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Millard Sheets (American, 1907-1989)


Also known as:  Sheets, Millard Owen

Birth Place: California (United States)

Millard Owen Sheets, a leader in the California style watercolor movement, was born in California and raised by his grandparents at their horse ranch near Los Angeles. He was an elected member of the California Water Color Society by age 19. Sheets studied with F. Tolles Chamberlin and Clarence Hinkle at the Choiunard Art Institute. Before graduating, Sheets undertook a teaching position at the Institute while completing his education. This was the first of his teaching positions as he would go on to teach as Director of the Otis Art Institute, as head of the art department of Scripps College, and other various educational institutions. Sheets was quickly recognized by influential Dalzell Hatfield Galleries who sponsored his first one-man exhibition in 1929. After winning the Edgar B. Davis art competition, Sheets studied under Dorfinant in Paris where he met Henri Matisse. In 1932, Sheets furthered his education at Scripps College and, again, would be asked to take a teaching position upon graduation.

Having exhibited his works throughout the United States including the Carnegie Institute’s International Exhibition of Paintings, Sheets was a nationally recognized artist by the 1930s. During the Depression, Sheets worked with the Public Works of Art Project. This introduced Sheets to mural work as wells as architecture, which he would return to later in his life. Additionally, Sheets served as the Director of the art exhibition at the Los Angeles County Fair for 25 years. All of these achievements allowed him to travel and paint in Europe, Hawaii, and Central America. During World War II, Sheets was as a correspondent for Life Magazine in India and Burhma, making famine, death, and war the subject of many of his paintings. This experience would color Sheets’ work for over a decade with dark tones and depressing, almost despondent subject matter whereas before his palette was neutral with brilliant shades punctuating his compositions. When Sheets returned to the United States, he became president of the California Water Color Society. However, Sheets began to expand his medium past watercolors to oils, illustration, murals, mosaics, tapestries, prints, and architecture. In 1953, Sheets started the Millard Sheets Designs Company, which created mosaics, art, and buildings for Home Savings of America banks throughout California, the Detroit Public Library, the Mayo Clinic, and the National Shrine in Washington DC as well as many others.

Millard Sheets’ work in watercolors and with the California Scene Painters would give rise to the California Regionalist School. At the forefront of this movement, Sheets inspired, introduced, and taught many of the notable California artists who would follow him including Lee Blair, Hardie Gramatky, and Paul Sample. Millard Sheets’ painting style varies greatly, but his personal touch is easily recognizable. Sheets’ colorful, curvilinear technique allowed this flowing medium to be concise and eye catching. The result is bold and can vary from shocking realism to simplified abstraction which echoes the art deco movement and, perhaps, folk art. Whether strict lines or curved movement, the clear geometric aspects in Sheets’ work reveal his interest in architecture, and yet, there is often a gritty, earthly nature to his paintings seen in his color palette and subject matter. Whether on paper, on walls, in buildings, or in education, Millard Owen Sheets’ work left a strong tradition stretching past the confines of an artist and into public service.

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