The California Water Color Society: Genesis of an American Style

by Janet Blake Dominik


During the 1930s, at a time when the the focus of American art was on the American scene, a group of California watercolorists brought themselves and the state of California unprecedented attention in the national art arena. As a champion of the state's watercolor painters since 1926, the year he began reviewing their exhibitions, Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier watched the group develop a strong and distinctive style and growing stature on the exhibition circuit. In 1958 he recalled that the nation's art observers began to take notice of this unique group of artists around I929 and within a few years started referring to them as the "California Watercolor School," bestowing upon them critical acclaim for their revolutionary use of the medium. The originator of this movement, Millier declared, was Millard Sheets, and the California Water Color Society, its vehicle.[1]

An insightful and articulate critic, Millier's observations were indeed valid. During the period between 1929 and 1948, the activities of the members of the California Water Color Society, both in their group showings, and as individuals, brought considerable favorable critical attention. The movement propelled the society into the national spotlight, and it became one of the two great watercolor groups in the United States, the other being the New York based American Watercolor Society.

An interest in the local scene as an appropriate and worthy subject matter for the artist was encouraged during the late 1920s, in some ways as a reaction to modernism, which was identified as foreign. Critics, such as Thomas Craven, who defended the traditional in art, equated it with being American as opposed to European.[2] The American Magazine of Art and the Art Digest both frequently featured articles extolling the virtues of a truly American art form which would not be rooted in modernism or foreign influences. As early as March 1929, the Art Digest noted:

The discovery that the commonplaces of the American scene can be quite as imagination stirring and therefore quite as worthwhile subject matter for art as the more traditional aspects is characteristic of the point of view of an increasing number of young painters.[3]

This was just two years after the leading players in the California Water Color Society had become members.

When the society was formed in Los Angeles in 1921 there were just fourteen participants -- eleven members and three guest artists. Nearly all were part of the group of California impressionist painters whose style dominated the art scene in California for the first three decades. The stated purpose of the organization was to promote and encourage the use of the medium as a legitimate painting form, elevating it above the level of only a sketching medium which had been its accepted position for over one hundred years.

Stylistically, the work of these founding members -- among them Dana Bartlett, Hanson Puthuff, Donna Schuster, Edouard Vysekal, Henri De Kruif, and Karl Yens -- followed the form of traditional English watercolor methods. Thin, usually pale, transparent washes would be applied to an already prepared drawing. Landscape -- in its pure form -- was the predominant subject matter.

The first exhibition of the California Water Color Society was held in September 1921. Just three months earlier the Chouinard School of Art had been founded in Los Angeles. Included on the first faculty were F. Tolles Chamberlin and Clarence Hinkle, two artists who would have profound influence on the next generation of painters who were students at the school beginning in the mid 1920s. Phil Dike was the first scholarship student in 1924, followed by Millard Sheets in 1925. Phil Paradise enrolled in 1927 (he had been there briefly in 1923) and Hardie Gramatky in 1928. Barse Miller arrived from the East and began teaching at Chouinard in 1927. A spirit of camaraderie pervaded the atmosphere at Chouinard, and the young artists formed personal bonds that would last their lifetimes. All eventually joined the California Water Color Society, and within a few years their personal styles would come to dominate the group. Many would also stay on as teachers at Chouinard in the 1930s and 1940s.

Millard Sheets first exhibited with the society in 1926; Phil Dike in 1927; and Hardie Gramatky in 1929. These were the early years of development for these artists, and stylistically their work could not yet be defined as what would become known as the California School. Early works by Sheets and Gramatky such as their paintings of the Seventh Street Bridge in Los Angeles, c. 1928, are typical. Although the compositions are strong, the application of the paint follows the traditional English method and seems as though the artists were only beginning to tentatively explore the possibilities of the medium.

On the national scene, according to Matthew Baigell, the term "American Wave" was first used in the 1931-32 exhibition season, "describing all at once a state of mind, a type of subject and, hopefully, a style." The key was an avoidance of foreign influence and an expression of the spirit of the land.[4] In the spring of 1931 California artists were able to see works by leading artists of this "American Wave" or American Scene painters when Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum as invited guests of the Twelfth Annual Exhibition of American Painters and Sculptors. What they learned from these painters was the importance of communicating a sense of place in their work.

