Looking at Hilarie Couture’s work currently displayed in Mt. Hood’s Fireplace Gallery, you could say it evokes a sense of effervescence.
It features lots of brush strokes, mixes of colors that are bolder than the structured state of color in real life. Rather than take a detailed and realistic route to her paintings, Couture chooses to maintain her pieces’ “painterly” form “where you can see the brush strokes and you see a nuance of color that maybe the regular eye doesn’t quite notice,” she said, describing her technique.
Speaking with Couture, it becomes evident that she has a philosophy to her art. She refers to most of her work as “painting from life,” i.e., painting from live subjects rather than photographs, if she can. Her style – romantic impressionism, she states – reflects her idea of painting from life. Her choice to tell a story through the environment of her subject and its relationship with the same, also does this.
Couture was a creative child, drawing and illustration being a prevalent part of her life until she was a young adult. After high school, she went to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, for medical illustration and fashion design. The university being a pre-med school, she felt it wasn’t what she wanted and left after only about a year.
It was her next experience in life that defined her understanding of art.
At the age of 18, Couture hitchhiked to San Francisco where she met a woman who sold handmade puka shell necklaces on the street. After disclosing her fondness for drawing, the woman suggested that she get her street artist license and sell her work on the streets of San Francisco. And that’s what she did.
“When you’re on the street like that, you only have a person’s attention for maybe 45 minutes, max,” she said. “It forces you to be able to get it down quickly.” Couture did this every day, employing a technique of zero guarantee – if you didn’t like it, you didn’t have to purchase it. It was how she built up her skills, but it was also how she made a living.
“If I didn’t have that life experience I don’t think that I would have the understanding that I do,” she said, recalling that time. It was then that her philosophy of painting from life was truly born.
However, it was another 40 years or so before Couture came back to portraiture. After her days selling artwork on the streets of San Francisco, she became a hairdresser, which she continued to do until recently. “It was sort of like sculpting. Working with hair was my medium,” she said.
In 2010, Couture went back to college and received a degree in historic preservation. She credited the many opportunities her classes posed as the groundwork to taking up painting. But it was an instructor who told her she should be doing it. “He said, ‘You’re a hairdresser?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘Well, I think you’ve missed your calling.’ And that was a wake-up call.”
After finishing her degree, Couture took a oil painting community education class at Clark College, in Vancouver, Washington. It was in that class that she fell in love with oil painting – now her favorite form of painting – and made the decision to pursue it with fervor. From that point forward, she took every free moment to practice. “I would try to take a workshop or I watched YouTube videos, and did whatever I could to continue,” she said.
As of 2017, it’s been four years that Couture has been painting in oil. Looking at her work in the MHCC Fireplace Gallery, one would think she had been painting for longer. One thing is for sure: Her work pulls the viewer in with a vivid range in story, style, and even subject, despite the majority of pieces being women, in various poses.
When asked what her goal is for her art moving forward, she replied, “My goal is to get it out there and to keep improving. To keep creating and coming up with new ideas.”
You can see Hilarie Couture’s work in the Fireplace Gallery through Jan. 30.
EDIT: Due to the weather in the month of January, 2017, and the school closures that happened because of it, the Fireplace Gallery has extended Couture’s showing until the end of February.