Milford Zornes - "The Couple"

Milford Zornes, (Oklahoma and California 1908 – 2008),
The Couple
(2000), Watercolor, 8-1/2″ x 11″, on clay paper.

One cannot collect art in Southern California without owning a Milford Zornes–and that’s the law! A true local icon who, along with Millard Sheets and other pioneering artists, lead the California Style watercolor movement in the 1920’s.

I’ve always admired watercolorists in that they seem to be able to indelibly create “on the spot” more so than the oil Plien Air artist since watercolors cannot be as easily reworked. The composition of this couple out for an evening stroll, the grand lady wearing a plumed hat with her arm casually around her man, is brought to life with Zornes’ flowing and festive brush strokes. I like the dimension he gave to the piece by creating space around the overlying areas, and the rustic colors with the suggestion of a burning desire in the woman as depicted by a splotch of red on her bosom (my imagination, I’m sure). The sentiment is timeless. Also charming is the fact that this was the first “people” painting by Zornes that I’ve run across since most everything else I’ve seen by the artist have been landscapes or seascapes. Besides that, it was affordable.

Another thing that struck me about this work is how naturally the creative process must come to Zornes in order to quickly knock out something so meaningful. It probably didn’t take him more than a minute to create it, and who knows how many others he did just like it. But there’s enough there to cause me to pause and reflect upon these two people and the artist that gave them life. Not bad for a man of 92.

Here’s a brief bio of Milford Zornes courtesy of “California Watercolors 1850-1970″ by Gordon T. McClelland and Jay T. Last. Copyright Hillcrest Press, Inc. 2002:

MILFORD ZORNES (1908-present)...Born: Camargo, OK.

Studied: Otis Art Institute (Los Angeles, California - Pomona College)

Member: National Academy of Design, American Watercolor Society, California Watercolor Society.

Milford Zornes grew up in Oklahoma, Idaho and California. He loved to travel, so at twenty years of age he hitch-hiked across America, worked on the New York docks, and then shipped out for Europe. By 1930, he was back in Los Angeles studying art with F. Tolles Chamberlin at the Otis Art Institute. Zornes became very interested in watercolor painting and took additional study in the medium from Millard Sheets at Scripps College.

By 1933, Milford was exhibiting his watercolors and receiving awards. As a result of his art production for the P.W.A.P. Art Project, he was given a one-man show at the Corocan Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. One of his watercolors was selected by President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt to hang in the White House and an enormous amount of publicity followed. Within a very short time, Zornes went from being a California watercolor student to being a nationally recognized artist.

Over the next few years, Milford Zornes concentrated on painting a number of high quality watercolors for exhibitions in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Kansas, New York, Illinois and other parts of America. When Larson P. Cooper formed the California Group traveling show in 1937, Zornes was one of the twelve artists picked to represent California watercolor painting. On the West Coast, Zornes also became known as a gifted instructor of watercolor painting. Throughout this period, he was an active member of the California Water Color Society and was president of that organization in 1942.

In 1999 Zornes gave the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art an extended interview at his home in Claremont, CA, the transcript of which can be read here.

Although this is a simple work, I feel it has great aesthetic appeal because of the historical and celebrated artist that created it, and the playful quality this abstract-figurative impression imparts to the viewer. When you place the works of Milford Zornes along side of Millard Sheets, Phil Paradise and other California watercolor pioneers you’ll see a venerable style and pallet that is timeless in its appeal to all collectors of fine art.

Addendum: Milford Zornes passed away on February, 24th, 2008, at the age of 100 from complications of congestive heart failure. He lived a full and enriching life doing what he always loved; painting, and teaching others how to paint. 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. He left an astounding number of works that will proclaim his legacy for many generations to come. 



  1. Zornes's excellent style has been rightly displayed over here. It is a very interesting art atleast for me. The rustic colors expressed the emotion nicely.

  2. This is what we call a smart but effective piece of drawing. How beautifully the painter has brought out the replica of "the couple". Full marks to the artist.