California Watercolors  


Up until the 1930s California art was dominated by painters in awe of the landscape, the natural beauty of this vastly diverse country. From the earliest arrival of Eastern and European trained artists in the 1850s, to the painters later known as the California Impressionists, 1900 to 1930, the artists in California depicted glorious and grandiose studies of the landscape as a land untouched and unspoiled. The works, in a variety of styles, were highly pictorial, serving unquestionably as positive advertisements for the Golden State.

In the 1920s Los Angeles had redoubled in population and was continuing to grow at a never before seen rate. Late in the decade young artists from the small communities near Los Angeles traveled into the city to study at the various art schools. Most of these budding artists were born and raised in Southern California and were very much aware of the many changes in art that were taking place at that time. Industrial development, oil exploration, and the burgeoning motion picture industry diverted their attention away from the landscape.

Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, and Phil Paradise were principal painters in this group of young artists who found inspiration in the work of the New York painters known as the Ash Can School‑Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, and George Luks. The New York artists were painting subject matter that dealt with everyday life. Although images of their works were only available in black and white reproductions, the energy and realism of the interpretations was not lost and left a deep impression on the young California painters. Sheets, Dike, and Paradise were students at the Chouinard School of Art where they were guided by experienced artists such as Clarence Hinkle and F. Tolles Chamberlin. The school's founder and director, Mrs. Nelbert Chouinard, advocated a deep philosophical commitment to art rooted to a firm academic base.

Early in his schooling, Millard Sheets was introduced to the medium of watercolor by his teacher F. Tolles Chamberlin. Chamberlin showed the young artist the versatility of the medium when working out‑of doors. Immediately upon trying the medium, Sheets was excited with the results. Within a year, while still a student, Millard Sheets was asked by Mrs. Chouinard to instruct a class in watercolor. His fellow students were just as enthusiastic as he was, and thus a new art movement began.

Prior to this time watercolor had been considered by most artists to be a sketching medium, i.e. used to outline a design and define a color chord for an oil painting. Also, watercolor had been a popular form of painting in England, where, traditionally, it was very delicately and meticulously applied to paper. Soon, this small band of painters in Southern California began painting with the medium in a whole different way. They were not trained in the traditional manner, but instead directed to figure things out for themselves. The results were watercolor paintings that were expressive, highly pigmented, and, as Phil Paradise stated, "paintings that had the body of oil, but with the immediacy of the watercolor."

By the early 1930s the West Coast art world was very much aware of the work being done by Sheets, Dike, Paradise, and newly arrived artists such as Emit Kosa, Jr. and Barse Miller. They had become members of the California Water Color Society, founded in 1921, and member exhibitions were attracting more and more positive attention. On the rough side of things, however, the country had slipped into the Great Depression. The economy, politics, and government were confused and in turmoil. Other parts of the country were deeply scarred, and a great amount of distrust for all our systems was the talk of the land. President Roosevelt was formulating a plan for recovery, but implementation was still years ahead.

Nationally, a call among American artists to establish a truly American form of art was being trumpeted throughout the land. In the Midwest, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, in the South, Thomas Hart Benton, in the east, Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield, and in the West, Millard Sheets and his contemporaries agreed that the language of our national art should speak to our experience and background. It was time to move away from European influences and derive styles and approaches that instead reflected the feeling and traditions of the various regions of our own country. Thus during the early part of the 1930s, a new direction, now known as the American Scene movement, was born. American Scene was reflected in two stylistic approaches: regionalism and social realism. The social realist artists emphasized social criticism, depicting the harshness and stark realities of the life in the Depression. Regionalist artists, in contrast, found the positive aspects of their individual areas, both urban and rural, to record in their work.

Obviously the Depression brought hard times to everyone in the country, but some areas were much harder hit than others. In California the astounding growth of the previous decade had laid the groundwork for a predominant continuation of positive forces. Building in Los Angeles and its surrounding communities continued relatively unabated, as did the migration of families from around the country who were seeking the "California dream." The movie industry was beginning its golden era, and, in general, things were not as bad as in other regions. The mild climate also contributed to a stronger sense of well being.

For a California artist, work was available to anyone who was willing to find it. The movie industry offered countless jobs as art directors, scenic artists, animators, and poster and billboard designers. Teaching was another avenue for artists to pursue. Beginning in 1933, the various programs formulated by the New Deal‑the Public Works of Art Projects (PWAP, 1933‑34), the Works Progress Administration/ Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP, 1935‑43), and the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP, 1935‑38)‑created great opportunities for struggling painters and sculptors.

