The Miracles of Mary Whyte

If you can find the time, visit the Facebook page for the Hebron Saint Francis Senior Center located at 2915 Bohicket Road on John’s Island, a ways south of Charleston, SC. It’s an ordinary place, an old church in constant need of loving attention, graveyard over on one side, parking lot on the other. Was about twenty years ago when the watercolorist Mary Whyte wandered in, fresh from Ohio and Pennsylvania, not knowing a soul. Alfreda “recalled their first meeting…

The first time Miss Mary come to the center, we were there sewing and cooking, and in walk this white girl, kind of scraggly an’ all…. Here was this skinny, kind of pitiful white girl comin’ in, not known’ where she was goin’ or what she was looking for, and definitely in need of some love. So the first thing we do is give her a big plate of food. You know, to fatten her up a bit. God know, I’ve been trying to fatten her up for years, but it still not workin’….So I keep feedin’ her and loving’ her because it what she need. It what everybody need.”

Decades later, Mary writes, “This is my dear friend Alfreda in one of her spectacular hats.”

Alfreda Red Hat

Mary Whyte is one of the finest watercolor artists in the world. I’m especially attached to her because she wrote the first book I ever read on the subject, “Watercolors for the Serious Beginner,” and I remember thinking, “how is it possible for an artist, this artist, my first teacher, to coax that kind of humanity from this set of paints?” It seemed impossible. Nearly fifteen years after I read that book, I remain in awe of the technique, but I’m past that. I’m in awe of the dignity, the humanity, the life that Mary Whyte captures time and again.

Whyte’s move to the low country of South Carolina has been beautifully documented. Her early visits to the Hebron Center resulted in more inspiration than most artists experience in a lifetime. She shifted from landscapes and everything else to portraiture, and that made all the difference. Once again borrowing from the archive of her website, here’s one the many paintings of local children—many related in some way to the Hebron ladies—with one of the signature quilts that appear so often, and so lovingly, in Whyte’s work. This one is called “Persimmon” (the one with Alfreda in the hat is called “Red”).

Persimmon - web_08210212One more before I fill-in some more details and tell you about the book. Whyte: “This is Georgeanna, whom I have painted for twenty years and is now almost ninety years old. She lives only a couple of miles from my house. The setting for this painting is her kitchen, where we often spend time visiting.” Two items of note. One, her magnificent handling of steam. Second, the sense of person and place, the warmth, the sense that this woman is someone close to the artist.

sister_heywardArtists grow. I suppose that’s the message that comes across most clearly in a new, altogether wonderful book entitled “More Than a Likeness: The Enduring Art of Mary White.” The book is large format, large enough so that the images are full of life, but smaller than they appear in person (darn! I just did some web research and found out that the Butler Art Museum in Youngstown, Ohio just closed a Whyte exhibit—and I will be there next weekend). I really want to see her work full-sized and in their  glory: to see her work full-size [typically at least two feet on the smallest side] would be a thrill])

Anyway… as I said, artists grow, and it’s fascinating to watch Whyte evolve from her life around the Senior Center to a fuller sense of the Working South, the subject of a book that was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.

Want to see more? There’s a video for her book, Down Bohicket Road, too.

Over time, John’s Island has changed. Tourists become frequent visitors, buy vacation homes, and demand services. Farms become shopping centers. Teenagers, so innocent in her earlier work, deal with different kinds of issues. People get older, and live the way they live. To her great credit, Whyte doesn’t paint an idealized world. She paints what she sees, and tells the contemporary story. From that era, Absolution is one of the highlights. Whyte: “I am always interested in textures, so the idea of painting a model with long hair, a beard and tattoos appealed to me. “Absolution”, refers to our vulnerability as people, and to the seduction of drugs. The shaft of light represents God’s forgiveness, and is also orchestrated as a compositional device to lead the viewer’s eye up and through the painting.”


