A Conversation With Nature
All his life, Milford Zornes '34 has observed the fine points of nature,
but today, at the age of 100, he must rely on sketchbooks and memory.
Sneha Abraham /
Photos by Felipe Dupuoy
Milford Zornes ’34 is the last living icon of the California School of
watercolor that rose to national prominence early in the last century.
His work has graced the walls of the White House, the Smithsonian and
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his countless landscape
paintings, Zornes has brought his fluid sensibility to scenes ranging
from misty seashores to jagged mountains.
So it is more than a little surprising to hear Zornes wishing he had
focused on nature even more intently. “Why didn’t I take better note of
a tree branch, so I could have the basic truth of it?” he asks in an
interview shortly before he turned 100 years old Jan. 25.
It’s his age, not lack of observation, that poses challenges for the
artist today. Twenty years of macular degeneration have forced Zornes to
rely on memories and sketchbooks. He fears the day when blurred vision
forces him to set down his brush.
For now, however, Zornes still makes it a goal to paint every day, and
his thoughts about what it means to be an artist remain as sharp as his
Scratching lines on a page and saying it’s a tree isn’t enough, he says.
The artist must have a particular sensitivity to the tree. “You have to
look at it and take note of its character. You have to feel the strength
and weight of it, the density and foliage of it,” he says.
For Zornes, the artist’s life is one of focused attention and constant
questions. It is, for him, a conversation with nature. “Would nature
have done it better this way or that way?” he asks. “Your mind is
constantly daydreaming. You’re half concerned with the facts, half
concerned with the nature of the
When he talks to aspiring painters Zornes is practical:
Make up your mind about what exactly you’re doing. Don’t expect everyone
to buy your pictures. Get all the training you can get. Compare your
work with the work of other good painters and learn from them. Strike
hard to reach your objective.
“If you do it honestly, for yourself, you’ll have an audience,” Zornes
says. “Maybe not a big audience. You might not get rich. But you might
do very well as an ordinary, good craftsman.”
It was in his youth on the Oklahoma prairie that Zornes first learned to
draw, taught by his mother who hoped to keep her young son occupied and
out of trouble. Zornes’s decision to make art his livelihood came after
some vagabonding years. There was freelance writing for Popular
Mechanics and Scientific American and a short stint studying
engineering in San Francisco. After that, Zornes hitchhiked across the
country and worked on the docks in New York City before getting on a
freighter to travel across Europe. But he was always drawing.
Upon returning to Southern California, where his family had settled in
his teen years, Zornes made his career choice. When he came to Pomona
College in 1930, he was set on studying with Millard Sheets, who, while
only in his 20s, had already made a name for himself as a watercolor
painter. When told he couldn’t study with Sheets because the artist was
based at Scripps College, Zornes and his friend, the late Tom Craig ’34,
pressed the issue and won the day. Zornes counts Sheets, the Pomona
College campus and Claremont’s beauty among his influences.
Zornes quickly carved out his own growing reputation within the
burgeoning California art scene. Highlights of his 80-year career
include serving as president of the California Water Color Society and
having his painting, Old Adobe, selected by President Franklin
and Eleanor Roosevelt to hang in the White House. Arizona Evening
is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and
other examples of his work can be found in the collections of the
Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Butler Institute of American
Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Gene Crain ’55, who owns more than 1,000 works of art in the California
Style, counts more than 40 of Zornes’ paintings among his collection.
Crain points out that California was less than 60 years old when Zornes
was born and that, of all the California Style painters, Zornes is the
only one left. “He uses his genius to chronicle his world,” says Crain.
But Zornes doesn’t trumpet talent, which, he believes, can tempt one to
be clever. “I classify talent along with money, muscles or good looks,”
he says. “Talent could be a deterrent to creativity.”
What he does praise is discipline.
“I’ve had to work hard for my advantage … you need enough talent
to have an interest. Eighty percent is sheer hard work. A good
painter has no more mental capacity than the next guy—it’s how you spend
your time and what you learn to do.”
It goes beyond the discipline of craft. It’s also a discipline of
thought and a decision as to whether the artist’s objective is to record
emotions or observations. Taken together, the process yields discovery,
Four watercolors of the Pomona College campus by
An example: Zornes and Patricia, his wife of 65 years, still live in
Claremont, shadowed by the San Gabriel Mountains. To make a painting of
those mountains, he says, you might talk to a geologist to get the
physical facts about them. “Then there are your daily experiences” with
the mountain range. “One morning there are clouds; another morning it’s
covered with snow.”
But artists see something more, and they must cultivate that way of
seeing in order to do their job well, he says. “Art is the presentation
of truth beyond fact and reason. What about all those wonderful poetic
happenings—like weather—adding to the impression we get when looking to
the mountain? As a painter, you have to translate that into actual form
on a canvas.”
With age, says Zornes, comes the need to work even harder and the need
to accept his limitations. With his pacemaker, hearing aid and cane, he
jokingly refers to himself as “Bionic Man.” The frustration of his
failing sight has tempted him to quit. “I’m having trouble having the
courage to work from scratch because I can’t see to do it the way I want
to do it.”
Another kind of courage is necessary too—to be gracious with himself.
“[Blindness means] allowing myself the freedom of not necessarily being
accurate to the subject, but being accurate to my feeling about the
Of the three graphic fundamentals of his art—line, form and color—it is
line that is the most elusive to him now, Zornes says. His colors are
bolder (he uses more reds and yellows) and he has to trust instinct,
muscle memory and a storehouse of scenes from his imagination.
“I’ve painted so long I almost know what the brush is doing whether I
can see it or not.”
His comfort is this: All art is abstraction to some degree. “It isn’t
possible to copy nature. You simply have to learn from nature. You can
see what nature has designed and follow some of the precepts, but you
can’t copy nature.”
Zornes describes art as storytelling, a mandate to take what nature has
given him and try to set it down for others. “That’s what you do as a
painter: You remind people to look at the very world they’ve seen all
their lives—but they’ve not seen.”
But he has little tolerance for “self-expression.” To his way of
thinking, it’s a cheap item.
“I despise that ‘express yourself’ thing. It bores the hell out of me,”
he says. He dismisses a great deal of what passes for painting; it’s in
a language he doesn’t understand. “For me the end goal is something
that’s said about something else.”
At the same time, Zornes concedes that what he paints is his unique
expression of what he sees—each person’s way of seeing is different from
another’s, he says. But he is sure of this: Nature has the first and
last word. Whether it’s the ocean or a tree, the artist is only
translating that phenomenon.
Translation requires a certain restraint. A student once claimed not
only to be the best painter in Zornes’s class, but also to include
everything in his pictures. “I thought, ‘Oh man, you’ve made your first
mistake!’ That’s like learning to speak another language by consulting a
Zornes still applies that same sort of scrutiny to his own work. Age is
a great inconvenience, but it forces him to sit, think and let his
“I’d rather become self-critical than become a garrulous old man,” he
says. “I better be spending my time—my last effort or two—seeing what I
can do as a painter … You don’t give up. You just go on with it.”
Editor's note: Milford Zornes passed away on February 24, almost one month
after his 100th birthday, in his home in Claremont. Read
news item on his passing, or
his obituary in