During this period, the California watercolor movement was growing in national as well as local prominence. By the mid 1930s a number of the painters were winning prizes at museum exhibitions in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. One‑man shows were also held for them at prominent commercial galleries in Chicago and New York, and the critical reviews soon identified their work as "the California Group." The subject matter of their paintings dealt with ordinary life‑construction sites, laundry hanging in the breeze, rush hour traffic, trains, tractors, and trucks. Farmers plowing fields, migrant workers picking crops, and people frolicking at the beach (part of the magic lure of California) were all images that the watercolorists found important to portray.

What was it about this art that attracted so much attention? Critics and museum curators alike noted the directness of the work, its expressive description of subject matter, the richness of color, its inherent naivete brought forth from the rural backgrounds of the artists, and its absolute commitment to straightforward communication. Millard Sheets was viewed as the inspirational leader of the group. His work was compared to the best in the land and was once described as "at least equal to that of Homer at this stage of his career." One article described him as the "Lindbergh of American Art." Each of the painters deserved their individual honors, and it was clear that California watercolorists were capturing the imagination of the national art scene.

Although the California Water Color Society was founded in Los Angeles and dominated by Southern California artists, Northern California artists too began to join the movement. Dong Kingman, George Post, John Haley, Erle Loran, and Nat Levy were important contributors to this California phenomenon. These northern artists were influenced by a more modernistic approach that preceded the abstract movement of the late 1940s and 1950s. Some of them also utilized opaque watercolor (gouache) in their work, something few of their southern counterparts did. Their commonality, however, was in an emphasis on story telling as the basis of their work.

By the late 1930s the country was working hard to come out of the Depression. In California obvious signs of growth and stability were occurring with the construction of the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco. The Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 was a declaration that California had entered the realm of modern America. But it was also very evident that a world war was on the horizon. Our national economy was positively bolstered by this reality as massive shifts in our industrial complex with the production of war materials began. The impact of this in both ship building and in the aircraft industry was monumental in California. A sense of success and security was present.

By end of the decade, the California watercolor movement reached its peak of acceptance. In 1940 the Riverside Museum in New York City featured the Pacific Coast States Water Color Exhibition, organized by the California Water Color Society. The interest in their work was nationally spotlighted, and several paintings were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their permanent collection. The threat of world war was now bearing down hard on America, and the artists shifted their energy toward the buildup effort. Illustration for magazines was showing a measured change to the upcoming heroic effort, and stylistic art in general began to slip to the back seat of importance.

For artists in the United States, World War 11 brought a different kind of opportunity and obligation. The War Department commissioned artists to record the events of the war. Others were hired as artist‑correspondents by the news media. Life magazine hired twenty artists to illustrate the war for publication in the magazine. Among the Californians who participated in the war effort were Tom Craig, Milford Zornes, Barse Miller, and Millard Sheets. Most of the works created through these experiences are in the collection of the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

The experience of going to war left indelible impressions on these artists. It changed their lives, and, when they returned from the war, their painting reflected that change. By the end of the 1940s modern art, which had met considerable resistance, had secured a stronger foothold. Abstract Expressionism and other movements forced representational art to a back seat. Many American realist artists, including some of the California School, adapted the new styles to their own art. Few were successful. Perhaps their hearts were not in it. Many continued to work in their own personal idiom of representational expression. Some were successful in continuing their careers as before, refusing to bow to those critics who decried their methods as being pass6. Their prominence in American art continued throughout their lives. c.

David Stary-Sheets
California Style: 1930s and 1940s Catalog





When mid‑nineteenth century artists arrived in California as part of this country's westward migration, they found a wilderness region, bordered by a pristine coastline. Their grandiose depictions of the untouched landscape reflect what most of California was like during that era.

As the railway system developed on the West Coast between 1880 and 1900, it linked the state to the rest of America and opened the floodgates for droves of adventurous souls seeking a new life in the land of opportunity. A few Eastern‑trained artists were among them, and upon arrival, they

began painting depictions of early twentieth century California. Often, small houses, dirt roads, walking trails and other hints of civilization found their way into the paintings of this era.

With the 1920s came dramatic changes. The Golden State experienced a major real estate boom which greatly affected the small towns surrounding Los Angeles and San Francisco. For instance Glendale, a Los Angeles suburban city, increased in population from about 2,700 in 1910 to over 60,000 by 1929. The abundance of land together with readily available building materials, such as wood from Northern California and bedrock for gravel, drove the building of the many cities and towns that now lace California together.

In addition to construction, oil, shipping, agriculture and entertainment were important factors in California's growth. The discovery of oil near Long Beach and the increased commerce created by shipping in the San Francisco Bay region provided jobs for laborers moving to those communities. The international demand for California citrus fruit grown in the central and southern agrarian towns created a need for farm workers, pickers, packers, shippers and railroad employees. The growing motion picture industry brought thousands of actors and others to Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. By the time the market crashed in 1929, the tempo for urbanization in many regions of California had been determined.

