Art Isn’t About Pretty

Sun Umbrella by Mary Whyte, watercolor painting.
Sun Umbrella by Mary Whyte, watercolor painting.

Mary Whyte’s Portrait Art Tells Our Stories, Powerfully

Some artists interpret the nature of beauty quite narrowly. It’s physical and defined in very specific terms. Not for me. Beauty is more complicated, faceted. I’m inspired by stories of real people — their character, personality and unique walks of life. That’s what makes the kind of beauty that lingers in my mind. Mary Whyte and I are on the same page. Her portrait art is beautiful first because she is a master at her craft, but also because her work is suffused with stories of people. She unlocks a person’s whole life experience. That’s success to her, and it’s a truly beautiful thing.

A Bygone Way of Life

Mary paints so that you want to know their story. Her watercolor paintings and sketches are often portraits of people who make up the backbone of the American South and whose ways of life are declining or going away altogether—a mill worker and farmer, a shoeshine man, shrimper, milliner, and ferryman among others.

Mary also paints her portrait art in such a way that the figures aren’t just shown as their physical selves alone; you see them in their element, amidst the objects and in the environment of their livelihoods. And the paintings are amazingly done. The watercolor portrait painting techniques she uses to render skin tone and texture astound me, plus her color mixing is so vibrant but controlled. But Mary’s works are also thoughtfully composed to have a strong impact. That power comes from having done a lot of painstaking sketches.

Her Painting Process

Mary isn’t the type to wing it. She believes preparation and study are crucial for successful paintings. Starting with small, quick watercolor sketches, just 3 x 4-inch thumbnails, and then she returns to these again and again as source material, enlivening finished paintings with the nuance she captures in these small format studies. She also uses reference photos, mainly to recall specific details about a scene, and more sketches to determine her composition for each piece.

Trap by Mary Whyte, watercolor painting.
Trap by Mary Whyte, is a watercolor painting featuring a crabber from Pinpoint, Georgia.

Real Deal Portraits

As an instructor, there are few better than Mary. She is articulate, passionate, and skilled–and then she makes her approach exciting and accessible. After spending time with Watercolor Portraits of the South with Mary Whyte — available as a DVD or video download — I came away learning the basics of powerful portrait art and how to find beauty that isn’t conventional, but is very very real. I hope it is the same for you! Enjoy!



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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

13 thoughts on “Art Isn’t About Pretty

  1. I save my PDF of Learn how to draw…and then printed it out. the first three pages were fine but the rest were in some strange language i assume or just a mix up of letters that i can’t read.

  2. Love the title of your piece — grabbed me and dragged me down.

    I would add this thought: Art isn’t just about people. While I am glad for the increased exposure representational art is receiving, and the number of societies arising that are increasing that exposure, the figure and figurative work seems to be at the top of the evolutionary scale in shows, at the expense of landscape, and even more so, seascapes.

    Figurative work does indeed take skill and talent to do well, and such skill should be honored and recognized. However, a well done landscape takes a similar skill, and I look forward to the day when landscapes — and not just subway scenes and gritty urban reflections — join their figurative siblings at the head of the table.

  3. My questions for Mary would be the following:
    1. Do you start witha photograph?
    2. Do you begin with the background or the figure first?

    Penny Maday

  4. Steve, that is a really good point! And funny enough, I realize that I look at landscapes and seascapes in the same “not just pretty” sense too. I’m not easily inspired by a composition that is too conventional or idealized. There needs to be a bit of a twist to catch my eye. You know what I mean?  

  5. Question for Mary:
    Most of your subjects’ poses are so natural. How do you get them to seem thoughtful and unaware of being ‘posed’ as if they are in their own little world? Your subjects’ souls seem to be the first thing I’m aware of in your portraits, then I notice them, then their surrounding.

    Thank you!
    Mary Anne McCraw

  6. From our Artist Daily Facebook page:

    Joanna Bearden also commented on Artist Daily’s link.
    Joanna wrote: “Read the article about her in The Art of Watercolour mag. I’ve seen her work before, but don’t know if she went to art school or was self-taught. Just curious. Her colors are stunning and the color reproductions are gorgeous in the article. I’ve always liked doing paintings of people, but I do them in pastel.”

  7. My questions for Mary:

    Could you do a DVD showing the entire process that you follow in a watercolor portrait so that beginners can follow with you and stop and start the DVD when executing particular parts that you have shown?

    Is there any way to include a black-line drawing of your subject for the DVD so we can save time with the sketch? It could be packaged as a special unit and another one done the usual way, as a demo. Different prices, of course.

    Can you show the entire painting done on the DVD? Others I have gotten have shown a couple of strokes of the background and left me to my own devices. Turned out horrible because I don’t have the experience to know how to follow through.

  8. Question for Mary,

    I truly enjoyed your last DVD and will be in line to purchase this new one. I was also at the American Artist’s Weekend with the Masters 2009 where I witnessed your great teaching skills and beautiful works of art. I am an amateur artist and I tend to make the scenes too busy. So, my question to you is how do you know how much visual information to paint in your composition to tell someone’s story.

    Jennifer Bartlett
    Harrison, AR

  9. Another from FB: Art by Fahmi Khan ( wrote: “Love Whyte’s work!! How does she make “steam/smoke” in her paintings to look so real!!??

  10. How true. When i draw, when i need to look for people to draw, i gravitate towards wrinkles and regular people. Anyway, everyone in magazines seem to have been photoshopped. In art school i preferred regular people as models. When i do use magazine pages, I dont slavishly copy them, just as anatomical models

  11. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I look at the two paintings in the article and think, what do they have to do with the title of the article? They certainly aren’t ugly by any means.
    But I understand what you are saying. You’d rather look at them than look at fashion models. I agree.

  12. Comment to Courtney Jordan: I’m guessing the title of this article was written by you. The first thing I thought of when I read the title and then saw the photo of the African American woman was… this is not a good title. I found it a bit offensive. And as some have said above, beauty is in the eye of the beholder– as well a “pretty.” We could talk a long time about that word. I also agree that the title is misleading, however the artist is excellent in her portrayal of the essence of humanity at a deep and personal level.