Monday, August 22, 2016

Advice From Mary Whyte: 3 Things You Need To Become An Accomplished Artist

Mary Whyte is a historian.

Her watercolor paintings (mostly portraits)tell stories of individual Americans, documenting the truth of their daily lives in artworks that could stand on their own–even without the meanings behind them. There is without question strength in the composition, color and balance, but there is also an individual–the subject, if you will. Look at a painting and you’ll see culture; look closely and you may see yourself or someone you know.

Above: Artist Mary Whyte’s Labor of Love, from CBS News

I recently asked Mary, “when someone comes to you and wants to learn how to paint, what’s the first thing you tell him/her?” She was kind enough to share some valuable tips.

Watercolor painting by Mary Whyte |

Red Hat (watercolor, 16×17) by Mary Whyte, who says that “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.” Visit to watch a short documentary about this fascinating watercolor artist. (PIN this!)

“When beginning artists come to me and tell me that they want to learn to paint, I tell them the very first thing they must do is learn how to draw. Drawing is absolutely essential to becoming a successful artist. (Agree with this? Tweet it!) So draw as much as you can, especially from life! Take a small sketchbook with you everywhere, and sketch everyday observations–your family, the dogs running at the park, the people in the waiting area at the dentist’s office, or the clutter on your kitchen table. Your sketchbook will become your daily journal, and bring you up the learning curve to becoming an artist faster than any other means. Drawing from life will hone your eye for proportion, perspective, composition, shape, line and value, and give you a greater understanding how form is described by light.”

Mary shared more in a Q&A with The Artist’s Magazine: 

The Artist’s Magazine: What’s the best advice about painting you’ve ever received?
Mary Whyte: Try to focus on one area, and don’t try to paint everything. When artists are young, they try to paint everything in an attempt to emulate artists they admire. They want to paint florals, sunsets, figures–everything that they see and are inspired by. It can be difficult to market one’s work when the audience doesn’t have a handle on what your style is, so it’s important to find what you do well and do it.

TAM: What’s one tool you can’t live without?
MW: My kolinsky brush. As a watercolorist, it’s my most critical tool. I actually designed the one I use–it’s available at It really holds the paint well and is well-suited for my style of painting.

Watercolor painting by Mary Whyte |

Bean Soup (watercolor, 38×28) by Mary Whyte. “Having no more than four or five major shapes is key to a good composition,” she says. “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.”

TAM: Is there anything in the way you work that another watercolorist would find surprising?
MW: Most of my students are surprised that I work upright, almost completely vertical, rather than working flat. Working vertical allows me to work large–when working flat, you can only work as large as your arm can reach–and gives me more control over my washes. It also allows me to step back and look at my work from a distance.

TAM: What is the one thing an artist should keep in mind when beginning a painting?
MW: Be absolutely sure of your concept, regardless of medium or subject. You need to have one very clear, concise, simple concept. Don’t deviate from it, because if you do, your painting will become muddy and unclear.

Great advice! Mary added that she tells her students that they need three things to become accomplished artists:

1. Something to say

2. The ability to say it

3. The courage to do it

I couldn’t agree more. If you’re inspired, learn about Mary’s watercolor art with this special offer: the hardcover book More Than a Likeness: The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte is available at North Light Shop at a limited-time discount. As a special bonus, watch the above video coverage from one of my favorite TV shows, CBS Sunday Morning, on Mary and her story-filled portrait paintings.


Cherie Haas, online editor
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