Watercolor: Mary Whyte: How To Create Your Best Paintings Ever

0801whyt5_460x600Renowned 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

Bean Soup
2006, watercolor, 38 x 28.
Private collection.

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.

Firefly Girl
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.

Know Yourself

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.

Red Hat
2005, watercolor, 16 x 17.
Private collection.

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
viewer’s attention.

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.
Private collection.

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.

0801whyt5_460x600_2 0801whyt7_402x600 0801whyt6_600x425
Blue Umbrella
2006, watercolor, 30 x 24. Private collection.

Having 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 washes.

Sister Heyward
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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16 thoughts on “Watercolor: Mary Whyte: How To Create Your Best Paintings Ever

  1. I saw your beautiful painting of The Firefly Girl at The Coleman Gallery in Charleston, SC. Your work is wonderful!!! and, what great tips in the article. Cheryle

  2. I feel your emotion the strongest in the paintings of the older women. Beautiful paintings.

    I find that I have an unlimited list of suitable subjects. The only way to tackle this is to begin to paint daily, which I have done on this recent vacation to Florida. I hope to continue to do this when I return to Rochester, where I heard you are coming soon.

  3. I’ve been a fan of your work since discovering it in an art gallery magazine about 3 years ago. Your work is absolutely breath taking. Just recently I stumbled upon a beatiful painting at “africanamericanopinion.com” that looks like your work. It is of a Black gentleman, with his arms folded wearing a cap and a purple sweater. In the background which seems to be a quilt of multiple colors, there is the face of a Black gent with a top hat. There was no title to the piece or a mention of who the artist was. I’m just curious if my “trained eye” for your work is on point, lol.

    In your piece you suggest studying with the best. I have been fortunate enough, for 2 years, to study classical drawing and painting at the “Angel Academy of Art” in Florence, Italy with John Micheal Angel. I would like to continue studying in the states. Can you suggest a top notch school that I could attend stateside? Angel Academy is the best that I have ever experienced. The training was intense and my drawing skills went to another level. I havent picked up a paint brush yet because my training requires that I master my drawing skills before I can paint. (In the tradition of 19th century classical art training). Any help or ideas are greatly appreciated.

  4. I like the way you use the characteristics of the watercolor animal and its many personalities. I always know your work since I first saw it, and find myself in the doldrums of painting watercolor, and THEN, I remember, OH yes, Mary Whyte.
    I found her again and she so inspires me. Thank you,
    thank you. JoanneSwanson57@yahoo.com

  5. i read this in the perfect moment. sometimes you need to read or hear what you have had in your mind but has’t formulated it for yourself yet. valuable article. thank you.

  6. Perhaps an article from some years ago, every word and concept remains true for every person in the way for a professional career as an artist. The great value is not only the good tips, but the fact that isn´t trivial issue that a great master could be a great teacher too. The virtuosity in techniques and the didactic approach are not gifts commonly received together.