Every Wednesday morning, May through November, more than a dozen vendors set up their brightly colored displays of locally-grown produce and hand-crafted goods to feed hungry shoppers. And right along side them, rain or shine, is plein air artist Brooks Hickerson.
Hickerson, who paints various scenes around Portland, comes to the Shemanski Park Market every week, often with local artists Kara Wilde and John Lehman, to set up and capture the beauty of the downtown market in acrylics. I had the chance to sit and watch him paint on a recent dry but overcast Wednesday, conditions he said were perfect for painting the market.
“Shadows are a challenge,” he said. “They’re always moving, so overcast days are a painter’s friend.”
Hickerson chooses a different location to paint every week, depending on what space is available. He looks for a spot that allows him to capture multiple vendors, ideally with a colorful fruit, veggie or flower display for interest, and a place where shoppers congregate. Then, he paints what he sees.
On this particular day, he set up on the west side of the market next to C&K’s Flower Garden and across from Olympia Provisions and Packer Orchards where a large group of school-aged children gathered to try samples of salami, baked goods, jam and snap photos of the beautiful flowers. Other weeks he sets up on the east side of the market and captures the well-known crate display by Gathering Together Farm, or on the south side of the market to capture the colorful array of produce from Rick Steffen Farm.
“That’s why I love painting the market,” he said. “It’s always changing.”
His paintings typically come together in about an hour. He is careful to avoid getting too detailed, as his paintings are meant to be an abstract interpretation of the market. In fact, it wasn’t until he was nearly done with his painting that this week’s scene finally came together.
Each painting begins the same way. He starts by painting what is in the foreground first. Then, once he has set the stage, he adds in other background elements, like a table and tents across the market and shoppers as they stop to sample or make a purchase. Then he adds contrasting colors to bring out the vibrancy of the market.
He looks for shoppers who are wearing brightly-colored clothing, like a blue jacket or orange puffy coat and tells the interested school-aged kids who stop to admire his work that if they stand around long enough, they might make it in today’s painting.
That’s what is so special about Hickerson’s presence at market. Over the course of the hour he was there, more than a dozen shoppers stopped to see what he was painting, and remark about how beautiful his work is, including many of the kids who exclaim that he must sell them for “a ton of money.”
But Hickerson rarely sells his plain air paintings. In fact, he paints so often (3-4 times a week at various locations) that he usually paints over previous art.
“I paint for the process,” he said. “I paint because I enjoy it.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get offers. One time, a shopper on vacation bought the painting right off his easel, as a memento for her trip. And last year, he traded vendor Baird Family Orchards a painting of their peach display for a few pounds of peaches.
While he’s painting, Hickerson takes a time lapse video of his work for added interest.
“The video is almost more interesting than the painting,” he said. “The painting captures a moment in time but the video shows how the painting evolved.”
And he’s right. As we watched the video, I saw the woman in a blue pantsuit that he painted into the scene, and the group of brightly-dressed kids who appeared in his painting as they were sampling at Olympia Provisions across the path from us. I wish I had thought to take a stroll past his camera so I could be captured in a painting of the market myself. Maybe next time.
If you would like to see Hickerson in action, Shemanski will be open for three more weeks – it closes for the season on Nov. 23. He’ll be there, rain or shine. And we hope you will be too!
To learn more about Hickerson and his technique, visit his website at www.pleinairbrooks.org or his blog at pleinairbrooks.blogspot.com. To view the time lapse videos you can subscribe to his YouTube Channel Pleinair Brooks. If you are interested in joining him for a painting session, you can view his painting calendar.