Renowned watercolorist and workshop instructor Mary Whyte offers readers five tips for creating dynamic works of art in any medium.
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by Mary Whyte
2006, watercolor, 38 x 28.
Having no more than four
or five major shapes is
key to a good composition.
Here, the large oval shape
of the table dominates the
design, making the figure seem
smaller and less assertive.
The rectangular shapes of the
doorway balance the large oval,
and the figure—which is
the focal point—is placed off-center.
There are two things most artists want: One is for their work to constantly get better, and the other is to have it stand out. You probably know artists who seem to continually grow and evolve over the years, leaving behind a body of work that documents a lifetime of creative achievement. However, if you are like the majority of artists, you may be struggling to improve your technique and are constantly searching for ways to make your work memorable. Many artists want to know how to create work that people will recognize before they read the signature.
If this is your goal and you have been painting seriously for more than five years, you probably already have most of the technical knowledge you need to make a masterpiece. Consider, for example, the work of Matisse, Chagall, O’Keeffe, Avery, Picasso, or even Grandma Moses. The individual techniques used by these artists were basic, simple, and straightforward, and ones that many artists can duplicate. Yet their work is regarded almost the world over as masterpieces. What sets these artists apart is not only their techniques but also their ideas and how they chose to present them. So, with this in mind, how can you take what you know, improve on it, and take your work to the next level? Following are five steps to help you achieve this.
Have a Full Tool Box
Technique is just the starting point. Having a full range of technical ability is like having a full vocabulary—you can say exactly what you want, how you want. For instance, if you want to paint sailboats in the harbor on a foggy day, it is critical for you to know how to mix neutral, foglike colors and to control soft, murky edges. And if you want to be able to paint portraits of animals or children, certain drawing skills and a basic understanding of anatomy are fundamental. Being familiar with a wide range of tools and supplies will enable you to always select the perfect instrument for the task at hand. It may take awhile to find the correct materials for the work you want to do, but with enough research and experimentation you will eventually find the right tools.
2006, watercolor, 20 x 28.
Collection the artist.
To accurately convey the mood
of diminished light that
occurs at dusk, I used cool
colors for the young girl’s
skin and reserved small, bright
areas of the white paper to create
the yellow of the fireflies.
Keep in mind that no technique or tool is better than another, and each has an appropriate use. Continue to experiment with different approaches and materials so that you can add to your artistic vocabulary. Don’t ever let your lack of knowledge or experience prevent you from painting something you desire to capture. If you want to paint something badly enough, you will figure out a way to do it, and you will be your own best teacher. Be mindful that technique is the means to tell the story, but it is not the story itself. The techniques you use should never outshine the substance of your work.
If you don’t feel strongly about what you’re painting, neither will the viewer. A seemingly little idea for a painting can be made into a big idea solely by your emotion. The difficult part for many artists is knowing what it is they truly want to paint, what it is that makes their heart sing more than anything else. Too often artists feel there is a limited list of suitable subjects, so they end up producing work that, although technically competent, lacks feeling and looks like everyone else’s. It’s worth the investment of time to take stock of the world around you and pinpoint the subject matter to which you are most emotionally tied. Don’t ever paint a particular subject just because other artists are. Choose your subject because it is important to you.
2005, watercolor, 16 x 17.
Edges—whether hard or soft, lost or
found—play a huge part in describing
the texture and character of a
form and how close it is to the
viewer. In this painting of my
friend Alfreda, I saved the hardest
edges for her face, which is
where I wanted to direct the
Your best work may actually be right in your own backyard. The region of the country you’re from and your neighborhood may be the areas you’re most familiar with, and thus may contain the ingredients for superior pieces. Mary Cassatt spent her career painting her family, and almost all of Vermeer’s paintings were done in the corner of his studio with the light coming from the same window to the left. Forget about which subject matter will win sales. Instead, set your sights on finding what really matters to you. If you feel strongly enough about what you’re painting, your emotions will resonate with the viewer, and that alone will get attention.
An artist friend of mine once said that the secret to making a living as an artist was simply a matter of hanging in there long enough. In many ways I believe he was right. The journey to making it as an artist isn’t an easy road, especially in the early years, when other less satisfying jobs often have to be pursued to make a living. Remember, however, that learning to do anything well requires sacrifice and perseverance, whether it’s athletics, music, dance, language, cooking, or rocket science.
|Tips for Taking Your Work to the Next Level
Keep a sketchbook or journal with you at all times for jotting down notes and making quick sketches. You never know when the inspiration for your next painting will come along.
Visit museums and galleries. Look at the work of the masters and analyze what makes them successful. Keeping your eye trained will better able you to recognize merit in the studio.
Study with the best. Seek excellent instructors in your area and learn as much as you can from them. Stay away from teachers who want you to copy their work or imitate their style.
Experiment. The best way to discover new techniques and approaches is to try something new. There is no such thing as a bad technique or idea, only one that is in the wrong place.
