You can tell that it’s thin when you can hear that, the brush dragging on the canvas.
Rick was always going to be an artist. At the age of ten, his mother recognized natural talent and signed him up for a lesson with a local painter in his small town in Oklahoma. I only got through one lesson with her before she moved, he remembers. But she took me through the whole process—we even stretched the canvas. The instruction may have been short-lived, but it was enough. Rick started studying on his own, painting regularly. By the age of sixteen, he had a large exhibition at a local bank, oil landscapes not unlike the style he paints today. I was a junior in high school, and the principal’s secretary came down to my classroom and said I needed to call my mother at lunchtime. In that single day, Rick sold fifteen paintings to a collector and received a paycheck for twenty-five hundred dollars—a lot of money for a high school kid in 1971. Six months later, the woman came back and bought fifteen more paintings.
Rick received an art scholarship at a local college and minored in education. Even with all the talent in the world, living as a working artist isn’t for the faint of heart. So he had a backup plan. He taught studio art and art history for nearly thirty years. But I never stopped painting. I kept it alive, he says. He’d finish his day as a teacher and paint into the night. He knew that at some point he would just paint. He started building a portfolio in the early nineties—awards, exhibitions, and entry into fine art societies. In 1999, he submitted to the Salmagundi Art Club in New York. It was a shot in the dark—artists are allowed one opportunity to apply. I was in my little studio and my cell phone rang. It was a lady with a thick New York accent. He had won their Leila Gardin Sawyer Memorial Award, one of two top awards at the prestigious club. They gave him two days notice, and he scrambled up to New York for the presentation.
That was the beginning. Within days, inquiries from galleries flooded his inbox. As a trial, he sent a gallery in Wilmington, North Carolina, five paintings, which sold almost instantly. That’s when I knew I was a professional. When Rick retired from teaching, he started traveling more, painting up and down the eastern seaboard. In 2000, he met Hume Killian of the Wells Gallery and has been coming to the Lowcountry ever since.
Today, Rick speaks to a room of painters of all skill levels at the Cassique Clubhouse. He’s great with an audience. After a long career of teaching, he is articulate and eloquent when talking about his process, explaining tricks and techniques. We always start everything in one dimension, and then we take it to two and then three, he says. Think simple to complex. His audience sits rapt, some scribble notes. He turns back to the canvas and fills in the blue of a Lowcountry waterway, bright and clear. Again, we’ll modify this water later on. But right now, we’re just covering the canvas. For a moment, the room is still but for the scratching of his thick brush. He works quickly, and it is astounding to see the scene emerge with a few decisive strokes. I could never paint meticulous and slow! He laughs. I think my personality dictates my painting style more than anything.
Before the providential Salmagundi award and the rush of inquiries, Rick had always preferred to paint out of doors, en plein air. But as galleries wanted more and more work and larger paintings, he worked longer hours and through the winter in his home studio. Now, he paints a quick study outside and takes photographs to record colors and shadows. My plein air experience has become, more or less, information gathering for larger works. His style, however, still has that quintessential looseness, the impressionism of classic plein air, characterized by a look of spontaneity and freshness. I find that in the wintertime, my work keeps getting tighter and tighter, so I have to get outdoors to keep that freshness. That’s really what I strive for. I want a studio piece to look like it was painted on location. And that’s really hard to do.
He instructs his audience not to overthink things, to paint loose, to refrain from answering all the “visual questions.” It makes sense. If you stare at a Rick McClure painting, there are focal points, little jabs of detail that snag the eye. Perhaps it is a heron, or the shimmering blue of a tidal creek. But the rest is just loose background fading away at the edges. At the basis of my teaching and philosophy is the word contrast. His slow and staccato pace drives home the point. Contrast is in every aspect of the painting. It’s thin versus fat. It’s busy versus calm. It’s bright versus dull, light versus dark. It’s contrasting complementary colors like red and green. Contrast encompasses everything. So there may be a bright detail at the heart of the canvas, but it is juxtaposed against a sort of nothingness, perhaps a deep cool green of an unknown foliage, quiet and uncluttered.
After a lifetime of painting, a lifetime of art and theory, Rick McClure is nothing short of masterful. Scrubby maritime holly springs delicately from the canvas in a few deft strokes. All the while, he is guiding his audience effortlessly through his personal artist alchemy. Certainly, if you do something long enough, the work becomes intuitive, innate. But Rick will never stop evolving. I think you can master a technique or a style to a certain point. But if you settle with that, you never grow. You always have to push yourself.
Rick will keep coming back to the Lowcountry and to Kiawah. He loves big skies and the ever-changing colors of the marsh. He also loves to golf! — H.W.