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California Watercolor, the National Context,
and Why the Medium Continues to Matter

by Paul J. Karlstrom

Skyline Patterns

California watercolor activity from the 1920s to the 1950s represents a lively and innovative regional contribution to the national picture. The so-called California Style watercolor movement was an informal but close-knit group of artists based primarily in Southern California. The best known among them was Millard Sheets whose local scene watercolors done in the late 1920s encouraged other young artists, many of them affiliated with the Chouinard Art School, to follow his example. Among them were Phil Dike, Rex Brandt, Barse Miller, Emil Kosa, Jr., Phil Paradise, and Paul Sample. Nearly all became active in the California Water Color Society, which was founded in 1921 and mounted local and traveling exhibitions that raised the group’s profile nationally. The precocious Millard Sheets, in watercolor circles still one of the best known names in the history of California art, was the first of the group to enjoy a significant national reputation, and his early visibility helped to bring attention to his associates and to their chosen medium.

The watercolor medium ideally suited the aims and lifestyle of Sheets and his circle. As several generations before them had recognized, watercolors were inexpensive and highly portable—perfect for young artists who loved to travel and paint outdoors. Furthermore, as was evident in the example of such modernists as John Marin, the medium was well-adapted to more reductive and gestural approaches to subject. In the hands of the California scene painters, watercolor facilitated a direct, seemingly effortless, style that captured southern California’s brilliant sunshine and casual atmosphere. At the same time, the large scale of these watercolors—generally more than two feet wide unframed—announced that their makers intended them as serious works, worthy of exhibition and sale. These artists were taking the medium very seriously.

The qualities displayed in the watercolors of the California artists also reflected national stylistic and cultural trends. These included the penchant for realism and local content, a hallmark of the American Scene painters and the Midwestern regionalists, most notably Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. This attempt to put down roots in the local art soil was also shared by some of the modernists—including Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley. The California Style painters’ pleasure in capturing fleeting moments of everyday life also owes a great deal to the urban realists of the early twentieth century, such as Robert Henri, George Bellows, and the later Reginald Marsh. And while the watercolorists eschewed pure abstraction, they nonetheless adopted more stylized and vigorous approaches as suited their purposes. For the most part, however, the adaptation of various modernist features remained literally on the surface, seldom going deeper. The artists were primarily attracted to fresh technical and stylistic means to produce bold, lively, and direct visual effects.

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The California watercolorists evolved out of the state’s long and rich landscape tradition, which capitalized on the region’s abundant picturesque vistas and ideal climate for painting outdoors. Among the early twentieth-century California watercolorists to work in this plein-air tradition was Francis McComas who arrived in Southern California in the early 1900s and brought to his work a simplification that created sophisticated formal relationships suggestive of a sense of the abstract qualities in desert landscapes. His essential approach to watercolor, however, followed longstanding English watercolor traditions, in which forms were delineated, often with pencil, and then painted within what amounted to outlines. This method was also the common watercolor technique in Southern California by earlier practitioners, as evidenced by the comparatively pale, controlled washes used by F. Tolles Chamberlin, who as a teacher at Chouinard Art School (later Chouinard Art Institute, the precursor of Cal Arts) encouraged Sheets and other students to explore the watercolor medium. Many of the California watercolorists also demonstrated awareness of the revered watercolor traditions of Asia. And a small but prominent group of Asian American artists was at work both in Southern and Northern California, drawing in various degrees directly from their Asian heritage.

Two of the leading Southern California figures were Hideo Date and Tyrus Wong, both of whom operated within the Stanton MacDonald Wright circle. In Northern California Chiura Obata established a major reputation for his watercolors and large-scale oil paintings that led to a position on the art faculty at UC Berkeley. San Francisco-born Chinese-American watercolorist Dong Kingman spent much of his youth in Hong Kong, where he mastered calligraphy and an expressive, seemingly spontaneous approach to watercolor—one often associated with Asian ink painting—that he incorporated into his own fanciful style. Renowned for his tour-de-force watercolors of urban scenes, Kingman was the most prominent Northern California watercolorist associated with the southern-based California Style. As the northern group became even more strongly influenced by modernism, the two regional movements shared even less overlap stylistically and socially.

Watercolors of the California Style and the Berkeley School were different and, in fact, had very little to do with one another. The northern California movement, based at UC Berkeley, was heavily influenced by visiting artist Hans Hoffmann, a proto-abstract expressionist. This university-spawned quasi-modernist style assumed the character of a somewhat cautious academic response to Hoffmann’s teachings: specifically the value of line in its own right, not just as defining form and contour, and planes of color independent from outline. Worth Ryder, John Haley, Karl Kasten, and Erle Loran were the leading practitioners and, as university faculty artists, the style they adopted exerted a considerable influence on watercolor in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to Kasten, the differences in approach to watercolor created a “schism” between north and south. The Berkeley School favored “open” color and independent line. The California Style artists used a “closed” approach, with subjects drawn from the southern landscape and urban scene rendered with local (natural) color. The more modernist-leaning work of the north, with its references to Europe, established the University of California as an important art presence well beyond the Berkeley hills. But some northern watercolorists resented what they saw as an academic dominance of their field.

These two directions dominated California watercolor for several decades. And the many practitioners participating in the active contemporary world of the National Watercolor Society and related professional groups draw upon these traditions, both north and south. Many of them have established prominent careers based on a generally conservative and readily accessible narrative approach employing highly developed illustration skills. However, in California and nationally, watercolor remains a challenging and rewarding medium for artists of widely differing interests. We can admire the technical virtuosity of the California regionalists and their heirs, but we also recognize that this admirable facility is also put in the service of other contemporary artists, such as Photo-Realists such as Robert Bechtle, whose subjects display the same attraction to an evocative specificity of place despite widely varying artistic goals.

But for all of these artists, there is an underlying respect for the difficulty and unique expressive qualities of the medium. The future will preserve this special place for working in watercolor. Some artists will continue the American tradition established by the greatest historical practitioners—Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and John Singer Sargent. But it really is neither a matter of progress nor of competitive zeal. Sheets, Marin, Kosa, and a host of other twentieth century watercolor stars, did not set out to surpass these acknowledged masters. But it is finally a deep respect for the medium, and for their earlier mentors, which makes of watercolor a kind of artistic community removed form other stylistic considerations. Perhaps it is like a club, an almost secret society, in which the initiates—including both traditionalists and contemporary experimenters—recognize that watercolor occupies a singular history and an impossible to duplicate aesthetic-expressive identity. There is a reason why they choose it. © May 2009

Dr. Paul J. Karlstrom, former West Coast Regional Director of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, based this article on his essay for the Hood Museum of Art exhibition “Coastline to Skyline.”

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