Compare “Absolution” with “Persimmon”—same remarkable artist working in 2010 and, to my delight, 2012. Whyte sees the hard and the soft, and lovingly attends to each of them.
There is so much here to see. And, for me, at least, there is a strong emotional connection to this work. (I don’t feel that way very often, so I figure it’s worth a mention.)
At $75, “More Than a Likeness” is not an inexpensive holiday gift, but it is something special. And as for my missing out on the Butler exhibit, I’m already studying maps and thinking about a drive down to John’s Island to see what Mary Whyte sees, maybe allowing myself some time to draw, but mainly to visit Coleman Fine Art, owned by Whyte and her husband Smith Coleman (a distinguished fine craftsman known for his frames) over on 79 Church Street in Charleston, maybe hit the Blind Tiger, just a few blocks away, for some local crab with “Mitch’s Voodoo Dust” and a side of fried green tomatoes or fried okra, or both. Art, food, and exploring a place like John’s Island with my own eyes. Sounds like a really good long weekend road trip, come spring.

Did somebody say “Giverny?”

I just stumbled onto a cache of more than 600 recent photos of Giverny, Monet’s home, surrounding town, delicious-looking French desserts, and watercolors. Not a bad way to end the day. Thought you would enjoy a look, in particular as an accompaniment to the previous blog post about this magical place.

Be sure to browse not only the photo collection but also the Paris Breakfasts blog, about which I will write a great deal at some point in the future.

Have fun!


Watercolor Artist Mark Stewart

Mark Stewart - Pink Dress GirlEvery once in a while, I’ll find an artist on the web whose work I truly admire. I recently stumbled upon a Texas watercolorist named Mark Stewart, and I thought you might enjoy seeing some of his work. Of course, there’s no reason why you should read any of what I have to say… just go directly to his gallery pages and see for yourself.

At this level of excellence, artists are one-of-a-kind, but stylistic comparisons with other artists are part of the viewing experience. Somewhere between the watercolors of Andrew Wyeth and the southern portraiture of Mary Whyte (the subject of an upcoming article; watch this space), I find pleasure in the simplicity and near-realism of Stewart’s fine work.

Mark Stewart farmhouse

Here’s a painting called Colonial Day. Bear in mind that these are watercolor paintings–a medium notorious for its free-flowing, mind-of-its-own paint. What I suppose I like best here: the artist’s willingness to combine go-with-the-flow with an extreme level of precision and control. If you’ve looked twice and wondered whether you are, in fact, seeing a photograph, look more closely as the drape of her skirt, the green patch on the right side of the road, and you’ll find yourself in a watercolor-photographic dreamland. The artist is in control of your imagination. As life should be.


One more simple pleasure: a still life that seems to want to tell its full and detailed story. It’s called Bonnet Chair.

Bonnet Chair

So who is this man? He’s a working artist, one of perhaps a few thousand who can claim that distinction within the specialized world of watercolors. He makes his living by selling paintings, greeting cards, prints, and books–just like so many other artists who find their own way. For those who wish to dig deeper, he and his wife Sue enjoy writing about their lives, his process, his art, her feelings, and more. They do in book form (read it online), and also as a kind of ongoing dialogue. The conversations and interactions add texture to the visuals, but in the end, it’s the visuals that are so very compelling because they are so plain and so elegant. Here’s another, but I do hope you will visit the site and browse the gallery, and perhaps, support the artist as well.

Mark Stewart Flag

One final note: I started a meeting today with a favorite quote (which appears in many different forms) from Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious–the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

I’m writing this blog article at the very end of the day, just before bedtime. As I was closing up shop for the day, I happened to glance back at Mark Stewart’s website, and I saw this quote, image, and artist’s photo blend together. A nice way to end the day.


A Teacher Who Paints Ideas

When a student faces a new subject, there is a certain comfort in structure, process, facts, and the rigorous routine that defines most teaching situations. Teachers find comfort in that structure: first, the basics, then, perhaps, the materials, then, the history followed by waves of increasingly specific information. In theory, it all makes sense. In practice, when faced with the sloppiness of real life, the structure may be exactly what’s not needed because it interferes with the real learning that occurs as a result of experimentation and making glorious mistakes.

