Four Takes on California Regionalism

The 1930s represented a period of great social and economic change in the United States. During this time, American artists sought to free themselves from European influences in an effort to create truly American art. Throughout the country a significant number turned to painting the American scene, ushering in a movement known as Regionalism. Concentrating on local subject matter and themes and painted in a representational manner, the work reflected a generally positive view of rural and urban life.

“Coastal Tide Pools” (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Carolyn Lord
“Fish Rock Retreat” (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Carolyn Lord

Within this broader movement, one regional school of watercolor rose to prominence: The California School. Because watercolor was ideally suited to painting outdoors in a direct and spontaneous manner, it perfectly suited the temperament of these artists who liked to take advantage of the mild California climate to paint directly from nature all year round.

“Lake in a High Region” (watercolor, 30 x 22) by Dale Laitinen
“Timbers and Stone” (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Dale Laitinen

Watercolor was considered a particularly American means of expression whose characteristics were often compared to the national temperament. In an article in the Los Angeles Times in April, 1934, Arthur Millier wrote: “The medium’s swift fluidity fits our experience and outlook. We go fast. We decide quickly. We may not go deep, but we are not as rooted in an acre or a belief as a European is likely to be.”

“Cascade With Green Falls” (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Barbara Nechis
“The Well” (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Barbara Nechis

The medium had an accessibility that made it seem truly democratic. Less expensive than oils both to produce and to exhibit, watercolors were sold for reasonable prices. Many watercolor exhibitions included paintings matted but not framed, a practice which facilitated shipment and contributed to the large number of traveling exhibitions.

“Cormorant Rock” (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Juan Peña
“Old Matriarch (watercolor, 22 x 30) by Juan Peña

Today, artists continue to paint in the California Regionalist Style. Through March 5, 2020, the work of four top Northern California watercolor artists will be on display at Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento. Nationally known for their landscape paintings, Dale Laitinen, Carolyn Lord, Barbara Nechis, and Juan Peña have been working in watercolor for most of their adult lives and put their own unique spin on the style.

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Kelly Kane
PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.


  1. The watercolors by Barbara Nechis and Carolyn Lord are truly exceptional!!! I have been following their work for many years and they continue to amaze me! I like their color harmony and unique designs.


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