Mary Whyte, Persimmon, 2012, watercolor on paper; 40 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches; Private Collection

Mary Whyte, Persimmon, 2012, watercolor on paper; 40 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches; Private Collection

Start With a Fleeting Glimpse

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Start With a Fleeting Glimpse


Most artists agree that watercolor is the most challenging of mediums.   Watercolor retains this title because it is the only painting medium that relies strictly on timing.  Hard edges, soft edges, and everything in between must be gauged on a passage’s probable drying time and the precise moment when the artist will make the next move.  How much water is on the brush must be weighed with how much water is on the paper and palette.  Is the paper dry, wet or damp?  Few mistakes can be painted over, (compared to when painting in oil), so the procedure in watercolor must be deliberate and sure.  Concepts and compositions must be clear before and during the execution of the painting, and any “tinkering” can ruin the overall freshness of the work. 


Even though watercolor can be unpredictable and at times uncontrollable, these are the same characteristics that make watercolor, at least for me, also beguiling.  The spontaneity, transparency and ethereal quality of the pigment make it perfect for painting people and the myriad of shapes and textures in the world around us.  I have found watercolor to be unlimited in its possibilities for expression as well as in its repertoire of possible subject matter.


The ideas for my own paintings start with a fleeting glimpse:  a figure hanging laundry, a shadow of a tree, a child twirling in her new dress.  Seeing these unfinished stories is sometimes like hearing only the middle of a conversation and having to imagine the beginning and the end.  These tiny flashes of life are sometimes the catalyst for a series of works.  Some ideas take years to evolve, and other ideas are returned to over and over again and feel as if they have not yet been “used up.”  I find that the speed and nebulousness of watercolor is often the best way to express an idea.  The medium is fast and often unpredictable, vague or startling, and at times it takes on an unexpected and surprising life of its own—much like the essence of a good idea.


I have learned that ideas can sometimes come in surprising ways.  How have you gotten some of your best ideas for paintings?


Mary Whyte



Mary Whyte has earned national recognition for her figurative watercolors and for her most recent museum exhibition Working South.  Whyte is the author of several books including Painting Portraits and Figures in Watercolor and Down Bohicket Road, a collection of eighty paintings of the Gullah women of Johns Island, South Carolina, near where she lives.  In September, More Than a Likeness:  The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte will be published to coincide with an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, September 8-November 24, 2013, and at the National Arts Club in New York City, November 7-17, 2013.  Her work can be viewed at Coleman Fine Art in Charleston, SC, and at Mary Whyte Website:


More Than a Likeness:  The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte is the first comprehensive look into the life and work of one of today’s most renowned watercolorists.  From Whyte’s earliest paintings in rural Ohio and Pennsylvania, to the riveting portraits of her southern neighbors, historian Martha Severens gives us an intimate look and understanding into the artist’s private world.

Published by the University of South Carolina Press, September, 2013.  Contact Katie Lindler at Coleman Fine Art for images and information:

Down Bohicket Road Trailer Link: