The Fourth in an Artist Daily Exclusive Series:
Masters of American Watercolor—Mary Whyte
The Portrait Society of America has announced that Mary Whyte
is the 2016 recipient of its Gold Medal. The award is the Society’s highest honor.
How did you become interested in watercolor?
I first experienced watercolor when I was in a seventh grade after-school art class. We were outside painting a landscape, and I was tentatively dabbing my brush at the paper. I remember the teacher taking my hand with the loaded brush, and making a bold, curved stroke across the entire sky section of the painting. To me it looked like a colorful comet streaking across the sky, leaving behind a tail with tiny sparkles of white paper. I have never gotten over that feeling of exhilaration when I paint with watercolor.
I understand that you taught yourself watercolor painting. How did you do that?
In the seventies and eighties there were no online videos or instructional DVDs available about watercolor technique. Watercolor wasn’t (and still isn’t) traditionally taught in many of the academies, as it has always been viewed as a “lightweight” medium. Back then I couldn’t find anyone to teach me watercolor, so I learned various techniques on my own by studying art books and going to museums. I learned by experimenting, trial and lots of errors.
Who were the watercolor artists who inspired you most?
The watercolor artists who inspired me the most were Andrew Wyeth, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer and Henry Casselli.
Your paintings reflect a sincere interest in people. How do you pick your subjects?
I have always been interested in painting people. I pick subjects that I feel have a profound, unassuming quality. Average, every day people who live their lives largely unnoticed appeal to me the most.
You have said an artist has to learn how to feel as well as how to see. Can you explain that for us?
There are three components to creating expressive work. The first is learning how to paint, which means learning the vocabulary of composition and technique. The second aspect is learning how to see, which relates to discerning the nuances of value, color, form and light. The third aspect is learning to recognize how and what we feel, and translating that particular sensation and emotion into an expressive and meaningful work of art. This last component is what ultimately defines great art—which is work that illustrates what is essential to the artist and is felt by the viewer.
Your work is noted for its strong design. Do you make small preliminary roughs and value studies?
Design is a major component of painting, and is too often overlooked by artists. For me, the most critical part of making a painting is in the preparatory thumbnail sketches. Here, the concept is made clear by having a concise design, dominant shape and simplified values.
Do you work from life as well as from photos?
Ideally, I would love to complete all of my paintings from life, as this is where and when raw emotion and nuance of color is most evident. However, since I often paint people on the job or in motion, having them hold still for hours isn’t possible.
Generally, I prefer to do a study on location from life, then take several photos for reference, and lastly, plan and complete the painting in the studio. The photographs offer me more information about the model’s appearance, as well as suggestions for background and compositional elements. I rely on my memory and imagination as to what might be, then edit most everything else out. Never is a painting exactly what I saw, but it is always what I felt.
How much preliminary drawing do you do for your large studio paintings?
In watercolor there is very little room for mistakes, so having a well planned drawing beforehand is important. In large background areas I draw very little, but in complicated and detailed areas such as faces I carefully draw in the descriptive value shapes before I start painting. Having an adequate drawing on the paper in advance is like having a road map, and gives me the confidence to be able to paint quickly and at one go.
What size brushes do you use—generally, the largest and the smallest?
Students are often surprised to learn that the smallest brush I use is a number 8 round kolinsky. The resilient brush comes to a perfect point, allowing me to paint around a tiny eyelash, or to make a wider stroke. The brush I use is made by ArtXpress, and is in my hand 80% of the time. Other brushes I use are wide two or three inch flat brushes, a 1 inch cat’s tongue (also made by ArtXpress), and an old tooth brush for scrubbing.
For your more controlled areas, do you usually build the color and intensity in layers?
I know that many artists layer watercolor in successive glazes. I prefer to paint the area in “one go” to keep the freshness of color. Even my darkest backgrounds are done generally with just one pass, allowing the area to appear to have more atmosphere and depth. Details are painted slowly.
Do you have some colors you rely on time after time—and others you try to avoid?
There are many good brands of watercolor available to artists these days. My own personal preference is paint made by M. Graham & Company. Except for the pigments that fade, there are no “bad” colors—just colors used in the wrong place. I prefer to use more transparent colors for painting the translucent quality of skin, and more opaque colors for painting the effects of solid surfaces like concrete, bark, or dirt.
What paper do you generally prefer—brand, cold press, hot press, etc.?
I have tried many kinds of paper, but keep coming back to Arches cold press for its texture and resilience to scrubbing. I suggest that artists keep trying different papers, to find what is best suited to their style, as well as to be occasionally challenged by a surface that is new and different.
Do you prepare your paper in any way—wetting it, stretching it, etc.?
I generally prefer heavier paper such as 300 pound which doesn’t need to be stretched, since taking a staple gun when traveling adds additional weight. However, in the studio I do staple and tape my paper down onto gator board. Having the large paper well anchored gives me a stable, flat surface suitable for painting large washes.
What is the best advise you can offer a young, aspiring watercolor artist?
Watercolor is full of unexpected surprises, which is the intrinsic beauty of it. However, sometimes the watercolor will backwash, run, get streaky or chalky in unplanned ways and ruin the work. When that happens, don’t say to yourself that you are a bad painter. Instead, say, “Isn’t that interesting?” Make note of how that unplanned effect happened, because somewhere down the road you will want the watercolor to behave exactly that way again.
Mary Whyte is a teacher and artist whose paintings have won international recognition. She is a resident of Johns Island, South Carolina. There she gains much of her inspiration from the local inhabitants who are descendants of coastal Carolina slaves.
Through the years, Mary’s work has been featured in many extremely successful solo exhibitions. Among them are exhibitions sponsored by the Butler Institute of American Art, the National Arts Club in New York City, the Greenville County Museum of Art and the Mennello Museum of American Art. Mary has received numerous awards and medals. In 2012, she received the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award and she will be presented the 2016 Gold Medal Award by the Portrait Society of America.
Mary has been featured on “CBS Sunday Morning”. And, In 2013, a biography of Mary was released, “More Than A Likeness, The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte”, written by Martha R. Severens. Mary has authored over five books herself, including “Down Bohicket Road”, a review of over 20 years of her work on Johns Island. Now, she continues to paint and to teach nationally and internationally.