Monday, September 19, 2016

Painting Close to Home by Mary Whyte

Persimmon, 2012, watercolor
40 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches
Our 2017 The Art of the Portrait conference will open with Mary Whyte and Jeff Hein demonstrating on the main stage.  An award winning artist and teacher, Mary previously shared her thoughts on painting subjects close to home and the wealth of opportunities that surround our everyday life.

Painting what you feel strongest about can be one of the most important ingredients to a successful work of art.  Although it’s possible to produce appealing paintings of subjects you care little about, you are more apt to create a dynamic work when you feel a palpable response to your model.   This sensation of heightened emotional familiarity can produce greater freedom of expression and give way to paintings that are more original and earnest.  I call this being “close to home”, and have discovered that a wellspring of creative avenues can open up and surprise you along the way.

Twenty-one years ago I moved from Philadelphia to a small barrier island near Charleston, South Carolina.  It was there that I met a group of senior Gullah women, many of whom were direct descendants of slaves.  Although we had little in common, I felt a strong emotional response to these women, and a compelling desire to tell what I saw and felt in watercolor.  One painting lead to another, and then another, until two decades later I discovered that I had done hundreds of paintings and drawings.  More recently, I spent three and a half years traversing the south painting blue collar workers in vanishing industries, completing fifty works for a museum tour.  I learned that as an artist you can never grow bored with your subject matter when it speaks to your heart.

Tips, 2007, watercolor on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 3/4"

Beekeeper's Daughter, 2008, watercolor
28 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches
As artists, we all share this compulsion to explore, feel and create. Unfortunately, along the way many artists get mired in the trappings of everyday mechanics, are unsure of what to paint, or feel stifled by the conventions of what is popular in the market place.  If this is the case for you, I urge you to read The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.  In this collection of the Art Student League instructor’s critiques and letters you may find many inspiring lessons about finding your true creative voice.  Henri admonished his students that if they don’t feel strongly about what they are painting, then neither will the viewer.  And that, above all, artists have to know themselves in order to know what it is they really want to say in their work.  So, get to it.  Read the book, visit museums, perfect your craft, and paint what is truly “close to home”. 

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