Painter captured Southland scenes

Times Staff Writer

Milford Zornes, a watercolorist who traveled the world for his art but is best known for the everyday scenes of Southern California he painted starting in the 1930s, died Sunday at his home in Claremont. He was 100.

Zornes, who taught art for many years in California and Utah, died from complications of congestive heart failure, his daughter, Maria Baker, said.

His paintings of grassy landscapes, rugged shorelines and coastal hills recall the time in California before freeways and housing developments. He was one of a group of area watercolorists led by Millard Sheets who became known as the California Scene Painters. They worked outdoors and aimed to create a distinctly American style of art. Zornes and his colleagues were part of a larger movement of regionalist painters across the country, with Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri one of the best-known names.

Zornes showed his watercolors in group and solo exhibits starting in the 1930s and became a member of several national art associations, including the American Watercolor Society. He also taught art classes through most of his career, on the faculty at Pomona College in the 1940s and later in workshops in the United States and Mexico. For some years he taught at his studio in Mount Carmel, Utah, where he had a second home.


“Milford’s real contribution was as a teacher and promoter of the California style of watercolor painting,” said Gordon McClelland, author of several books on Zornes. “That brought him a national reputation.”

Born in Camargo, Okla., on Jan. 25, 1908, and raised in Oklahoma and Idaho, Zornes took his first art lessons from his mother, a schoolteacher. In high school he studied with visiting art teachers who taught him the basics of drawing, he said in a 1999 interview with Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.

His father was a ranch hand and laborer who moved the family to San Fernando, looking for a better life, when Zornes was 17. After high school Zornes hitchhiked across the country and sailed to Denmark on a tanker, working to pay his way. From there he toured Germany and France before he returned to California.

After a year taking classes at what was then the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, he continued his studies at Pomona College and also took art classes from Sheets, who taught at several colleges in Southern California.

Sheets taught him, “It is a real life thing, not an arty thing,” to “paint the world around you,” Zornes said in 1999.

During the early 1930s Zornes worked for the federally funded Public Works of Art Project, producing watercolors to be displayed in public buildings. He painted murals for several U.S. post offices, including the Claremont branch.

Zornes married Gloria Codd in 1935. The couple had a son, Franz, before they divorced. He then married Patricia Mary Palmer. He is survived by his wife and children, six grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

Drafted in 1943, Zornes served as an Army artist stationed in Burma, China and India. Paintings he made there became the property of the Pentagon, McClelland said. Zornes was discharged from military service in 1945.

He continued painting and teaching into his 90s, completing a mural for East Los Angeles College in 2004. He gave his last public demonstration in January at the opening of an exhibit celebrating his 100th birthday at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The exhibit continues through March 30. Other works by Zornes are on display at the Riverside Art Museum until March 29.

Contributions can be made to the Milford and Pat Zornes Art Scholarship Fund, East Los Angeles College, 1301 Cesar Chavez Ave., Monterey Park, CA 91754. Make checks payable to the ELAC Foundation.