Mary Whyte is recognized around the world for her lifelike watercolors depicting working-class Southerners, Gullah Geechee culture and people she described as “pennies” who are overlooked by too many of us.
Whyte is the 2013 recipient of South Carolina’s highest arts honor, The Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award.
The Johns Island-based artist is the subject of a biographical collection, her third book of work published by USC press and authored by Martha Severens, curator of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston.
Ashley Byrd: You painted in oils, and taught yourself a different medium, watercolor. How in the world did you do that?
Mary Whyte: I started painting when I was 16 in watercolor….and I was the one young person in the class.
Back then, there certainly wasn’t the internet and access to You Tube and videos on how to do anything. There weren’t any watercolor instructors back then. I think I’ve only had two or three teachers ever in watercolor. But I did go to art school and of course there the training is mostly in drawing and oil –and watercolor traditionally has never been seen as a real mainstay in art; it’s always been viewed as a lightweight, a preparatory medium.
The serious art schools, academies in Europe just never really teach watercolor. So it was really just through going to museums and studying the works of the masters that I painted with it. I always loved it, just the way it goes down, the sparkles it leaves behind on the paper.
I think we learn by simply doing something over and over again.
Byrd: Tell me about the use of light, a realistic light in your paintings:
Whyte: As a teacher I tell my students that it is light that describes form, and it’s how light sits on a surface or rakes across a surface or gets lost in a fluffy surface, that describes what we are looking at. But it’s more than that. To me, light is also magic. and it can really create the mood to a painting, where the light is coming from, whether it’s dim light or noontime light, backlighting. I think it can really set that stage and it is really important to me as it is to most artists.
Byrd: In your compilation of working people, these paintings of real people are not too precious, not too stereotypical, but ordinary people and just beautiful. How do you choose your subjects?
Whyte: In this new biography book, we also have a collectors edition..and I chose for the clasp a penny. And for me, the penny is symbolic of the people that I paint. and the best way I can explain it is that when most people walk and they see a penny lying on the sidewalk, most people will step over the penny and keep walking.
And so, that’s who I paint. I paint pennies, people who are often overlooked and passed by. And I think that’s where we find the rea;l humanity. I firmly believe that you can take almost anybody, give them a makeover, give them a script and you have this sort of pseudo-celebrity person. But what I want to paint are the people that fall under this radar: real, true, honest Americans.
Byrd: How do you approach people, these pennies you see and you want to paint them?
Whyte: I really like painting people I don’t know, because I feel I don’t have this obligation to them. Of course, all of my models are compensated and they sign a permission form and they understand what might become of this painting. But when I see someone on the sidewalk, I’ve never regretted asking someone to pose for me, even if they said no. But I have regretted the people I didn’t ask.
I guess what I look for is a certain profoundness in a person. You can’t make that happen. It either is or it isn’t. And so when I see that in a person or a person in a certain situation, I simply go up and I tell them that i am an artist and I want to make some sketched or to take some photos for a painting, I always get the same two reactions from the people.
The first is that they say “You want to paint me?” and I love that, that sort of unassuming surprise of someone, that unpolished, true, natural heart of a human being. The second is, “Wait, I have to go fix my hair” and I say “No, no I don’t want you to fix your hair, I want you to be just like this, just as you are.”
So I have actually had very few people say no to me.
Byrd: Because you are truly interested in them as a person and that surprises them….
Whyte: That is exactly it! When you show sincere interest and appreciation of a person, they will open up. Being an artist, I have had so many wonderful doors opened to me, as a stranger, people that when they hear that I am in the area painting or that I want to paint them, they invite me into their home, they have given me places to stay—-to me, a stranger.
Byrd: Tell me about the market right now.The newest ways that we communicate these days, through social media, does that help or hurt people trying to make a living in fine art?
Whyte: That’s a yes and no answer. Certainly with the advent of social media, it can certainly increase the market range of an artist so that an artist is able to show their work to a somebody in Europe and sell it to that person in Europe.
I also think that in some ways it doesn’t help us as artists in that there are so many artists who have their work out there and so many artists that call themselves plein air painters or atelier painters that those particular categories of artists I think begin to lose their specialness when there are so many artists doing it. That being said, social media does give many more opportunities for artists to find their niche in the art world and to locate a certain type of client that their work may appeal to.
As far as how the market is right now, I think that a lot of artists are struggling. We are so closely tied to real estate, if people are not building and buying walls, you’re not putting something on the walls. For many artists, it’s become a more competitive market.