James Milford Zornes (1908-2008) was born in Oklahoma in 1908. During the Great Depression, the Zornes family moved to Southern California, where Milford would spend most of his life as an artist and teacher. As a young man, Zornes pursued a career in journalism and moved to Santa Maria, California where he enrolled in Allan Hancock College -- then known as Santa Maria Junior College. Upon moving back to Los Angeles, Zornes abandoned writing and picked up a paintbrush.
Zornes studied at the Otis Art Institute and Scripps College in Claremont, where he met Millard Sheets. Working alongside Sheets, Rex Brandt, Phil Dyke, George Post and a number of California artists, Zornes began painting regional scenes of Los Angeles. No longer able to afford oil paint during the Depression, the low cost and versatility of watercolors enabled Depression-era artists to transport their materials and paint outside. The immediate drying qualities of the paint required artists to use quick, expressionist brushstrokes, but Zornes mastered the medium.
“Arguably, watercolor was the most important medium sustained by American painters struggling with the new demands and untried possibilities of Modernism in the first half of the 20th century,” said Christopher Knight (Los Angeles Times art critic)
Zornes was soon commissioned to paint in California under the Federal Arts Project of the WPA, and began to gain artistic acclaim. As part of the growing Regionalist and American Scene styles of painting, Zornes’ early works championed scenes of the everyday people, cityscapes, and life in Depression-era America. With the onset of World War II, Zornes joined the war effort as a U.S. Army War Artist. He traveled through China, India, Burma, painting exotic landscapes along the way.
“After the war, the California Style artists never officially regrouped. Gradually each of the top artists developed their own individual styles of painting with watercolors. Milford exelled in many different watercolor painting techniques,” said Gordon McClelland in Milford Zornes – An American Artist.
Upon settling in Claremont, California after WWII, Zornes began teaching art as well as continuing to paint. Zornes became a prominent California artist, implementing abstraction into his recognizable landscapes. Zornes developed a unique variation on the California watercolorist style for which he became known. Utilizing expressionist brushstrokes, primary colors, and unpainted white sections of negative space. Zornes lived to the age of 100, painting scenes throughout Southern California including Claremont, Lake Arrowhead, Santa Barbara, and Laguna Beach.
Zornes said, “There is no other particular subject matter that is more fascinating to me than the ocean. The changing patterns of light and color and line are a constant source of ideas for my paintings. The ocean is vast, powerful, dramatic, and alive with every movement that can be imagined.”