Millard Sheets, N.A. Biography

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Millard Sheets, N.A. (1907-1989) Born: Pomona, CA; Studied: Chouinard Art Institute (Los Angeles); Member: National Academy of Design, New York Water Color Club, American Watercolor Society, California Water Color Society. Millard Sheets was a native California artist and grew up in the Pomona Valley near Los Angeles. He attended the Chouinard Art Institute and studied with F. Tolles Chamberlin and Clarence Hinkle. While still a teenager, his watercolors were accepted for exhibition in the annual California Water Color Society shows and by nineteen years of age, he was elected into membership. At twenty, even before he graduated from Chouinard, they hired him to teach watercolor painting while completing other aspects of his art education.

Millard SheetsBy the early 1930s, he was well on his way to national recognition as a prominent American artist. He was exhibiting works in Paris, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Baltimore and many other cities throughout the United States. At home in Los Angeles, he was recognized as the leading figure and driving force behind the California Style watercolor movement.

Between 1935 and 1941, the recognition, awards, and his output of high quality art increased. He was mentioned in numerous issues of Art Digest, had a color reproduction in the book Eyes on America, and in 1935 at age twenty-eight, he was the subject of a book published in Los Angeles. Sales of art enabled him to travel to Europe, Central America and Hawaii, where he painted on location. Although his watercolor painting techniques during this period varied from very tight to very loose, his personal style always came through.

During World War II, he was an artist-correspondent for Life magazine and the United States Air Force in India and Burma. Many of his works from this period document the scenes of famine, war and death that he witnessed. This experience also affected his post war art for a number of years. Many of his works from the 1940s, painted in California and Mexico, reflect these mood shifts, especially when he used dark tonal values and depressing subject matter. After the 1950s, his style changed again, this time featuring brighter colors and often times depicting subjects from his travels around the world.

While Sheets was a talented painter in watercolors, oils and acrylics, this was only part of his overall art career. Though his teaching at Chouinard Art Institute, Otis Art Institute, Scripps College and other institutions, hundreds of artists were taught how to paint, and then guided into an art career. He was the Art Department Head at Scripps College for 25 years and Director of Otis Art Institute for 10 years. He was also director of the art exhibition at the Los Angeles County Fair for 25 years (1931 - 1956) and brought world-class art to Southern California. The Fine Arts building there is now named after him. During the Depression, he worked with Edward Bruce to hire artists for the W.P.A. Art Project. In 1946, he served as a president of the California Water Color Society. In later years he worked as an architectural designer, illustrator, muralist, printmaker and juried art exhibitions.

Biographical information:

Interview with Millard Sheets, 1983.

Stary-Sheets Fine Art Galleries, Laguna Beach, 1998.

Biography courtesy of California Watercolors 1850-1970,

©2002 Hillcrest Press, Inc.

California Watercolor

From the Smithsonian Archives

"Your painting is a measure of your mind"-Millard Sheets

Millard Sheets, as one of the founding members of the "California Scene Painters," exerted a lasting influence upon subsequentgenerations of Western painters. He and the small group of painters who worked in California during the 1930s and 1940s, developed a new style of watercolor painting that was at the forefront of the American watercolor movement of the time, and that later gave rise to a subsequent generation of painters who became known as the California Regionalist school.

Sheets was born in Pomona, California on June 24, 1907. His mother died in childbirth, and his father, John Sheets, unprepared to raise a baby alone, sent Millard to Pomona, California to be raised by his maternal grandparents, Lewis and Emma Owen. Sheets's grandfather proved to be a guiding force in his life, and when Sheets's father remarried and offered Millard the opportunity to return to the Sheets household, Millard chose instead to remain with his grandparents.

Sheets's love of horses can be directly traced back to his childhood years spent living at his grandfather's horse ranch. Millard rode his first horse when he was three years old. Throughout his life, Sheets returned to the theme of horses in his paintings, as well as maintaining a private stable of horses, and raising and breeding racehorses.

His interest in art also began in childhood. When he was still a young boy, his two maternal aunts encouraged him to play with crayons and pencils. Sheets took his first painting lesson from a neighbor at the age of seven, and by 1919 he had already submitted artwork to the copy division of the Los Angeles County Fair fine arts show competition. He submitted a drawing he had copied of a tinted photograph of Lake KIlarney, California. Sheets won first prize in his division.

