Art Isn’t Just About Pretty People

13 May 2014

New Year. Milliner, Atlanta, Georgia by Mary Whyte, watercolor painting, 2009, 22 1/2 x 29.
New Year by Mary Whyte, watercolor painting of a milliner
from Atlanta, GA; 2009, 22 1/2 x 29.
Sometimes I get so sick of people calling a painting or drawing 'art' because it has a good-looking person in it. Who wants to hang out with Barbie or Ken all the time? Not me. I'm inspired by the story of people—their character, personality, and the imperfections that make them real.

Mary Whyte paints people so that you want to know their story. Her latest watercolor paintings and sketches are 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 paints her watercolor portraits so 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, and her color mixing is so vibrant but controlled. But Mary's works are also thoughtfully composed to have a strong impact, and that power comes from having done a lot of painstaking sketches.

Mary isn't the type to wing it. She believes preparation and study are crucial for successful paintings. She makes small, quick watercolor sketches, just 3 x 4-inch thumbnails, and 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, watercolor painting of a crabber from
Pinpoint, GA; 2008, 30 3/4 x 38 1/8.
As an instructor, I've found few who are better than Mary, but in the Watercolor Artist 2013 CD Collection you'll find dozens of articulate, passionate, and skilled artists and instructors who make their approaches so accessible. After spending some time with this resource, I came away learning the basics of watercolor and how to build on them. I hope it is the same for you! Enjoy!



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on 1 Jul 2011 7:25 AM

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.

on 1 Jul 2011 12:08 PM

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.

Penny Maday wrote
on 1 Jul 2011 3:52 PM

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

on 2 Jul 2011 6:26 AM

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?  

Mary McCraw wrote
on 2 Jul 2011 7:50 AM

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

on 3 Jul 2011 4:12 AM

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."

on 3 Jul 2011 8:31 AM

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.

flynntaylor wrote
on 3 Jul 2011 3:07 PM

Question for Mary,

How do you decide when you are finished/through with a portrait?

JenBartlett wrote
on 4 Jul 2011 7:18 PM

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

on 7 Jul 2011 8:34 AM

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!!??

ChristineB66 wrote
on 14 May 2014 10:08 PM

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

tropicbreeze wrote
on 23 May 2014 11:26 PM

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.