First mention of a "California School" was made by Arthur Millier in reviewing the Eleventh Annual Exhibition of the California Water Color Society, held at the Los Angeles Museum in the fall of 1931.[5] He referred "to the development of a tangible school of good water color painting in Southern California . . . a body of artists who take this medium seriously."[6] Two more artists who would become key players in the California School were now exhibiting -- Lee Blair and Tom Lewis. Phil Dike received the purchase prize for Sicilian Houses, a work he had done on his trip to Europe the previous year. This painting shows the influence of Dike's mentor Clarence Hinkle in its spontaneity and use of expressive brushwork.[7]

Henri De Kruif, a member of the jury, reviewed the exhibition for the Christian Science Monitor and commented on the difficulty of the medium. Yet, he said, "Within its limited area, it is capable of profound as well as playful expressions, plus noble qualities peculiar to the medium, depending, of course, on the taste and imagination of the artist."[8] On 1 November 1931 the Art Digest published an abbreviated version of De Kruif's remarks along with a reproduction of the Dike painting. The California Water Color Society was beginning to receive national attention.

In May 1932 Edward Bruce won the Mrs. Walter Harrison Fisher Prize at the Ebell Salon annual exhibition for his painting Bishop Rock.[9] The composition of the painting is a panoramic, birds-eye view of a farm surrounded by rolling hills and, in the distance, Bishop Rock. Emphasis is on broad areas of dark and light contrast. Bruce was active in California from about 1929 to 1934, a time critical to the development of the California School. Millard Sheets, in particular, commented that Bruce was influential on his work at this time both in his choice of subject matter and style.[10] In fact, the same month that Bruce's painting was on exhibit at the Ebell Club, Sheets was exhibiting at Dalzell Hatfield Galleries. Arthur Millier remarked on the change in his style noting that he had abandoned his earlier "romantic" impressionistic technique.

One wall is devoted to . . . recent studies of California farming country and they show Sheets awakened to the mysterious unity of man and the soil on which he lives. He has cut out all accidental color and searched out the forms and tonal gradations which bind houses, land and sky together.[11]

At the 1934 annual exhibition of the California Water Color Society, invitations were sent out to Eastern watercolorists, four of whom sent work: John Whorf, Loran Wilford, W. Emerton Heitland, and George Ennis. Arthur Millier, however, still felt that the Californians were head and shoulders above the Easterners (with the exception of Whorf) when it came to watercolor. "If and when the country finds out what our younger Southland water colorists are doing in the way of straight from the shoulder work (it's here in the show) these Easterners may not look so big."[12]

The East, meanwhile, was beginning to learn more about these California artists. At the same time that Eastern artists were exhibiting locally in group exhibitions, California painters were sending works to the Midwest and East for exhibition, thus earning national recognition for their work. Millard Sheets was the driving force in putting the California School artists in the national public eye. It was he who encouraged his contemporaries to enter painting competitions in the Midwest and East. In the words of Phil Dike he "ejected us into a whole new outlook about how a painter would Succeed."[13]

In fact, the following year, Millier noted that the Eastern critics had begun hailing California artists, including Sheets, Dike, Gramatky, Miller, Blair, Paul Sample, and Milford Zornes. He encouraged local patrons to begin collecting works by these artists.[14] That fall in New York, Millard Sheets received glowing reviews for his exhibition at Milch Galleries, with Carlyle Burroughs calling it the "best water color show of the young season."[15] Millier, reporting in the Los Angeles Times on Sheets's success noted:

There is another aspect to this enthusiastic reception. While Sheets is unquestionably the most vital of the younger group which has matured here during the depression, he has not risen alone. With him, many of them influenced by him, have developed a group of young artists, who, I believe, form a "school" unexcelled in the country. To live, it is true, they have to teach or work for motion pictures. Our patrons have been neither numerous enough nor sufficiently adventurous to buy and use their works in any quantity. This eastern welcome should encourage others of the "younger" group to try their wings where national reputations are made.[16]

At the Fifteenth Annual Exhibition of the California Water Color Society, Barse Miller won the purchase prize for Stockton Street, described by Millier as "technically the finest thing in the show, old houses seen through trees and their shadows, done in crisp, free line and big brushfuls of color. "[17] He noted that the society, "one of the most authentic water color 'schools' in the country,"[18] was putting together a traveling exhibition which would show in Denver and New York.

