Carolyn Wing Greenlee

Milford Zornes: A Painter of Influence

“Winter at Mt. Carmel, Utah, 1970,” by Milford Zornes

Article by Roberta Werdinger:

On Saturday, August 10, from 2 to 4:30 pm, the Grace Hudson Museum will host an opening reception and lecture for the exhibit “Milford Zornes: A Painter of Influence.” This retrospective of the long-lived watercolorist and beloved teacher includes many heretofore unseen paintings. Zornes’s daughter and son-in-law, Maria and Hal Baker, curated the exhibit along with Museum Curator Marvin Schenck, and will host this presentation of the life and art of this extraordinary creative force, whose career spanned nine decades and covered the globe. The lecture begins at 2 pm.

Milford Zornes (1908-2008) was born in Oklahoma and studied art in the Los Angeles area. He began producing and exhibiting watercolors at an early age, with one of his paintings chosen to hang in the White House of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Drafted into the army during World War II, he traveled to Asia and worked as an official war artist. After the war, he settled in Southern California and resumed a vigorous schedule of traveling, teaching, painting, and exhibiting. He eventually combined these interests by teaching a series of international watercolor workshops that brought him to almost every continent in the world and put him in touch with thousands of art students, many of whom he influenced profoundly.

Zornes is a case study on how art and life are intimately fused. Launching his career during the Great Depression, he used watercolors due to their inexpensive cost, practicality, and wide appeal. Although his career included many honors and successes, including membership in the National Academy, he never failed to give his many students his complete attention. Artist and author Carolyn Wing Greenlee, who first studied with Zornes as a teenager in 1966 and credits him with helping to launch her own career, remembers: “First Milford pointed out the strengths of the work, then explained how it could be improved, speaking truth with great kindness.” She adds, “Since Milford wanted everyone to be able to afford a piece of original art, he kept his prices low, and painted prodigiously. It was not a chore for him, because he was always striving to paint the perfect picture.” He once commented, “You learn to paint and then you paint to learn.” In his later life, he suffered from macular degeneration, an eye condition, but kept on working, employing techniques that enabled him to make out outlines and fill them in. The day after his 100th birthday, he gave a demonstration and lecture at an art museum. He died less than a month later.

The exhibit, which includes video clips and quotations, gives us a sense of just how vast this painter’s influence is. Zornes’s travels provided him with an endless variety of subject matter, both human and natural, which were transformed by a bold yet lyrical technique. Curator Marvin Schenck comments, “His rhythmic, direct, simplified style of brushwork remains an important influence on watercolorists,” and also helped promote the California Style watercolor movement. Rather than outlining a figure in pencil and then filling in the color, Zornes laid transparent washes of watercolor directly onto large sheets of paper, allowing the white spaces to show through. The paintings have the brilliant colors and blocky shapes of early Expressionist paintings, but with none of the sometimes harsh social criticism of those of that era. Instead, they betray a gentleness and regard for both people and landscapes, while still portraying them honestly. The result is a feast for the eyes as well as the soul, energetic and celebratory, with a democratic view of life worthy of Walt Whitman. As Carolyn Greenlee again puts it, “Milford preferred no limitations of classification or expectation in style, subject or medium. He wanted to be remembered as Milford Zornes, the painter, and he relentlessly traveled the world, filling his eyes and paintings with whatever he found.”

“Milford Zornes: A Painter of Influence” will be on display until October 13, 2013. The opening reception and lecture is free after Museum admission. Several other activities will be featured, including a docent and member tour with Curator Marvin Schenck on August 20, a watercolor workshop for kids on August 24 and Sept. 28, and a watercolor workshop with Sacramento painter Woody Hansen on Sept. 7 and 8. Funding of this exhibition was made possible by the Sun House Guild.

The Grace Hudson Museum is at 431 S. Main St. in Ukiah and is a part of the City of Ukiah’s Community Services Department. General admission to the Museum is $4, $10 per family, $3 for students and seniors, and free to members or on the first Friday of the month. For more information please go to or call (707) 467-2836.

1 Comment

  1. karen fulk

    August 25, 2013 - 7:15 PM

    HI! I got my Zornes book and it’s delicious! I thumbed thru and looked at all the paintings then went outside and there they were!! My own backyard looked just like his paintings when I was thru. Too bad I wasn’t prepared to paint that night cuz it hasn’t happened since. But, we’re going to the ocean soon so I’m hoping I can osmosis there.

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