handprint : california scene painters
 
California Scene Painters were a group of innovative and influential artists working in California during the 1930's. Also known as the "California Group" (the title of a 1937 traveling exhibition organized by writer and lecturer Lawson P. Cooper and artist Rex Brandt), they responded to a unique confluence of cultural and artistic trends, and produced watercolors that are remarkable for their freshness, spontaneity, and originality. It's an ironic testament to their popularity and originality that many of these works look hackneyed today: this is because their innovations became so widely imitated.

With the Great Depression came a heightened concern with social themes and then, under the oppressive weight of hard times and the growing popularity of film and animation, an interest in art as a recreation and celebration. These trends merged with a strong reaction against European art and art history; cubism seemed arid, and impressionism had become academic and decorative. Instead, American artists searched for an indigenous American art, based on regional themes, scenes and issues. In California this regionalism naturally included the influence of Mexican artists, particularly the muralists Diego Rivera (1886-1957) in San Francisco and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) in Los Angeles, whose works combined social concerns with popular appeal, stylized design, and technical innovations.

California in the late 1920's was a region in ferment. Immigration from the east and midwest, rapid urbanization, and the expanding entertainment and tourism industries brought an influx of artistic talent. Many of the California scene artists made their living as designers or animators at the Disney Studios or other film companies in Hollywood, and this background made them eager to explore the boundaries between commercial and "fine" art, and to develop art accessible to a wide audience. These goals were also popularized through the many decorative public murals commissioned by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a government program designed to provide artists with work during the Great Depression, and in the curricula of progressive art schools such as the Chouinard School of Art (founded in 1921 in Westlake, and reincorporated as CalArts in 1961) and the UC Berkeley Fine Arts department. The California Water Color Society, founded in Los Angeles in 1921 (and renamed the National Watercolor Society in 1962), became the exhibiting vehicle of the group.

The California Group artists found an important and articulate advocate in Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier (1893-1975), himself a skilled etcher, who championed their works to local collectors and in national art publications long before they became widely appreciated. On the East Coast, the Pennsylvania Academy and several galleries in New York City held annual watercolor exhibits that helped to bring these artists to national attention.
 

watercolor
artists
The oldest painter associated with the group, with closer affinities to the previous generation of artists, Emil Kosa Jr. (1903-1968) was born in Paris, raised in Czechoslovakia, and trained sporadically as an artist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, the California Art Institute (Los Angeles), L'École des Beaux Arts (Paris), and finally at the Chouinard School of Arts, where he met Millard Sheets, who guided his career toward professional art. Kosa became an actively exhibiting member of the California Watercolor Society in the 1930's, but took a job in the special effects department at Twentieth Century Fox Studios, where he was promoted to art director on major films such as Cleopatra (1964). He continued to paint, exhibit, lecture and win awards throughout his film career, even finding time to be an instructor at the Otis Art Institute (1939) and Chouinard (1947). Old Berg (c.1940, 80x98cm) is typical of Kosa's representational style of cityscape and landscape, often painted contrejour (looking into the light) with strong contrasts of light and dark. Kosa preferred a more complex image than contemporaries such as Edward Hopper, with a specific focus on the effects of light on color and value.
 
Considered one of the founding members of the group, Phil Dike (1906-1990) was born in Redlands, California to an artistic family; he was awarded a scholarship to Chouinard in 1924, where he studied under Clarence Hinkle and met Millard Sheets, Hardie Gramatky, Phil Paradise and Lee Blair. He joined the California Watercolor Society in 1927 and went the next year to study at the Art Student's League in New York City, where he studied with George Luks and exhibited in major watercolor exhibitions. After a year teaching at Chouinard, Dike studied mural decoration and lithography in Europe (1930-31), then settled in Los Angeles. He was a drawing instructor and color coordinator at Walt Disney Studios (1935-45), working on major animation projects such as Fantasia and Snow White, then an instructor at the Brandt-Dike Summer School of Painting in Corona del Mar (1947-50) and at Scripps College in Claremont (1950-70). One of the dozens of paintings completed during his European tour, Sicilian Houses (1930, 33x41cm) won first prize at the 1931 California Watercolor Society exhibition. Like many of Dike's paintings, it adopts a viewpoint looking down on the scene and bounded by a wide horizon at the top of the sheet. His style freely combines juicy washes, texturing brushstrokes and calligraphic marks for treelimbs and roof tiles, with nervous flecks of white paper accenting the separate brushstrokes throughout the image.
 