Indeed major art centers outside of California -- especially New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago -- began to see more of the Californians' works.[19] In 1936 Dike, Miller, Sample, Gramatky, and Tom Craig were included in a group showing of watercolors sent by the CWCS to the Brooklyn Museum.[20] At the same time New York's Ferargil Galleries was also showing their work. Ferargil, in fact, gave a number of one-man shows to the Californians, among them Phil Dike and Barse Miller, a practice which it continued for many years.

Encouraged by Sheets, California artists began sending works to the international watercolor exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1930s. (Sheets and Dike had first exhibited there in 1929.) At the Sixteenth International Exhibition, in the spring of 1937, Blair, Dike, Gramatky, Miller, Zornes, Sheets, Craig, James Patrick, James Couper Wright, and Rex Brandt (who had just joined the CWCS) were exhibiting. Sheets was showing six works. At the same time in New York, Sheets was again showing at the Milch Galleries. In June, another group showing of watercolorists was held at Ferargil Galleries with Sheets, Dike, and Craig among the exhibitors.

In California, an important event for the group occurred in the summer of 1937 when writer and lecturer Lawson P. Cooper and artist Rex Brandt organized a traveling exhibition. Cooper and Brandt were both on the staff of Riverside Art Center. The exhibition traveled up and down the state under the title "The California Group." Southern California was represented by Sheets, Brandt, Miller, Dike, Zornes, Craig, Blair, Sample, Paul Mays, and Everett Gee Jackson. The North was represented by only two artists -- George Post and Tom Lewis. Alfred Frankenstein, critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewed it enthusiastically, found "the whole group brilliant, vigorous, contemporary and alive." He called Sheets "the old master" of the group with his experimentation of new techniques in watercolor. He found Tom Craig "one of America's finest watercolorists" dubbing him "the master of Mist and Water." Miller he saw as "vigorously dramatic."[21]

Glen Wessels also heaped praise on the California Group exhibition.

It is doubtful whether Sheets or Craig could be surpassed anywhere for technical perfection in their chosen manner. Some of the other members of the group are less apt to repeat themselves, however. Rex Brandt, particularly, has a flair for unusual and arresting arrangements.[22]

In summary Wessels noted that the artists seemed to be commonly influenced by three factors: the form of cubism; the atmospheric qualities of impressionism; and the spontaneity of Japanese and Chinese painting.

The new angle of their work is their intimate love of what might be called the California scene. If Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Benton have described the Middle West for middle westerners, this group of Californians are describing California in water color for Californians.[23]

The previous year, in November, Cooper, in fact, had written about Brandt in glowing terms describing him as an artist with an intellect, expressing the "thing that we know as Southern California. In this case he marks himself as a painter of the American scene, comparable to Burchfield and the middle westerners."[24] At the same time, however, Cooper noted that in the work entitled Regatta, Brandt was not satisfied "with the factual interpretation of nature, and sought the symbolical qualities of line and color to express a deep feeling for the beauty of the blue water, and the boats on Balboa bay."[25]

As the decade of the 1930s wore on, activities of the California Water Color Society and its artists intensified. Nineteen thirty-eight proved an auspicious year. In January Sheets was exhibiting thirty watercolors at Anderson Galleries in Chicago. In April Phil Dike had his first one-man show at Ferargil Galleries. The critics were laudatory in their reviews. One in the Art Digest noted: "His grasp of local color is realistically defined, sometimes with a tinge of poetry . . ."[26] Jerome Klein in the New York Post, commented on the "extraordinary power that brings you up short."[27] Another writer stated ". . . they have a compensatory spontaneity. . . . they're loose, free, broadly brushed. Their color is high and lively. And their design as clever and cohesive and arresting as it is decorative."[28]

In May Millard Sheets won the Watson F. Blair Purchase Prize at the Seventeenth International Water Color Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago for Mystic Night, while Milford Zornes won the William H.
Tuthill Purchase Prize for Well at Guadalupe. Sheets received special attention, exhibiting twenty-two paintings in a separate exhibition room. Seventeen Californians exhibited, among them Blair, Craig, Dike, Gramatky, Lewis, Miller, and Patrick.
[29] Ferargil continued its annual watercolor exhibition in June with works by Craig, Dike, Gramatky, Miller, and Sample included.