Throughout this period a number of native Californian artists were enrolled in local art schools in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Lee Blair, George Post and Dong Kingman were among them and by the early 1930s they were out on location making paintings of this new era in California history. Unlike their predecessors who painted with oils on canvas, these artists made watercolor their primary painting medium. Most of them were invited to join the California Water Color Society which had been founded in 1921 and as a group formed what became California's first nationally recognized art movement.

After viewing a three‑man show of watercolors by Lee Blair, Phil Dike and Elmer Plummer in the late 1930s, the Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier wrote: "They have been leaders in the movement which discovered, besides trees and hills of earlier landscapists, that California also contains people, buildings, highways with life on them, small towns, farms and animals"

As Millier stated, a variety of new subjects reflecting the urban sprawl and cityscape growth were appearing in these artists' works. One of the keys to this growth was access to convenient forms of transportation. By the early 1930s over 800,000 automobiles were registered in Los Angeles County alone. The Pacific Electric system had more than 1,000 miles of track in Southern California and for many their "Big Red Cars" served as a link between the city and the expanding suburbs. Automobiles and street cars became such an important part of city life that they often appeared in artists' depictions of the city and on occasion became the theme of the work.

The idea of producing regional American Scene paintings was not unique to California artists. In fact the most prominent school of that era was in the Midwest and was being Jed by Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. While the West Coast artists did not contribute paintings with subject matter of greater general interest than their contemporaries in other parts of the country, their technique of watercolor painting brought them national attention. They developed the "California Style" of watercolor painting, which could easily be identified.

When the "Pacific Coast States Water Color Exhibition" organized by the California Water Color Society traveled to the Riverside Museum in New York City in 1940, art critic Edward Alden Jewell wrote in his New York Times review dated March 10: "There are present plenty of individualists, just as there are scores of participating artists from America's great Western Front who abundantly know their way about in the water‑color medium. Yet the regional atmosphere could not, I should suppose, possibly be missed. They have developed, out West, a certain manner of painting, which has become part of the Pacific Coast. It belongs to these artists; it fits them and fits them well" After a lengthy discussion of individual paintings in the show he closed by stating: "it proves beyond doubt the strength and enthusiasm and the adroitness and the fresh pictorial aliveness of the Far Western school of watercolor. This is not a show to be visited by somnambulists. It is a show to be seen and relished"

This type of national attention inspired these artists to continue painting in spite of the fact they were in the middle of the Great Depression. Fine art sales sharply declined, but artists found other sources of income. Many did production work for the movie industry or participated in government sponsored art projects which began in the early 1930s and extended into the 1940s. A number of outstanding works of regional art resulted from these projects and watercolor artists even had their own category. Teaching art was another popular form of earning income for these striving artists, as it gave them the opportunity to paint on location while giving instruction to the students.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s several major urbanization projects were completed. In Northern California the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco to Oakland was opened. Shuttle trains from Sacramento to San Francisco were in full operation and the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island hosted a major extravaganza declaring California's entrance into "modern" America. In Southern California the state's first freeway opened between Pasadena and Los Angeles, and Union Station opened as a center for train transportation and cargo shipping. All of these became subjects for California's watercolor artists.

When America became involved in World War 11 things changed. The West Coast became a center for shipbuilding, aircraft construction and other military operations. Painting pictures of these activities was strictly forbidden, so very few examples exist. Another unfortunate result of the need for strict secrecy was the internment of many Japanese‑American citizens. Again, few paintings depicting their plight exist, but those that are available serve to remind us of this unhappy occurrence.

While the war was on, several major watercolor exhibitions were cancelled, and the momentum the 1930s era artists created never revived afterwards. Since that time, California has experienced acceleration in the urbanization process, and some of its artists have continued to use this subject matter as a form of artistic inspiration. Emil Kosa Jr. painted a number of works in the 1950s which together document the building of the Los Angeles freeway system and the reconstruction on, Bunker Hill. Harold Gretzner painted similar subjects in downtown Oakland and the Bay Area. The development of Newport Harbor between 1925 and 1975

has been captured in many works produced by Phil Dike and Rex Brandt while Manhattan Beach artist Keith Crown used views of the Pacific Coast Highway, oil wells, and the Los Angeles International Airport as a source of compositional inspiration for his abstract works from the 1970s and 1980s.

Historically, art has provided a window for understanding the past as well as current times. This condensed exhibition serves to represent a vast body of work produced by California's innovative watercolor artists and to give some insight into the various periods of urban development seen through their artistic representations.

Gordon T. McClelland
California: The Urban Tempo Catalog