Get feedback. Listen to the criticism of others. It may sting at first, but use the input for your growth. If you get rejections, reevaluate your work and keep going.
Think positively. Your effort and attitude will be the greatest factor in determining your success.
If you’re serious about moving your work to the next level, you must be willing to experience failures. Although failures can be disheartening on the surface, you will find they are the necessary hurdles to success. Sometimes I think discouragement is just nature’s way of weeding out the ones who are lazy and not entirely committed. It simply takes time to master certain techniques, discover who you are, and evolve into a uniquely creative vessel. Fortunately, art is one of the few vocations in which age is an asset. To every new work we bring a lifetime of experiences and personal history.
2004, watercolor, 39 x 37.
Every successful painting
requires a well-considered concept
or idea. You need to not only
know what it is you want to
paint but also how you feel
about the subject. In this
painting of a young girl who
lives near me, I wanted to
emphasize her diminutive stature
against the formidable oak tree.
The imposing scale and force
of the charred tree acts as a
powerful background to the
model’s shy demeanor.
Even for artists like myself, who have been at it a long time, there are challenges to be met every day. A few years ago I painted significant words on each of the seven steps leading up to my studio. The words are there to remind me of what I need every day to paint. Using acrylic paint, I wrote in Italian: Faith, Imagination, Strength, Vision, Inspiration, Courage, and, of course, Perseverance. The life of an artist may never become easier, but it does become fuller.
Paint From Your Heart
Never undervalue your emotions. They are the force behind every good work. As a serious artist you must strive to paint ideas and beauty, not things. Merely copying objects will lead to work that is journalistic rather than poetic, and the results will be paintings that never stand out from the crowd. A painting that is merely being copied is apt to be cast aside after a while, but a work that is driven by one’s emotions will be seen through to its conclusion.
Don’t just copy a landscape; instead, describe how it makes you feel. Envision a Corot landscape: languid, vast, atmospheric, pastoral. Now picture a Van Gogh landscape with its fanciful swirls of thick paint and undulating rhythms. Clearly, each artist felt differently about what he was seeing, but both understood their own emotions well enough to translate those feelings to canvas. Be aware of your emotions and how different subject matter affects you. Make a mental note of what you see around you that surprises and inspires you. When you paint, throw your whole heart into the creation and watch what happens.
2006, watercolor, 30 x 24. Private collection.
a sense of movement in a painting is one way to add interest. Even if
nothing is actually moving in the scene, leading the viewer’s eye
through the pictorial space in a rhythmic and continuous manner will
give the painting its own sense of motion and life. Here, I created the
feeling of rain using water-soluble crayons mixed with watercolor
2001, watercolor, 27 x 18. Private collection.
One way to make a painting more appealing is to have a variety of contrasting textures. For instance, a hard edge can seem harder if it is near a soft edge and vice versa. As an object recedes into shadow, the visibility of its texture diminishes. In this painting, the swirling steam—created by washes of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna painted wet-in-wet—is contrasted by the hard edges of the model’s face.
2007, watercolor, 21 x 28. Private collection.
A sound painting is made with a balanced distribution of lights and
darks, and contrast is what will move the eye through the pictorial
space. The area of greatest contrast will hold the viewer’s eye the
longest and thus create your focal point. Notice how I painted the dark
shape of the model’s hair against the light background of the quilt to
draw more attention to her.
Keep It Simple
Once you have identified the things you truly want to paint, keep it simple. Keep to the four or five largest masses in your painting format, and let the beauty of form and color happen within them. Don’t try to put too many things into one painting. For instance, if you see a group of children on the shoreline flying kites with a sailboat and beautiful sunset in the distance, be selective about which of these elements gets the most emotional response from you. The other elements may be interesting and lovely too, but may be best reserved for another painting. If you study the work of great artists you will see that often it’s not just the appealing subject matter or individual details that make their work so strong, but the simple concept and composition.
If you are wondering if you should include a specific element or object in a painting, ask yourself if the item will add to the emotional impact of the painting. If not, then it may be better to leave that particular detail out. You will be surprised how few details you actually need to get your story across. After all, it’s not so much what you put in a painting that matters, it’s what you leave out.
About the Artist
Mary Whyte, a well-known watercolorist from South Carolina, is the author of Watercolor for the Serious Beginner (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York), Alfreda’s World (Wyrick & Company, Charleston, South Carolina), and An Artist’s Way of Seeing (Wyrick & Company, Charleston, South Carolina). Whyte teaches several watercolor workshops nationwide each year and will be teaching at the Greenville County Museum of Art, in Greenville, South Carolina, April 4 and 5, 2008, as well as at the Creative Arts Center, in Chatham, Massachusetts, from September 22 through 26, 2008. Whyte created her own watercolor brushes and sketchbook—which are available through www.artxpress.com—and prefers to work with M. Graham & Co. watercolors. She is represented by Coleman Fine Art, in Charleston, South Carolina.
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