In the fall, reviewing the annual CWCS exhibition, Arthur Millier described the Southern California watercolorists as "one of the country's liveliest groups using this medium."[30] Rex Brandt received the purchase prize for South San Diego. Millier described the work as "sensitive [and] freely handled," and "a composition with romantic flavor and clever but superficial stylization in the brushwork."[31] Millier's review of the show sounded some negative warnings. He found too many shallow works included that were the product of weekend amateurs who had taken up the medium without fully understanding its intrinsic qualities.[32]

Late in the year, however, Millier restated his strong support of the group in noting its ten-year rise to fame as proponents of the medium.

They have escaped the solemn near photography which dulled so many of our oil paintings. The flowing lines and glowing, transparent washes of water color are more apt to record feelings than facts. The characteristic of our whole "school," North and South, is the swift, joyous expression of a delighted moment.[33]

On 1 November 1939 the Art Digest announced: "California's new preeminence in watercolor is proved for the second consecutive year at the 37th Annual Watercolor and Print Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy, . . ." Millard Sheets and Phil Paradise received top honors for Hilltop Farm and Suburban Supper respectively.

Eastern watercolorists were now showing in California. Millard Sheers, head of the Fine Arts Department of the Los Angeles County Fair (one of his many professional positions), organized an exhibition of watercolors for the 1939 fair. Thirty were included. Also, the California Water Color Society again extended an invitation to Eastern painters for the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition. Sixteen responded, among them Adolph Dehn, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, William Zorach, and Andrew Wyeth. Charles Burchfield and Rex Brandt were guest artists with nine and ten works respectively shown in separate rooms. Tom Craig received the purchase prize for The Lorenzetti Grave; Phil Dike received the first award of merit for Then It Rained. The Art Digest reported it to be "one of the best" shows to date by the group.[34]

The new decade began with the most important Eastern exhibition by the Californians to date. On 5 March 1940 the Pacific Coast States Water Color Exhibition, organized by the California Water Color Society, opened at the Riverside Museum in New York.[35] Edward Alden Jewell, of the New York Times, wrote a glowing review of the more then two hundred watercolors by artists representing California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii:

There is a very definite regional flavor. In fact, there are times when a visitor who knew nothing about the personnel might imagine he had wandered into a perfectly enormous one-man show. That may stand as a blanket impression, though, of course, it exaggerates. 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. . . . It is a valuable experience. It proves beyond doubt the strength and enthusiasm and the adroitness and the fresh pictorial aliveness of the Far Western school of watercolor.[36]

Emily Genauer remarked on the "homogeneity of the exhibitors," a characteristic that she attributed to the
influence of "their most famous member, Millard Sheets." "Because Sheets' own work is so boldly decorative, so sweeping in its rhythms and expansive in design, so clear in tone (and yet so subtle in both tonality and texture), many of his fellows may be working for the same effect."

Other critics agreed with her. That summer, C. J. Bulliet, writing for the Chicago Daily News, wrote at some length on the watercolor movement in Southern California. Identifying the leader of the movement as Millard Sheets, Bulliet referred to them as the "Claremont Group," artists who specialized in interpretation of the American Scene, or "that segment of it that exists in the Pomona Valley, the surrounding ranges of mountains and the tidewaters of the Pacific Ocean."[38] The fact that these artists specialized in the medium of watercolor was understandable. It was portable and inexpensive -- certainly a consideration during the Depression. Also, it was quicker to use, inviting spontaneity and the vivid recording of an impression. And, of course, the mild climate allowed year-round sketching of an especially appealing topography.[39]

Further expanding their area of influence, Barse Miller, Rex Brandt, and Paul Sample spent the summer of 1940 teaching at the University of Vermont. (Sample had moved to New Hampshire in 1938, receiving a position as an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth.) Reviewing their joint exhibition at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum in Burlington, one critic noted that Brandt and Miller were masters of the watercolor medium. "They understand, better than most American watercolorists whose work I have seen, when the moment is right for thin, sparse painting and when it is crying for rich, wet application."[40]