Widely regarded as the leader and driving force behind the California Group, Millard Sheets (1907-1989) was raised almost from birth on his grandparents' horse farm in Pomona, California. He received a scholarship from Chouinard in 1925 and developed rapidly to his first one man show in 1929. With prize money from a San Antonio painting exhibition he toured South and Central America and Europe, studying lithography in Paris. He joined the California Watercolor Society in 1929 and rapidly became its most influential member, painting ethnic neighborhoods and city scenes in a dramatic yet colorful and impressionistic style, loosely based on the "Ashcan" school of painters. After 1931, however, he simplified and purified his painting, using limited color to capture strong value contrasts and clearly outlined forms played against interlocking planes of color, and his focus turned toward the California landscape. His Black Horse (1934, 37x56cm) is a fine example of these works, almost a memento of his grandparents' farm and a tribute to the lonely strength of the horse, which became for Sheets almost a totem animal. This shift reflected Sheets's growing emphasis on abstract design, which he called "inherent to the structure of life," and it is largely because of Sheets, and the influence he exerted on other California painters, that "abstract design" became so important in the midcentury workshop style of watercolor painting exemplified by Edgar Whitney.
 
Sheets actively exhibited throughout the 1930's — annually at the watercolor exhibitions of the California Watercolor Society and the Art Institute of Chicago — and joined the Scripps Institute in Claremont, California in 1932. He was director of the art department from 1936-55, and built the faculty to national renown. In 1943 he became a war correspondent for Life magazine, posted in India, and saw terrible famine there that marks his subsequent work with a new seriousness. However, Afterglow Nebraska (1936, 56x76cm) shows Sheets turning toward a more elegaic or mystical style even earlier. He has moved toward a more meticulous handling of the paint that makes many of his watercolors resemble his works in oils, which he controls by adopting a unified texture within each major color area. The white clouds in the sky and the touch of orange in the shrubbery give the painting an inner warmth and calmness despite the busy visual texture, and the value structure remains strongly stated. This style was also well adapted to mural execution, and Sheets produced over one hundred murals for banks, schools and other public buildings during the 1950's. He went on to become director of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles (1953-59), many painting workshops held around the world from 1965-85.
 
One of the most worldly and accomplished of the group, Barse Miller (1904-1973) was born in New York City and raised in an athletic and educated family. He began studies at the National Academy of Design at age eleven, and from there enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1920). A travelling scholarship permitted him to study for two years in Europe, where he exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in 1923. He moved to Los Angeles in 1924 and quickly established a successful artistic career. He turned increasingly to watercolor painting and mural commissions, including several for Los Angeles area buildings. He taught at the Art Center School in Los Angeles (1932-42), then became a special war correspondent for Life magazine and a decorated combat veteran. In 1944 he was among the first watercolorists admitted to the National Academy of Design, and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947, then moved to New York where he began a long career teaching at Queens College and painting the countryside of New England. Miller was a fine colorist, but the Walnut Tree (1938, 55x68cm) shows his equal talent for strong design and subtle stylization of natural forms. The contrasted characters of the furrowed ground, undulating tree, slouching farmer and stolid barn are very satisfying, and the gradations introduced in the dark masses of leaves by perspective recession are subtle and precise.
 
Best known today as a prolific author of watercolor tutorials, Rex Brandt (1914-2000) was born in San Diego and raised in Riverside, California. Brandt began taking Saturday art classes at Chouinard in 1928 while still in high school. He enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley in 1934, where he was exposed to modernist teachers such as John Haley and Margaret Peterson (both students of Hans Hofmann), then completed postgraduate studies in education at Stanford University. Afternoon at Kellers (1935, 41x47cm) is from a series of summer watercolors done around Laguna Beach, California during his Berkeley years. It shows his emphasis on tonal values rather than decorative color, his unusual combination of representation and abstract design, and the exuberant description of light common to many of the California Group painters. Returning to southern California, Brandt joined the California Watercolor Society in 1937, headed the art department at Riverside Junior College (1938-43), and in 1939 was appointed supervisor for the Federal Art Project in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. He taught at the University of Vermont in 1940 with Barse Miller and Paul Sample, then returned to California to lead watercolor classes at the Fine Arts Gallery in San Diego and at USC in Los Angeles, and to mount a solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1943. He cofounded with Phil Dike the Brandt-Dike Summer School of Painting in 1947, which held outdoor summer painting classes in Corona Del Mar, California. In 1948 he published the first of many books on watercolor painting, the immensely popular Watercolor With Rex Brandt (revised and reprinted many times up to 1965), which secured his national reputation as one of the foremost watercolor teachers and practicing artists. The plein air painting method advocated by the Brandt-Dike school was shared by most artists of the California Group and was certainly encouraged by the gloriously welcoming California climate and varied California geography. It also nourished the general tendency of these artists to work quickly with large brushes and wet in wet techniques, and to paint in bold statements rather than nuanced details.
 
