Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on May 23, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the California Art Gallery. The text was excerpted from the 24-page illustrated catalogue George Gibson, Scene Painter published by the California Art Gallery. Images accompanying the text in the catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the California Art Gallery at either this web address or phone number:


George Gibson (1904-2001), Scene Painter

by Janet Blake



George Gibson is one of the California regionalist painters who had a long and prestigious career in the motion picture industry. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1904, he received his arts education at the Edinburgh College of Art and at the Glasgow School of Art where he studied with the master scenic designer William E. Glover. Realizing that his talents and motivation were in scenic design, Gibson worked as an apprentice in local theaters while completing his studies.

After two years as an apprentice scenic designer, Gibson immigrated to the United States. With his education and work experience, it was natural that he headed for California. It was 1930 -- the beginning of the Great Depression -- but it was easy to find employment in the burgeoning Los Angeles film industry. Fortunately, Gibson arrived with an excellent reference, a letter of introduction to William Glover's uncle, scenic artist Ernest Glover.

With Ernest Glover's assistance, Gibson found work with several Hollywood studios. He met artist Emil J. Kosa, Jr. (1903-1968) at 20th Century Fox Studios in 1933 when they were both working on the motion picture Cavalcade. He also enrolled in classes at the Chouinard School of Art where he met Millard Sheets (1907-1989) and Phil Dike (1906-1990), two artists who were quickly becoming leaders in the California Scene painting movement, which reached its zenith in the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1934 Gibson landed a position as an illustrator with Metro~Goldwyn~Mayer Studios. By 1938 he became head of the scenic design department. Through his more than thirty-year career, he worked on such films as Boys Town (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), An American in Paris (1951), Brigadoon (1954), and Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). Gibson's backdrops were as large as 60 x 150 feet and so realistic that the audience didn't realize the setting was on a soundstage, which was the goal of the studio.

During World War II Gibson worked for the U.S. Marine Corps, building models for proposed landing sites on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. During this period he began working in watercolor, a medium favored for its ease of portability. After the war, he began painting in earnest, often with Kosa, who had become a close friend. Since both men had full-time positions with the studios, they painted on the weekends, sometimes taking trips together to Mexico. In 1945 he joined the California Water Color Society and started participating in their group exhibitions, garnering several awards over the next decades.

When Gibson joined the California Water Color Society, he became part of a group of artists who had gained national prominence in the 1930s and 1940s for their bravura approach to the medium. Watercolor had traditionally been a sketching medium where detailed drawings were enhanced with meticulously applied washes of transparent pigment. The California painters, however, used the medium directly, rendering a scene with bold strokes on large sheets of paper, often utilizing the white of the paper as one of the compositional elements.

Realism is the hallmark of Gibson's style, and as such it departs somewhat from the more expressive style of California scene painters. Referring to himself as a "factual" painter, he said, "I paint things as I see them, and I have stayed with that pretty much all my life." He admired the work of renowned illustrator Donald Teague (1897-1991), who lived in Southern California from 1938 to 1949. Gibson noted that Teague made complete and meticulous small paintings that could easily be enlarged. Throughout his career Gibson filled small sketchbooks with detailed drawings, both for his scenic design work and for his paintings. His work, in fact, can be said to be a blend of the realism of Teague and the expressive, spontaneous style of California Water Color Society painters like Kosa.

After his retirement from MGM in 1969, Gibson was able to devote all his time to painting and teaching. He loved painting out of doors with watercolor. He said, "Watercolor best suits my desire to catch the fleeting effects of hills, trees, farms, riverbeds and the ever, occurring subject around the next curve of the highway or over the next hill" Gibson also traveled extensively seeking out interesting subject matter wherever he went. He loved architecture and painted numerous scenes of towns and villages in Europe and Mexico. He often included figures in his paintings, which he said gave the work a "touch of life" and added scale to the composition.

Gibson was a remarkable artist, who never tired of working and painted nearly to the end of his life. For Gibson, "Art and painting is life itself. I can't imagine life without painting. If you're really honest about it, art teaches you humility, an appreciation of life around you."


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