In August, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its latest Hearn Fund acquisitions. Nine works came from the Riverside exhibition representing artists Gladys Aller, Joan Irving (Brandt), Dong Kingman, Fletcher Martin, Alexander Nepote, George Post, Pearl Frye, and Milford Zornes.[41] Interestingly, Emily Genauer, who had been supportive of the exhibition, took issue with the acquisition, declaring that the works, though certainly not "bad" were "unexciting and inconsequential."[42]

Millier responded to the increased attention from the East by chastising California patrons who he felt did not give enough support to these artists who were "helping sell Southern California to the art lovers of the nation."[43] Eastern watercolorists were again represented at the Twentieth Annual Exhibition of the CWCS. Visiting artist Frederick Taubes told the Los Angeles Times, that it was the "finest regional show of contemporary water colors in the world, . . ."[44]

With the coming of war, the tone of the exhibitions of the California Water Color Society began to change. Many artists would leave to fulfill various military responsibilities. A gradual shift away from the American scene began as war images became a new subject for their brushes. In 1941 Life magazine commissioned seven artists, among them Barse Miller, Paul Sample, and Fletcher Martin, to paint pictures of the national defense scene.

During the last summer before the outbreak of war, Rex Brandt organized a series of workshops for the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego. Craig, Dike, Paradise, Sheets, Wright, and Zornes, along with Brandt, would be the teachers. The following summer, a second workshop was offered, this time with Brandt, Everett Gee Jackson, Kingman, Wright, and Patrick as teachers. The announcement noted that due to the need for Defense Department illustrators, the medium would be studied for its illustrative properties as well as its expressive properties.[45]

Watercolor had now become such a popular medium that it prompted Arthur Millier to remark; "Say 'water colors' to any California art critic and he'll jump or cringe. He sees thousands of 'em. It's a local industry. He'll go mad if he looks at another batch." However, he still found the watercolors at the Ninth Annual Watercolor Exhibition at the Foundation of Western Art exciting enough to begin raving again over "this art in which our region excels."[46] The annual CWCS exhibition had just concluded its run at the Los Angeles Museum, one which Millier had declared the best in its history.[47] However, at the Twenty-Second Annual, held that fall, Millier was not as pleased, describing what he saw as "dull mud instead of color, or feeble and undistinguished patterning instead of the grand designing which the real sun and a few real trees and houses achieved without benefit of artist."[48] A number of war-inspired subjects were noted.

In March 1944 the California Water Color Society sent their second biennial exhibition to the Riverside Museum. New York critics still responded favorably to the group. "Californians seem to have a pronounced flair for this medium. They are quite impavid in their approach; and while fearlessness per se might in the end amount to no more than brashness, most of these Western artists know how to direct what is in itself an altogether desirable quality into channels of good constructive use."[49]

Reviews of the CWCS exhibitions in 1944 and 1945 were less than complimentary. Although there were some "notable" works in the Twenty-fifth Annual, many of the ablest members were "conspicuous by their absence," a fact attributed to the war.[50] The war had essentially broken up the leaders of the group, and by 1946, the commonality of their approach and their subject matter had been fractured beyond repair. The third biennial exhibition at the Riverside Museum, in 1946, received less attention than its two predecessors.[51]

It can be deduced from the criticism received during the period between 1932 and 1944 that the work of the artist members of the California Water Color Society was somehow unique to the region, i.e, the style which developed was unlike any other seen at that time. It was said that these artists "developed forceful styles different from the pale transparencies usually associated with this medium."[52] Jewell described that style as follows:

It has to do with clear, clean, often sharply defined, often high-keyed values. Sheer skill of brush frequently winds up in something akin to slickness. The decorative current runs full and strong; a decorative current with eddies of picturesque representation, that is much more stenographic, even with tiny whirlpools of the abstract; but, all in all, a current characterized by exuberantly swift and sure decorative treatment.[53]