It was through this competition that Millard met Theodore B. Modra, a Polish artist who had retired to the Pomona area. After giving Sheets a lecture on the evils of copying art, Modra offered to give him art lessons.

Sheets continued to pursue his interest in art and enrolled in the Choinard School of Art in Los Angeles, California. By the time that he graduated in 1929, Sheets had also managed to come to the attention of Dalzell and Ruth Hatfield of the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries in Los Angeles, California. The Hatfields were one of the most influential art dealers in Southern California, and that same year, they sponsored Sheets in his first one-man exhibition in 1929. The exhibition brought Sheets to the attention of Western Coast art critics and launched Sheets on his painting career.

In 1929 Sheets also learned that he had won second place in the annual Edgar B. Davis art competition held in San Antonio, Texas. The award came with a cash prize and Sheets made plans to travel to Europe to study and paint. Shortly before his departure, however, he met an art student, Mary Baskerville, and they began a whirlwind romance. With Baskerville's enthusiastic support for European plans, and with her promise that she would wait for him, Sheets departed for New York and then Europe.

While overseas during 1929 and 1930, Sheets studied under Dorfinant, a master printer in Paris. Through his work at this studio workshop, he met Henri Matisse.

Five months after Millard returned to the California in 1930, Sheets and Mary Baskerville married. Sheets worked as the director of the Fine Arts Exhibition of the Los Angeles County Fair. In 1932 Sheets returned to school to study art and humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. After graduating from Scripps, school officials approached Sheets with an offer to set up a separate fine arts program and asked him to chair the new department. This was the beginning of a twenty-year association with the school. In 1938, he also became the Director of Art at Claremont Graduate School.

Sheets left the school during the years of World War II to serve as a wartime artist and journalist for Life magazine, and from 1943-1944 was stationed on the Burma-India Front. His experiences in Asia appeared to affect him deeply. In contrast to his earlier works that featured backgrounds with neutral tones and brilliant shades that highlighted and punctuated the compositions, the paintings from the wartime featured somber tones. Sheets remarked of this time:

During the fighting and the time I spent in the C-B-1 Theater, I was too shaken and intellectually stunned to do any complete paintings. I made many, many sketches, though, as well as a real effort to remember each scene that particularly affected me. Then, once I returned to America, I painted frantically, for months, exorcising demons. [Lovoos, Janice and Edmund F. Penney, Millard Sheets: One-Man Renaissance, Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ, 1984]

Sheets returned from the war in 1944 and resumed his position at Scripps College until 1955 when he was approached by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and asked to overhaul the fledgling Los Angeles County Art Institute. Sheets accepted the position and spent the next five years reshaping the mission and format of the school, renaming it the Otis Art Institute. In the years after Sheets left the directorship, the school eventually became part of the Parson's School of Design on the West Coast.

In 1953 Sheets founded the Millard Sheets Designs Company. He hired between twenty-five and thirty artisans for large projects, with Susan Hertel, a former student of his, serving as his assistant in all the operations of the design studio. The working staff included engineers, registered architects, draftsmen, and artists, and the projects that the firm produced included murals, mosaics, stained glass, and sculpture for private homes and public and commercial businesses.

The design studio completed several major architectural projects throughout the late 1950s through the mid 1970s, including the design and construction of Cal Aero, a flight training school for the US Air Force, the National American Insurance Company offices for the California financier, Howard Ahmanson, Ahmanson Bank and Trust Company in Beverly Hills, many Home Savings and Loan Association Buildings, private residences, and the Scottish Rite Memorial Temples in Los Angeles and San Francisco, among many other projects.

Sheets also designed and completed mural and mosaic work for numerous public buildings in the Los Angeles area, as well as across the nation. Many of the murals and mosaics were for those buildings designed by his firm while others were done as independent commissions.

In 1968 Sheets first proposed the murals he designed for the Los Angeles City Hall. His design was approved and he was awarded a commission to complete The Family of Man murals over the two main entrances to the Los Angeles City Hall. The murals were completed in 1971 and installed in 1972. Sheets also designed mosaics and murals for the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the Library at Notre Dame University, the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Los Angeles, several Home Savings and Loan Association buildings in the Los Angeles area, the Detroit Public Library, and the Dome of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

During the early 1960s Sheets participated in the American Specialist Program of the US Department of State. His first assignment was to Turkey in 1960, where he served as a visiting artist. The following year he went to the USSR in the same capacity.