I guess that’s why I had so much trouble understanding what Tom Hoffman was doing. Instead of writing a book that began with materials (in this case, watercolor paints, brushes, papers, and accessories), he begins by admitting that watercolor painting is not easy to do, that it is sloppy, messy, difficult to master, wasteful of expensive paper, and then eschews anything resembling a traditional learning process. Instead, he focuses on the most dangerous of all educational concepts: ideas.

Allow me to begin where he first captured my imagination, with a watercolor painting by an extraordinarily talented artist named Lars Lerin.

operaQuoting Hoffman:

The palette is limited to three colors, and almost all of the edges of the shapes are hard. In the realm of value, however, the artist pulls out all the stops. Never merely black, his deepest darks remain full of color. He limits the lightest lights to just a few stops, making everything else seem to be lit by the low gleam of a lantern in a gilded pattern.

With this glorious visual introduction, he begins where most instruction books ought to begin: by encouraging direct observation, followed by critical thinking (would this make a good painting? what appeals to me, and might also appeal to the person looking at my finished work?) and creative thinking (how can I bring the visual ideas to life in the best possible way?) Hoffman does not begin by focusing on materials. He begins by focusing on the process that every artist shares. This leads to two very helpful essays, one entitled “Knowing Where to Begin” and the other, quite reasonably, “Knowing When to Stop.” In between, he explains the process by examining a very common part of the painting process: thinking through the best way to visualize the shapes and forms and values with just enough detail to pull it all together.

Hoffman Skaftafell

Simplicity in pattern and form, a very effective work by Tom Hoffman.

Step back for a moment. Imagine learning history that way. It’s never about the details. It’s always about the whole form. (But in school curriculum, it’s always about the details. Which we always forget.)

A very colorful Juarez Market in Oaxaca is filled with detail. It’s the centerpiece of a chapter entitled “Knowing What Not to Paint.” This leads to thoughts and illustrations about shape and form, and a key concept: simplicity.

A lovely streetscape by the esteemed watercolorist Alvaro Castagnet show how color and light can be handled in the simplest possible way, and yet, with skill, they can result in a painting that appears to be quite complex. The secret, Hoffman explains, is thinking in layers.

Thinking in layers is an additive technique–place one layer of color, then another–but it requires subtractive thinking to begin. That is, you must look at a scene, observe it carefully, determine which areas can be isolated and painted with a single color wash without interfering with other areas. For example, a red wall might be washed, but the blue roof should not be washed in the same layer–unless you’re seeking purple results.

A market in Puerto Rico, painted by Tom Hoffman, provides an illustration of wide dynamic range (note the darks at the top, the lights in the distance),  layering and simple design for optimum impact.

A market in Puerto Rico, painted by Tom Hoffman, provides an illustration of wide dynamic range (note the darks at the top, the lights in the distance), layering and simple design for optimum impact.

Hoffman also encourages the use of a wide dynamic range: the lightest lights and the darkest darks are what makes a painting come to life. Too often, he explains, the range is almost exclusively in the middle tones, and, as a result, the work lacks energy, contrast, and a compelling reason for anybody to pay much attention. Again, appreciate the metaphor because it applies to so many aspects of life: dark and light, silent and boisterous, and so on.

Final lesson: simplify to the point of abstraction. His most powerful work tends to be simple masses of color, artfully arranged.

The name of the book is Watercolor Painting: A Comprehensive Approach to Mastering the Medium.

Watercolor Hoffman

The Magical Watercolours of Joseph Zbukvic

Joseph Zbukvic is one of the world’s best watercolor painters. In an era when technology dominates art, it’s wonderful to see what this man can do with paint, water, brushes and paper.

I encourage you to watch the entire 20-plus minutes of the video (link below). If you want to get right to the good stuff, pick it up around 2-3 minutes in. This is an Australian TV series. Put Some Colour in Your Life. You will want to start paying close attention when the artist begins his version of “working in Photoshop”–a digital-free approach to thinking through a picture. I watched, I paint, and I learned more in twenty minutes than I’ve learned from dozens of how-to books. This is phenomenal work, gimmick-free, technology-free, just the good stuff. Click here to watch.

Here’s a look at some of the artist’s work. Be sure to visit the gallery section of the artist’s website.

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