It is interesting to note that, as previously mentioned, Matthew Baigell discussed the American Scene movement arising in 1931 to 1932 as being one that would become "hopefully, a style," a style that would be uniquely American, separated from any European influence. The regional artists of California who were part of the American Scene movement made their greatest contribution in the matter of style with their works in watercolor. Those works were more expressive in terms of line, color, and form than were their oil paintings from the same period.[54] In addition those works are also more expressive of a sense of place and, especially, of mood. It is that moody expressiveness, seen, for example, in Sheets's Old Mill; Big Sur, Miller's Walnut Tree and Patrick's, The Sulphur Pits that sets these artists apart from their Eastern contemporaries, and it is that quality which elicited favorable commentary. That the California artists were not only interested in the evocation of place but interested in the elements of abstract design as well, is key to the understanding of the importance of their contribution to the art of the period. As Baigell noted, the emphasis for most American Scene painters was on place, not on abstract design.[55] Throughout his career, Millard Sheets, the undisputed leader of the California School, never deviated from his belief in the importance of underlying design as an essential element of painting. In 1939 Michael Dwan described it as follows:

The vital, rhythmic impact of his design is a positive force so arresting that the spectator's attention is instantaneously captured. This one quality alone in Sheets' work probably accounts for the attention his paintings have attracted from the beginning. All these qualities, together with a discriminating selection of detail and simplification of form, have integrated the Sheets style, a unique and very personal vision of our world.[56]

The powerful and distinctive style of the California Water Color Society painters of the 1930s and 1940s influenced a wide circle of contemporary painters. Clear examples appear in the catalog of the exhibition American Art Today at the New York World's Fair in 1933. Victor De Wilde's work, The Mailman, has a marked affinity with the wet-in-wet technique of Tom Craig.[57] Edward Johanson's Rainy Day, with its broad, transparent washes, is reminiscent of the technique used by Phil Dike in Echo Park.[58]

During the 1940s the influence of the California painters widened. The 1946 Watson-Guptill publication Watercolor Demonstrated illustrated works by twenty-three American artists. California was represented by Tom Craig, Phil Dike, Dong Kingman, and Emil J. Kosa, Jr. Discussion of their techniques revealed an emphasis on spontaneity and expressiveness. Two years later, Rex Brandt's first book on watercolor was published, Watercolor with Rex Brandt. It soon became a "bible" for watercolor painters throughout the country and was revised and reprinted several times through 1965.[59]

In the decades that followed the end of World War II, California artists, including those working in the medium of watercolor, came under the influence of national and international art movements. Diversity and individualism broke the cohesiveness of what had been a unique, identifiable style. In 1967 the California Water Color Society was renamed the California National Water Color Society which reflected the broader character of its membership.[60] Yet, today, its members are unfailing in acknowledging the contribution made by an enthusiastic and pioneering group of artists who in the 1930s and 1940s made an historic contribution to the American Scene and, to the medium of watercolor.


1. Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, 11 May 1958.

2. Matthew Baigell, "The Beginnings of 'The American Wave' and the Depression," Art Journal 27 (1968): 387.

3. Ibid., 389. Quoted from Art Digest 3 (15 March 1929): 18.

4. Ibid., 387.

5. Undated clipping, Phil Dike scrapbook. The first definitive study of the California Water Color Society was done by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure in 1973. Lists of members, exhibitions, and prize winners for the period 1921 to 1954 may be found in Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, The California Water Color Society: Prize Winners 1931-I954; Index to Exhibitions 1921-1954 (Los Angeles: Privately Printed, 1973).

6. Ibid.

7. Hinkle, in fact, was with Dike during part of his European trip.

8. Christian Science Monitor, 24 October 1931.

9. The work was reproduced in the Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1932.

10. Sheets acknowledged the influence of Bruce on his painting style in an interview with Susan Anderson in January 1988. See Susan M. Anderson, Regionalism: The California View, Watercolors, 1929-1945, exhibition catalog (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1988), 24 n. 10.

11. Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1932. Millier also remarked in this issue on Edward Bruce, ". . . one of the foremost American landscape painters [who] is having a great influence on younger painters. Several of his works are on temporary loan to the museum."