During the early to mid 1950s Sheets became involved with Columbia Pictures and was technical advisor and production designer for a few years.

Millard Sheets was a member of the National Watercolor Society, the American Watercolor Society, the National Academy of Design, the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors, and the Century Association. Sheets actively promoted his own work and was a businessman, an active and prolific artist, instructor, and designer. Millard Sheets died on March 31, 1989 in Gualala, California.

California Watercolor



Andrew Wyeth Picks 20 Great American Watercolorists 13 Mar 2007 by American Artist

The man who has shaped American watercolor for more than 60 years identifies the historic painters who have made the most of the medium.

by M. Stephen Doherty

When I first proposed to Andrew Wyeth that he compose a list of 20 artists he considered to be among the greatest watercolorists, he considered both contemporary and historic practitioners. “He’s concerned that limiting the list to historic figures would make it too short; and that adding contemporary painters would make it too long,” said his curator, Mary Landa. “He also worries about offending some good watercolorists he might not think about.” I suggested he focus on historic painters and consider a long list I put together. By the time I visited Wyeth’s home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in early March, he was feeling more confident about finalizing a list that would suggest to Watercolor readers what he felt was the hallmark of a great watercolor.

The final list of 20 great painters includes those who elevated the importance of watercolor and helped define a distinctly American attitude toward the medium, as well as artists who are less well known yet offer a uniquely expressive approach to working with combinations of water-soluble paints. The selection includes some obvious choices that would be on almost anyone’s roster—such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent—as well as artists such as William Thon, Hardy Gramatky, and Morris Graves, who reflect Wyeth’s age, experience, and attitude. For example, he knew and admired several of the artists who shared his interest in expressive representation; and, in contrast, he felt no particular affinity with the Abstract Expressionists or the Photo Realists who painted in watercolor at roughly the same time he was working with the medium.

The point in formulating this list is to offer a broader view of watercolor than many people would associate with Wyeth. People often form the mistaken opinion that he gravitates toward the sentimental, pastoral, or nostalgic; but a review of the vast number of watercolors he has created since the late 1930s reveals that he is often captivated by the power of nature, the transience of life, the juxtaposition of animate and inanimate forms, and the ability of watercolor to represent the soul of the artist. Those are often the qualities he admires in other artists’ paintings.


It is clear that no other contemporary artist has influenced the ways painters use watercolor as much as Wyeth. His paintings have been so widely exhibited and reproduced over the past 60 years that almost every watercolorist has been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly. That influence may come from direct experience, through teachers or fellow artists, or through collectors who measure every watercolorist against Wyeth. Many artists have emulated the subject matter of his paintings, his palette of colors, his penchant for detail, his orientation toward personal themes, or his willingness to express individual perceptions.

Anyone who has enjoyed such unprecedented success and had such a pervasive influence on generations of artists might be excused if he were arrogant, aloof, or remote. After all, celebrities in other fields are notoriously demanding. But despite his fame, wealth, and influence Wyeth is much the same person he was when he mounted his first exhibition of watercolors in 1938 at the age of 20. He remains a personable, caring, and appreciative man who is just as excited about the freedom afforded by watercolor as he was when his father first encouraged him to use the paints. Even with a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (“Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic,” March 29 through July 16, 2006), an exhibition of his drawings at the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (“Andrew Wyeth: Master Drawings From the Artist’s Collection,” March 11 through July 16, 2006), Wyeth is still most excited when sitting on the ground with a stack of watercolor paper in his lap, brushes and paints laid out by his side, and a tree or a figure posing in front of him.

Wyeth made similar comments about watercolor when writing about the paintings reproduced in a book titled Andrew Wyeth Autobiography (Bulfinch Press, New York, New York). “The only virtue to it is to put down an idea quickly without thought about what you feel at the moment. It’s one’s free side. Watercolor shouldn’t behave,” he commented in reference to Half Bushel, a painting of a basket lying under an apple tree, created in 1959. “You’re in the lap of the gods—almost like painting with your eyes half-closed.” “Sometimes I don’t want to see too clearly,” he wrote in reference to another watercolor. “You build up a kind of color that is purely an interpretation of the truth. Anything to get away from the predictable. This applies to the design of a picture too. Painting is all about breaking the rules. Art is chance.”

