A prominent artist in the watercolor movement known as California Style, Milford Zornes became especially known of his application of watercolor in broad brush strokes to large sheets of paper with planned areas of white, unpainted spaces showing through. This was a new way of watercolor painting, which traditionally has been done over pencil sketches.
He was born in Camargo, Oklahoma, and moved to Los Angeles while a teenager. In Santa Maria, California, he enrolled in Santa Maria Junior College, where he had art instruction from Stanley Breneiser and lived for a period of time with him and his wife, Babs Breneiser who was an art teacher at the local high school. Zornes later referred to this time as his first exposure to a professional art teacher and mentor and said: "This was a dizzy, exciting world to a young man whose feet were not yet on the ground even though his head was in the stars." (Hal Baker)
Then at age 20, he began adventurous travel that took him across the United States, had him working on the docks of New York City, and then shipping out to Denmark as a merchant seaman, a job that eventually led to a tour of Europe. He returned to Los Angeles by 1930, and studied at the Otis Art Institute with F. Tolles Chamberlain, and at Pomona College where Millard Sheets was his teacher.
Throughout the 1930s, he was exhibiting widely including the 1938 Art Institute of Chicago International Watercolor Exhibition, Seventeenth Year. Zornes received a $100 prize for one of his paintings.
Zornes did murals during World War II for the Federal Arts Project of the W.P.A., and was a United States Army artist correspondent in Burma and India. Because of the distinction of his W.P.A. and other wartime artwork, he was honored with a one-person exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, and one of his paintings was selected by President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt for the White House Collection. This attention brought him much positive publicity.
After the war, he lived in several locations in California, and traveled in Alaska and Greenland, and ultimately developed the idea of traveling watercolor workshops. Zornes has also taught watercolor workshops all over the world including in China, Alaska, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Hawaii.
In 1963, Milford and his wife, Pat Zornes, bought the Maynard Dixon summer home and studio in Mount Carmel, Utah from Edith Hamlin, wife of Maynard Dixon, to have a place for regular watercolor workshops.
Paintings by Milford Zornes are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Butler Institute of Art, National Academy of Design, San Diego Museum of Art, Laguna Beach Museum of Art, U.S. War Department Collection, Library of Congress Collection, Pomona Public Library, the Fontana Public Library,and Shatford Library, Pasadena City College, Gardena High School Art Collection, all in California.
Zornes has been an active member of the National Academy of Design (A.N.A.), American Watercolor Society (past president) and West Coast Watercolor Society.