12. Los Angeles Times, 21 October 1934.

13. Phil Dike, telephone interview with author, 11 May 1984.

14. Los Angeles Times, 21 April 1935.

15. Quoted by Arthur Millier in "Millard Sheets," American Magazine of Art 29 (October 1936): 652. The Exhibition of Watercolors by Millard Sheets was held at the Milch Galleries, October 28 to November 16, 1935. That same year Dalzell Hatfield Galleries published a monograph on the artist with essays by Arthur Millier, Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander, and Merle Armitage. Millard Sheets (Los Angeles and New York: Dalzell Hatfield, 1935).

16. Los Angeles Times, 10 November 1935.

17. Undated clipping from Los Angeles Times in Phil Dike scrapbook.

18. Christian Science Monitor, 22 October 1935.

19. For a more detailed discussion of the activities of California watercolorists in Philadelphia and New York see Donelson Hoopes, "California Watercolor Painters in Context" in this publication.

20. New York Times, 17 May 1936.

21. Unmarked clipping, Brandt scrapbook. Later quoted by Arthur Millier in the Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1942.

22. Quotations from Brandt scrapbook, transcribed in his own hand, with source and dates noted as "Argonaut, July 16, 1937 and August 13, 1937."

23. Art Digest (l September 1937). Handwritten comment note from Brandt scrapbook.

24. Unidentified clipping, noted as "Nov 1936" in Brandt scrapbook.

25. Ibid. Cooper noted: "There is something of the intellectual treatment of John Marin, rather."

26. Art Digest (l May 1938).

27. New York Post, 16 April 1938.

28. Unmarked clipping, Dike scrapbook.

29. International Water Color Exhibition, Seventeenth Year, exhibition catalog (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1938).

30. Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1938.

31. Ibid. Also noted in Art Digest (1 November 1938).

32. Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1938. This is a very interesting observation which seems to echo the chastising comments of Merle Armitage, who, in 1928, decried the influx of amateur painters who were producing inferior works alongside those of the California impressionist artists. (See Janet Blake Dominik, "Patrons and Critics in Southern California: 1900-1930," in William H. Gerdts and Patricia Trenton, California Light, 1900-1930, exhibition catalog (Laguna Beach, California: Laguna Art Museum, 1990), 176. Perhaps this is more indicative of the popularization of a school and the result of its attraction to other artists, amateur and professional.

33. Los Angeles Times, 11 December 1938.

34. Art Digest (1 November 1939), 13.

35. The exhibition was held at the invitation of the Riverside Museum whose director was Vernon C. Porter. The aim was to "give . . . a comprehensive view of work in this medium done on the West Coast." Roland McKinney, director in charge, Los Angeles Museum and Dr. Grace McCann Morley, director, San Francisco Museum of Art, were organizers, advisors, and jurors in Northern and Southern California respectively. Phil Paradise was chairman of the jury of selection with Mary Blair, Millard Sheets, Tom Craig, and Rex Brandt assisting McKinney in the south; and Tom Craig, George Post, Dan Lutz, and Tom Lewis assisting Morley in the north. Information from catalog of the exhibition.

36. New York Times, 10 March 1940.

37. Art Digest (15 March 1940): 7, 26.

38. Chicago Daily News, 10 August 1940.

39. Several years later, Emil Kosa described the special qualities of watercolor not found with oil: "You get luminosity, swish, dryness or wetness, spontaneity, design, pattern, form, mood, intimacy or bigness, color, textural feeling, extreme variety of technique, gentleness, robustness, strength, transparency and opaque blackness, light and shadow, sense of vibration or calmness, movement, suggestions, innuendos, lost and found edges, hard and soft values, etc., etc." From Emil J. Kosa, Jr., "The Watercolor Series," American Artist 11 (February 1947): 31.

40. Burlington Free Press, 26 July 1940.

41. As reported in Art Digest 14 (1 September 1940): 8. The paintings acquired were: Gladys Aller, Portrait [of Helen]; Joan Irving Brandt, Bear Skin Neck, Mass.; Pearl Frye, The Thrown Rider; Dong Kingman, A Morning Picture; Fletcher Martin, Juliet; Alexander Nepote, Church, San Pablo; George Post, Mojave Desert, and Milford Zornes, Arizona Evening. The Martin painting was the only one that had not been shown at the exhibition. Irving's painting had been her first entry as a new member of the CWCS in the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition in 1939. She was only twenty-four years old when the Met acquired the painting.