Wyeth was introduced to watercolor by his father, the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and by one of his father’s friends, Sid Chase. He immediately began looking at the work of great watercolorists from the past, especially American artists who “lifted watercolor from the academic approach of the British and made it something freer,” he explained to me. Among the first historic artists to inform and influence young Wyeth was Winslow Homer (1836–1910), whose work he first saw when visiting Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine. “I never wanted to copy the work of other people, but I wanted to find the truth in nature that they were expressing—and then find my own truth,” he is says in the book Andrew Wyeth: Early Watercolors, by Susan Strickler (Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire). “So Homer led me on to something else. I got a direction that was authentic to me and to what I felt.”

As his interest in watercolor expanded, so did Wyeth’s awareness of other great artists who used the medium, particularly those who used it as freely and expressively as he did. He was especially interested in those who had developed a personal style and expanded their range of possibilities. He met many of those artists, such as Edward Hopper, during trips to New York or summer excursions to Maine; and a number of others called on him in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

The enthusiasm that Andrew and Betsy Wyeth have for American painting is demonstrated through their foundation, The Wyeth Foundation for American Art. The foundation provides substantial support for exhibitions, catalogues, research, and acquisitions of American art. The Wyeths have also donated works from their personal collection to museums, and they have made plans to leave their home and property to the Brandywine River Museum.

And the list that Andrew Wyeth came up with March 2006?

1. Milton Avery (1893-1965)

2. Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)

3. Charles Demuth (1883-1935)

4. Arthur Dove (1880-1946)

5. Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

6. Hardie Gramatky (1907-1979)

7. Morris Graves (1910-2001)

8. Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

9. Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

10. Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

11. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

12. John Marin (1870-1953)

13. Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)

14. Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

15. John Pike (1911-1979)

16. Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983)

17. Maurice B. Prendergast (1859-1924)

18. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

19. Millard Sheets (1907-1989)

20. William Thon (1906-2000)

Word of Life Mural at Notre Dame


When the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame opened, its most distinctive exterior feature, the "mural," had not yet been installed. The artist Millard Sheets was commisioned to create a work large enough to cover the southern face of the tower, visible from the football stadium. Its theme was to be saints and scholars throughout the ages; this was suggested by Father Hesburgh.

In an interview, Sheets explained that:

"What they asked me to do was to suggest in a great processional the idea of a never-ending line of great scholars, thinkers, and teachers - saints that represented the best that man has recorded, and which are found represented in a library. The thought was that the various periods that are suggested in the theme have unfolded in the continuous process of one generation giving to the next. I put Christ at the top with the disciples to suggest that He is the great teacher - that is really the thematic idea."


The $200,000 mural was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard V. Phalin of Winnetka, Illinois. It was installed during the spring of 1964, but was kept covered until the day of the library's formal dedication. That ceremony was held on May 7, 1964 and included a mass and an academic convocation.

From a technical perspective, Professor Winkler wrote about the mural saying that "Millard Sheet's painting was converted into a mosaic by the Cold Spring Granite Company. ... The mural is composed of 324 panels, of which 189 are precast panel units. The remaining 135 are solid granite and Mankato stone, used for background panels. In all, 81 different stones, in 171 finishes, and from 16 countries, were used in fabrication. ... The following kinds of stone were utilized: 46 granites and syenites; 10 gabros and labradorites; 4 metamorphic gneisses; 12 serpentines; 4 crystalline marbles; and 5 limestones."

By strict definition it qualifies as neither mural or mosaic; the process is a unique one in which 6,700 separate pieces of granite were used to create the composition. With its large size (134 feet high and 68 feet wide) and highly visible location, it continues to attract attention, and helps to make the Library among the most familiar of the campus landmarks.

The mural was later nicknamed "Touchdown Jesus" as it was visible from the football stadium.

California Watercolor



"Touchdown Jesus" 


Millard Sheets watercolor class at Los Angeles Harbor, 1950



With Daughter Carolyn 


Beverly Hills Mural-Millard Sheets Mural starts at Minute 1:53