Hardie Gramatky was an animator, pictorial reporter,illustrator, watercolorist and author. He attended Chouinard Art School where he studied art with artists such as F. Tolles Chamberlin, Clarence Hinkle, Pruett Carter, and Barse Miller. Gramatky is considered one of the true innovators in the development of California Style watercolor painting. He used vibrant watercolors and depicted landscapes and urban scenes.
Born on April 12, 1907 in Dallas, Texas. His father died when he was 10 afterwhich his mother moved the family to Los Angeles to live with her sister. Gramatky spent most of his youth in South San Gabriel, California. He had always wanted to become an artist and a writer; his art career began with ghosting the comic strip “Captain Kidd Jr.” for the LA Times. The money from this and other employment allowed him the opportunity to attend Stanford University from 1926 to 1928. He then transferred to Chouinard Art School from 1928 to 1930 where he studied art with E. Tolles Chamberlin, Clarence Hinkle, Pruett Carter, and Barse Miller. Working with Disney during the day and going to art school at night, Gramatky eventually became an animator with Walt Disney Studios from 1930 until 1936. In 1932 he married Dorothea Cooke who had also attended Chouinard. In June of 1936 he declared his independence from Disney and moved to New York City. That same year he had his first show at Ferargil Gallery, they soon began selling his watercolors.
Gramatky became a pictorial reporter for Fortune Magazine from 1937 to 1939 and made illustrations and posters for several national magazines and advertising agencies, traveling across the globe. In the 1940’s he produced commercial art for Collier’s Magazine and began writing and illustrating children’s books; premiering with “Little Toot” in 1939. He served as US Air Force training film supervisor from 1943 to 1945 under Captain Ronald Reagan. In 1945 he produced sketches for an Ernie Pyle movie, “G.I.Joe.” In 1966 he was commissioned as an AF war artist in Viet Nam.
Gramatky had a reputation as one of California’s premier watercolorists. He was elected a full Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1950 as an Aquarellist (term for watercolorist) and he served as the secretary of the American Watercolor Society from 1946 to 1948. His memberships included: The Society of Illustrators; The Authors Guild; New York Watercolor Club; Audubon Artists. Gramatky was known as one of the originating artists who developed the California Watercolor style and the California Watercolor Society, the Westport Artists; and one of three founders of the Fairfield Watercolor Group in Connecticut in 1948. He was listed in “Who’s Who in America” from 1948 until his death.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Hardie painted vibrant, transparent watercolors of urban scenes and landscapes. He could look out the window and paint rich local close-ups or jump in his car and go out sketching for several days. His love was to paint passionately in the sunshine. At the beginning he painted an average of five watercolors a day over a three year period. In her articles for the 1989 Retrospective show with Starry-Sheets, Linda Gramatky Smith notes that Hardie’s “idea was to play (his) palette like a pianist plays a keyboard: never conscious of reaching for color or tone, but getting the most subtle shades and harmony with the greatest of confidence.” He could complete several small paintings at one sitting and used his animation skills to produce the movement and action that inspired his watercolors. Simplicity of form, clarity of color, combined with direction and movement were his style from the beginning. It was his expression of life lived generously.
III. CALIFORNIA SCHOOL OF WATERCOLOR
Dominating the 1930’s into the next decades, the style was originally referred to as the American Wave. American local scene painting began as a reaction to European traditional and modernist styles. This new American tradition was said to be originated by artist Millard Sheets. LA Times art critic Arthur Millier, whom Gramatky had taken classes from in earlier days, characterized the style by its large format, free, bold brushwork, and the use of strong, dark, rich colors.
California landscapes were the predominant theme –but painted in a new experimental version of the traditional English watercolor method with stronger colors. The painters were reaching towards a communication of place, a West Coast place-- a new practice of the medium. The meeting of earth and sky and man set the California landscape painting school as the apex of spontaneous expression in American watercolor. With Gramatky’s abilities as an animator, movement and intent were quickly expressed and easily noticed. A reputation was being built.
As the Californians were sending their work to the East Coast salons for exhibition and approval, the East Coast artists were beginning to open their eyes and move beyond the foreign sense of romantic impressionism. A new Western-based American outlook began and collectors were noticing the successes of artists like Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Hardie Gramatky, Lee Blair, Tom Lewis, Paul Sample and Milford Zornes among others. The Ferargil Gallery (1937) in New York City included these artists in special showings of California watercolors. At that point the California watercolor group went international with a show at the Art Institute of Chicago. “The California Group” was created as the West Coast school became recognized.
His New York studio overlooked the East River where he watched the boats. One day a tugboat became the inspiration for his first book, Little Toot (1939). Little Toot became a Library of Congress children’s classic with five sequels. He went on to write and illustrate a collection of children’s books including the Little Toot series:
1989 Little Toot and the Loch Ness Monster (Gramatky was working on this when he died-- Dorothea Cooke Gramatky completed illustrations)
1975 Little Toot through the Golden Gate
1973 Little Toot on the Mississippi
1970 Happy’s Christmas
1968 LittleToot on the Grand Canal
1964 Little Toot on the Thames
1963 Nikos and the Sea God
1957 Homer and the Circus Train
1952 Sparky, Story of a Little Trolley Car
1948 Creeper’s Jeep
Public Collections (selected list)
Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
Chicago Art Institute, Chicago, IL
Frye Museum, Seattle, WA
Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota, MN
Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, MA
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH
U.S. Air Force Art Collection, Colorado Springs, CO
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagarstown, MD
Mrs. Fred Bixby
Peter Frelinghuysen, Jr.
Mrs. H.W. Hardon
Charles and Faye Plohn
Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney
1931 Purchase Prize, Los Angeles Museum
1933 First Prize, California State Fair
1934 First Prize, Southern California Festival Allied Arts
1937 California Water Color Society
1938 California water Color Society
1942 Willard Church Osborne Purchase Prize (Chicago Art Institute)
1942 Watson F. Blair Award, Chicago International
1943 First Award, California Water Color Society
1952 Audubon Artists Exhibition
1952 Salmagundi Award
1952 National Academy of Design
1952 Windsor & Newton Award (American Watercolor Society)
1960 Lily Saportas award, A.W.S.
1963 Ted Kautzky award, A.W.S.
1969 Sage Allen Prize, Connecticut Watercolor Society
1969 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for his book Little Toot,
named a classic by the Library of Congress
1970 “America Observed” Award, Society of Illustrators
1971 Emily Lowe Purchase Award, Society of Illustrators
1972, 1973 “Mainstream America” Award and Purchase Prize, (Marietta, Ohio)
1976 Barse Miller Memorial Award, National Academy
1979 High Winds Medal, A. W. S. for “Loch Ness”
1937, 1938 Ferargil Galleries, New York
1989 Starry-Sheets Art Gallery in Gualala, CA (Retrospective)
Art Institute of Chicago
Mainstreams of America Award
Central and South America
Whitney Museum of American Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
- 1. Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786-1940, San Fran.: Hughes Pub., 1989.
- 2. Dominik, Janet Blake. “California Water Color Society: Genesis of an American Style.” 3/29/2004. http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/3aa/3aa50.htm
- 3. “Hardie Gramatky: Painter (1907-1979), A RETROSPECTIVE VIEW: Works from 1928 to 1978. Starry-Sheets Art Gallery; Gualala, CA.
- 4. Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall. California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media. Dustin Publications: Los Angeles, 1998.
- 5. Perine, Robert. Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed, The Story of the Chouinard Art Institute 1921-1972. Artra Publishing: Encinitas, 1985.