You can travel the world and meet thousands of interesting people, but there’s something special about the Lowcountry and the people who call it home according to professional artist Mary Whyte. She has traveled the world and met thousands of people, but she always feels the pull of the Lowcountry.
“As an artist, you meet a hog farmer one day and have coffee with the president the next,” Mary said. However, her favorite people to paint are not the celebrities of the world. Instead, she paints the average, everyday person who lives life under the radar. “I find them endlessly interesting,” she said.
Originally from Ohio, Mary began her painting career as a child, selling her first painting when she was in eighth grade. During her sophomore year of high school, Mary took out an ad in the local newspaper to sell commissioned pencil portraits for $20 each. When Mary learned how to paint, she was intrigued by watercolor, but no one around her taught in this medium—so she taught herself.
She went to museums whenever she could to observe the works of the masters and borrowed dozens of books from the library, studying the works of John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Andrew Wyeth. All three figurative painters are known for their ability to garner different textures with watercolor, and Mary studied their pieces carefully to understand their technique.
After going to college in Philadelphia, she spent a year abroad in Rome, where she studied painting and traveled across Europe. Mary has also traveled throughout the United States and the world—from the heart of the Midwest to the historic cities of Europe and the busy streets of China. After her time abroad, Mary worked as a graphic designer creating logos and then as an illustrator for children’s books. As her career and passion for watercolor painting grew, Mary began painting full-time. Just like the artists she studied, her favorite thing to paint was people, and commissioned portraits gave her the opportunity to continue her travels throughout the country and the world. “My favorite portraits are the ones of people I have become lifelong friends with,” she said.
Mary’s travels have also given her the opportunity to fine-tune her plein air painting skills, a technique where the artist paints outside in the landscape they want to capture. When she comes upon a scene that inspires her, instead of pulling out her camera, Mary sets up an easel. “You have to be fast,” she said. “Painting these scenes has to be concise since the light changes roughly every hour and a half.” It forces Mary to focus on what is essential in a scene—sometimes she depicts landscapes and other times she paints perfect strangers. One of her favorite places to do plein air painting is in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her portrait of the famous Café du Monde is like a window into the French Quarter of New Orleans—you can almost hear the trumpets playing and smell the scent of freshly powdered beignets filling the hot, muggy air.
Twenty-seven years ago, Mary took the plunge and moved to the Lowcountry. “Quite by accident,” she says. She met an amazing group of Gullah women from Johns Island who forever changed Mary’s focus in her career. Every Wednesday, this group of women gathers at the senior center on Johns Island for fellowship—they study the Bible, sew quilts, or simply enjoy each other’s company. When Mary met this group of women, she was struck by how special this group was and the beauty of their time spent together. She was compelled to tell their story and began painting their portraits one by one, and she continues to do so to this day.
Her portraits of these influential women strike the perfect balance between boldness and elegance, a reflection of the women themselves. One painting in particular, Sweet Margaret, shows a Gullah woman in her Sunday best—a cheery red dress, a strand of pearls, and a white hat with her dark hair sneaking out of the back. The textured white walls behind her make Margaret pop off the canvas while her studious look places you right next to her during Bible study at the senior center.
In 2016, Mary was the recipient of the Gold Medal from the Portrait Society of America, the highest honor awarded by the society. Mary has written a book called Down Bohicket Road that shares two decades of her work. She has also written Working South and Painting Portraits and Figures in Watercolor as well as Alfreda’s World. A special trip to see Mary’s paintings is worth the drive. Mary’s paintings can be found in Bluffton at the Red Piano Art Gallery in Old Town.
Mary believes when you’re given a gift—painting, writing, or anything else—there’s a responsibility to pass that on. Mary hosts painting workshops to pass along the knowledge and expertise she has in watercolors to a new group of artists. These adult classes are for anyone regardless of experience and are held across the United States. If you’re interested in hosting or participating in a workshop, visit marywhyte.com for all the details.
Written by Sarah Grubbs