Laurin McCracken | Catching the Light

By Gussie Fauntleroy

It was a bit disconcerting for Laurin McCracken when, after taking his first formal watercolor class at the age of 57, he discovered he was very good at it. What would he have been able to accomplish if he’d started decades earlier? he wondered out loud to a friend. Don’t fret about it, the friend wisely counseled. He pointed out that McCracken’s paintings are clearly the work of someone who has seen a lot of great art in his life.

It’s true. In his years as a practicing architect and then as a marketing executive for large architectural and engineering firms, McCracken calculates he has logged six and a half million miles of air travel, including 17 visits to Japan alone, and spent time in virtually all of the Western world’s major art museums. Having grown up in mostly small-town Mississippi in a family without a lot of resources, he knows there is no way he could have gained so much invaluable first-hand experience of great art except through travel.

Reflections in Pewter, watercolor, 21 x 24.

Now 68, McCracken has circled back to the land of his boyhood, a world of magnolias and cypress, Southern graciousness, and the company of a lady who was a classmate in the sixth grade. He recently moved from Fort Worth, TX, to a small Mississippi town where he lived for a time as a child. Semi-retired, he works as chief marketing officer for Jacob Global Buildings and paints exquisitely detailed still lifes and other subjects in watercolor.

His work is frequently exhibited in juried shows around the United States and also abroad, and he currently has paintings in the Beijing International Art Biennale and the Shanghai Zhujiajiao Internation-al Watercolour Biennial, both continuing through 2010. Today, as McCracken’s award-winning art is spreading out into the world, the artist himself is settling down in a leafy, familiar corner of it.

With a Southern drawl that is still charming but less slow and drawn-out than it once was, McCracken has storytelling in his blood. Recalling his seventh grade teacher in Canton, MS, he describes a “little old lady with red hair in a bun,” the quintessential Old Maid schoolteacher who played an important role in guiding his life in the direction of art. A Sunday oil painter herself, Miss Cole sponsored young Laurin to attend a summer of art instruction at an old Mississippi plantation and “healing springs” where well-known regional artists gathered. “It was Gone With the Wind!” he laughs. “The dining room of the plantation house was huge. I’d never seen so many forks and knives in one place.”

Magnolia with Silver & Crystal, watercolor, 20 x 20.

Yet the exquisite beauty of crystal glassware and polished silver settled somewhere in the boy’s mind, and years later he found himself drawn to the still-life paintings of 15th- and 16th-century Dutch and Flemish artists. Among the most influential was Willem Kalf, whose remarkably detailed images of reflective vessels were instrumental in raising still life to the highly respected art form it became. McCracken has become especially known for his still-life works featuring reflective surfaces such as silver, pewter, and glass.

Just before high school, however, he veered away from a fine-art path. At a career-day event in eighth grade he picked up a pamphlet from the Mississippi chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The pamphlet described architecture as “the mother of all art,” incorporating rhythm, line, color, perspective, and other elements of fine art in a career that was perhaps more dependable than painting. He was hooked.

As it turns out, McCracken’s long career in architecture and marketing gave him much more than a chance to experience original art around the world. It honed his already detail-oriented mind, trained him in drafting and photography, and was responsible for taking him to a place where he met the perfect watercolor instructor. Living near Washington, DC, in the late 1990s, he began spending time with artists whose studios were housed in a former torpedo factory on the Potomac River. “I would see all these fabulous watercolors, and seven out of ten of the painters, when I asked who taught them, gave the name of the same teacher,” he recounts.

Gwen Bragg taught at The Art League in Alexandria, VA, and McCracken signed up. He was grouped with the beginners—those taking their first course with Bragg—but was concerned he might be wasting time on art fundamentals he already knew. So he went home and pulled out sketches and lithographs he’d done, met Bragg before the next class, and showed them to her, asking to be placed in a more advanced group. “She said, ‘Okay, we’ll compromise. You paint with the beginners and also sit in with the intermediates, do the exercises at home, and bring them in the next week,’” McCracken recalls. “It was the best thing that happened to me. I got two classes out of each six-week course—a lifetime of instruction.”

McCracken also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then turned to painting still lifes featuring flowers. Later, after reconnecting with his sixth-grade classmate (who is now a master gardener; the artist’s studio looks out onto her garden filled with heritage roses), he became intrigued with painting the antique silver tea service and crystal that graced her dining room. “I couldn’t find any instruction on how to paint crystal and silver in watercolor. I bought about 20 how-to books, and nothing was helpful,” he remembers. “Finally I read somewhere that if an image is very complex, paint it inch by inch and it will add up to something.”

That’s how he paints today: inch by inch, beginning with a time-consuming and extremely thorough drawing. Working from his own photographs, McCracken spends several hours getting down, in fine pencil, every possible detail. “The bottom line is that the more information you get into the drawing, the more information you have in the painting, and you won’t miss anything,” he explains. “I watch workshop participants try to do it too fast and miss a critical highlight. The reflections and refractions of light are the real story.”

Referring to REFLECTIONS IN PEWTER, the artist remarks: “Look at the number of times the oranges are reflected in the sugar bowl and creamer. And the teapot is reflected in the belly of the coffeepot behind it! Things like that make it immensely fun to paint, because you discover those things.”

Yellow Pears in Foil, watercolor, 13 x 19.

While McCracken often incorporates essential elements from the Dutch and Flemish painters—a single light source from the side, perhaps, or Kalf’s deep black backgrounds—many of his paintings also make reference to more contemporary times. His PEARS IN FOIL series, for example, could not have been done several centuries ago. And glassware paintings such as ORANGINA often contain jelly jars as well as fancy cut crystal. “I like having some reference back to the Dutch, but it’s about finding the art in the everyday,” he observes.

McCracken’s immaculately organized studio is one room in a small house adjacent to the circa-1900 Queen Anne cottage where he and his lady-friend live. Music ranging from classical to country-western is often playing in the studio. In his younger years McCracken played in a marching band, dance band, and symphony, and he still picks up a four-string tenor guitar to summon the muse. Another room in the house is his office. The dining room, with windows blacked out, is where he sets up and photographs still lifes. And the kitchen, he smiles, “will hopefully be the source of a lot of wine receptions.”

In the living room, track lighting is focused on the walls, where McCracken hangs his paintings to live with them for at least a month before signing them. “You know it’s finished when you walk past a painting and nothing jumps out at you as wrong or incomplete,” he notes. “Often you get lost in the forest for the trees and forget to see something. Then you walk by and say, ‘Oh my gosh, where is that shadow?’”

Although best known for his still lifes, McCracken also paints landscapes and hopes eventually to apply his watercolor skills to every genre. “I want to paint clouds like [English Romantic painter John] Constable,” he declares. “I want to paint real clouds.”

The key to painting with a high degree of realism, the artist believes, is seeing—in a very literal sense. With better than 20/20 vision, he has trained himself to accentuate his inherently keen observation skills, taking in an extraordinary amount of detail. “In day-to-day life there’s no requirement to see at that level,” he points out. “But if you do, what a rich experience!”

McCracken takes hundreds of photos of variations on still-life arrangements and other subjects. He’ll look at them, then put them away and think about them until one image persists in his mind. “My paintings seek me out one at a time, thank goodness,” he smiles. “There are two photos calling out to me now, trying to decide if one is going to be a painting. It may go away, but right now the muse is warming up!”

Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX; Milan Gallery, Fort Worth, TX; Southside Gallery, Oxford, MS; Art4business, Philadelphia, PA;
Upcoming show
Solo show, E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center, Greenville, MS, January 7-February 18, 2011.

Featured in December 2010