Milford Zornes

Milford Zornes

James Milford Zornes (January 25, 1908February 24, 2008) was an American watercolor artist and teacher.


Milford Zornes was born in rural western Oklahoma, a few miles from the small town of Camargo. His father found farming and stock raising in the area difficult, and when young Milford was seven moved the family to Boise, Idaho. Though his mother, a former schoolteacher, taught him to draw as a child, it was not until his late teens, when the family moved to California, that Zornes received any formal training in art when he attended his last year of secondary school at San Fernando High School.

After graduating from high school he decided to attempt a career in journalism, and began by selling photographs to various magazines, including Popular Science, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics, and then received a few assignments to write articles. Advised that a journalist needed formal study, he moved to Santa Maria, California where he enrolled in what was then called Santa Maria Junior College. During his year there he took a room in the home of two art teachers who recognized his talent and encouraged him to become a painter, but he was resistant. Instead, he decided to study architecture, and he moved to San Francisco.

In 1927, he attended Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) where he studied with Millard Sheets and F. Tolles Chamberlin. He later taught at Otis. For 12 years he was art director for the Padua Hills Theater in Claremont, California.

Zornes married Gloria Codd in 1935 and had one son, Franz. In 1942 he married Patricia Mary Palmer, and had one daughter, Maria Patricia. During World War II (1943-1945), Zornes served in the United States Army in China.

James Milford Zornes died from congestive heart failure on February 24, 2008 in his Claremont home. He was 100.


Zornes is recognized as a leader in the California Style watercolor movement. The "California Style" of watercolor painting began in the 1920s and is described in California Watercolors 1850-1970. Zornes' style differed from the traditional use of watercolors in which color was added to detailed pencil drawings. His work is characterized by the application of transparent washes of color to large sheets of paper, allowing the white to show through and define shapes. Zornes taught watercolor painting workshops in China, Alaska, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Hawaii and many other locations. His subject matter is often drawn from his extensive world travels, although Western landscapes are a favorite topic. His paintings are represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the White House, and the Library of Congress Collection. He also created New Deal murals for post offices in his hometown of Claremont, California and in El Campo, Texas.


  • 1987 - Paul Prescott Barrow award Pomona College
  • 1988 - "A Most Distinguished Citizen" award Southern Utah State College
  • 1991 - David Prescott Burrows award
  • 1994 - American Artist Achievement award American Artist Magazine
  • 1994 - named National Academician by the National Academy of Design, associate 1964

Further reading

  • Otis L.A.: Nine Decades of Los Angeles Art, 2006. Exhibition catalog by Otis College of Art and Design.
  • Everyday Life in California, Regional Watercolors, 1930-1960, 2004. Exhibition catalog by California Heritage Museum.
  • California Watercolors 1850-1970, An Illustrated History & Biographical Dictionary, 2002 by Gordon McClelland and Jay Last.
  • "Milford Zornes: California Style Painter," exhibition review by W.P. Jessup in American Art Review, March/April 2003, p. 132-5.
  • "Keeping up with Milford Zornes: this watercolor legend is still mastering his craft" Watercolor September 22, 2003, No. 36, Vol. 9; p. 84
  • "Milford Zornes" by D. Koppman in Artweek, July/August 2002, p. 6.
  • "California Watercolors 1929-1945," by S.M. Anderson in American Artist, August 1988, p. 48-53
  • "Zornes" Oral History from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
  • Milford Zornes obituary in the Los Angeles Times
  • Milford Zornes: Distinguished Alumnus And Otis Profile video interview with Zornes from Fall 2007.


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