In 2002, at the age of 94, Milford Zornes joined 14 other artists from Southern California on a painting trip to Cuba. “When I’m on a trip like this, I do nothing but sketch or paint,” he says. “It’s a disease with me. The sketches are rough but they translate into information I can use when I paint.” As a testament to the artist’s will and charm, Zornes managed to pry some precious paper from the hotel registry to feed his unquenchable sketching habit when his own supply ran dry—no easy feat in a country suffering an acute shortage of, among other things, paper.
In a profound way, the artist uses his sketchbook not only to record subject material, but also to see. Diagnosed with macular degeneration nearly two decades ago, Zornes, who turned 100 in January 2008, has been gradually losing his central vision, so that today he can see only peripherally. Looking out a car window, waiting for a cup of coffee at breakfast, traveling with friends, Zornes is often hunched down close to his sketchbook, committing his experiences to paper. “I’m forced now to do what I’ve been teaching my students to do all these years—eliminate everything that’s superfluous to making a statement,” he says. “For many years, I looked and painted, but now I have to think first and then paint. I’ve turned inward, struggling to find a new way to work. Now I’m painting, not only by seeing, but by thinking.”