42. Ibid. The Met had earlier that year acquired fifteen watercolors, including a work by Barse Miller, Shelburne Point, and one by Phil Dike, Old Dominion Mine. It was a "new leaning toward watercolor ..." Reported in Art Digest 14 (15 January 1940).

43. Los Angeles Times, 13 October 1940.

44. Los Angeles Times, 5 October 1940.

45. Announcement flyer for the classes. Brandt scrapbook.

46. Los Angeles Times, 29 March 1942.

47. Los Angeles Times, 8 February 1942. Moure, California Water Color Society, 27, listed the Twenty-first Annual as also held in 1942. It, in fact, opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in December 1941. Prizes were announced in the Los Angeles Times, 14 December 1941. The exhibit moved to the Los Angeles County Museum in February 1942.

48. Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1942.

49. New York Times, 5 March 1944.

50. Los Angeles Times, 14 October 1945.

51. Art Digest (1 March 1946). " . . . it is the water color medium itself which steals the spotlight. In few cases is there any earnest wrestling with painting problems -- ease in applying pigment to wet paper once again seems the major aim of most of the exhibitors."

52. Unidentified clipping, Dike scrapbook, 5 October 1940, probably Arthur Millier in the Los Angeles Times.

53. New York Times, 10 March 1940.

54. Arthur Millier, in fact, was critical of their oil paintings exhibited at the Seventeenth Biennial of American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery in 1941, noting that the works were weak, perhaps because the artists had concentrated so long on working in watercolor. Los Angeles Times, 23 March 1941 . J. L.W. in Art News (14 October 1941) also remarked that he found the Californian's watercolors "exciting, more so than the oils."

55. Baigell, "The Beginnings of 'The American Wave'," 396. He noted that Americans were "less interested in problems of abstract organization and more concerned with evocation and description of place."

56. Michael Dwan, "Millard Sheets: An Account of His Philosophy and Work," Art Instruction 3 (September 1939), 6.

57. American Art Today (1339; reprint, New York: Apollo, 1987), 66. De Wilde (b. 1903) was a member of the California Water Color Society who lived in San Francisco. See Edan Milton Hughes, Artists in California: 1786-1940 (San Francisco: Hughes Publishing Company, 1986), 127. Moure, California Water Color Society, 39, lists De Wilde as an exhibitor with the CWCS only in 1942.

58. American Art Today, 36; Hughes, Artists in California, 238. Hughes has little information on Johanson, except that he was a watercolorist, resident of San Francisco in the 1930s and 1940s. Moure, California Water Color Society, 50, lists him, like De Wilde, as an exhibitor only in 1942.

59. Norman Kent and Ernest W. Watson, eds., Watercolor Demonstrated (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications,
1946). Rex Brandt, Watercolor with Rex Brandt (Corona del Mar, California: Privately Printed, 1948).

60. The name was then changed to the National Watercolor Society in 1975.

About the Author

At the time of publication of the book American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, Janet Blake Dominik was an art historian, writer, and curator specializing in early California art. The major focus of her research for the ten years prior to publication of this book had been those artists who were the leading members of the California Water Color Society during the 1930s and 1930s.


Editor's note

The above essay was written by Janet Blake Dominik. It is written for, and included in, the 1991 book titled American Scene Painting: California 1930s and 1940s, edited by Ruth Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik, and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-3-1. Essay reprinted with permission of Westphal Publishing.

Following are examples of artworks created by artists referenced in the above essay. Artworks and/or photographs shown may not be specific to this essay and are likely not cited in it. All images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the images to be freely available for presentation here.  Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images.


(above: Dana Bartlett, Copper Bucket, c. 1940,watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, 14 x 10 11/16 inches, National Gallery of Art. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above:  Edouard Vysekal, Sisters, 1922, oil on canvas, 36 ? 34 inches, Irvine Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Milford Zornes, Old Barn in Nipomo, California, 1936, 16.1 x 22.7 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)


(above: Millard Owen Sheets (1907-1989), San Dimas Train Station, 1933, Watercolor on paper, 15" x 22." The Hilbert Collection)


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