinated about how he manipulated the watercolor medium in unique ways,” says McClelland. “He produced art that communicated more what he felt than what he saw. He tried successfully to get viewers to have a visceral experience when they viewed his art.”

For Zornes, painting was something he had to do, which explains his eight decades of work. “He painted pretty much every day,” says McClelland. “He said art was an addiction, and the only cure was to paint another painting. When he got halfway through a piece, he’d get an idea for the next one, which he always thought would be the best one ever.”

When McClelland spoke to Zornes for the first book he wrote about the painter, he was impressed when the artist, 80 at the time, said that his parents had lived to be more than 100, and he intended to live that long and continue painting.

“I told him that if he lived to 100, I’d throw him a party and he could paint, which he did for two hours in front of an audience at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in January 2008,” says McClelland. “That was incredible to watch.”

To enjoy Zornes’ paintings, visit the Hilbert Museum in Old Towne at 167 N. Atchison St., (across from Ruby’s and the train station). Entrance and parking are free. More information:

Published in the Mar/Apr 2017 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Gordon McClelland

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