Several California scene artists trained and practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area. George Post (1906-1997) was born in Oakland, California, and raised first by his grandparents, then by his mother and stepfather, in Nevada and San Francisco. He began painting early and enrolled on a scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts (1924-26), mounting his first solo show in 1931. He worked as a Sierra Nevada gold miner (1933-35), taught at the Art Students League, and was commissioned at minimum wage by the WPA to travel around California for nearly two years, painting whatever he liked. His style matured throughout these years, to considerable critical praise, and by this time he had come to prefer the "directness and quickness" of watercolors. Confidence Mine, Tuolumne Co. California (c.1940, 46x56cm) gives a sense of Post's unique style, balancing an almost whimsically cartoonish drawing with a strong feel for visual patterns, tying together pure design and subdued color harmonies with limpid and deft brushwork. With money saved from his WPA work, Post embarked on a tour of Mexico and Europe in 1937-38, and in the early 1940's spent time in the Seattle area. During World War II Post served as a stowage planner at Fort Mason, San Francisco. In 1947 he became an instructor at the California College of Arts and Crafts (Oakland), a position he held until 1972, and in 1965 a retrospective of his works was held at the California Legion of Honor in San Francisco. For many decades he was one of the most active and beloved watercolor workshop teachers.
 
Speaking of beloved teachers, no history of California painting would be complete without mention of Dong Kingman (1911-2000), the self described "Oakland born native of Hong Kong." His birthname was Dong Moy-Jow, but a Hong Kong art teacher gave him the school name King Man (Chinese for "landscape style") which he adopted as his public persona. Trained in Hong Kong by the Paris educated Szetu Wei, head of the Lingman Academy, Kingman returned to the Bay Area as a teenager in 1929, and studied watercolor at the Fox and Morgan Art School. He became an overnight success with a one man show at the San Francisco Art Association in 1936, with critics calling his work "bold, free and joyous." Look Down the Island (1937, 51x69cm) shows the style they found so attractive. The drawing is blissfully spontaneous, everything seen from a slightly daffy aspect, the design built from flowing long bands of subdued cool or warm umber wash, cut by verticals of brighter warm hues, the whole knitted together with textures of fencepost, clapboard, casement and rippling water. Each detail, from that bustling brown sedan to the strangely listing figure on the sidewalk, has a quirky individuality and a distinct place in the narrative; the painting makes me smile with gratitude. Kingman painted nearly 500 works for the WPA and served during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) in California. He earned two Guggenheim fellowships (1941 and 1956), and after the war settled in New York to teach at Columbia University and Hunter College (1946-56). Thereafter he pursued a bicoastal career, with annual shows in New York City and (after 1970) in San Francisco, several consulting gigs with major Hollywood Studios, a stint as cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department (1954), founder of a correspondence art school, and a much sought after workshop teacher.

For each of these artists I've selected representative works from the period 1930-1940, to suggest the kind of painting that was seen as so remarkable in its time. Most of these painters continued to evolve through the 1950's and beyond, their art shaped by their individual experiences of military duty, war service projects, and a deeper awareness of human suffering and the redeeming powers of art. I'd also like to mention that many other interesting painters were associated with the California Group from 1930 through 1960: you may find great pleasure in getting to know the works of Lee Blair, Tom Craig, Hardie Gramatky, Tom Lewis, Erle Loran, Phil Paradise, Charles Payzant, Paul Sample and Milford Zornes.

Eventually the art of the California Group became a victim of its own popularity — equated with workshop trivialization, amateur imitation, and the stodgy patronage of conservative watercolor exhibitions. And times had changed: the sense of national unity and European collaboration forged by the Second World War made the many brands of American regionalism seem shallow and provincial. When the Abstract Expressionists burst on the scene in New York, the California Group paintings were relegated by comparison to the status of commercial illustration.

In my view the California Group left a mixed heritage for later generations of watercolor painters. Its practitioners often seemed to rely on flashy, technically shallow effects, and created an impression of improvisational virtuosity by discarding the many paintings that splash and dash failed to carry off. I feel they lowered painters' aspirations from strong artistic vision to strong visual impact, and abandoned difficult observation of the world for the complacency of design abstractions. A few of the later workshop teachers blurred the line between evangelizing populist art and cultivating a guru popularity.

That said, the California Group did not lounge around in New York bars knocking back hard liquor, whining about Picasso and scribbling bathetic proclamations of their own profundity. They held steady jobs, raised families, helped to build the Hollywood film industry, assisted their communities, enriched public buildings, served in the Armed Forces, and became tireless and beloved teachers. They were technically adventurous and inquisitive, exploiting the versatility of watercolor to try new things. True citizen artists, painting was for them a community and collective avocation and a celebration of the regional light and landscape they loved. They richly deserve to be saluted in that spirit.

The best reference for the California scene painters, now out of print, is American Scene Painting: California, 1930s and 1940s, edited by Ruth Lilly Westphal and Janet Blake Dominik (Westphal, 1991).

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy