san francisco sketches

Toilets and Skyscrapers

Remember when those colorful toilets were stylish? Well they’ve still got them at Building Resources in San Francisco. Not that we were in the market. But sometimes photographers (like Bob) seek more off-the-beaten-path locations to find source for their shooting. And we sketchers can do our thing anywhere. This acre of reusable building supplies is a gold mine even if you’re not in the market! They even had an art gallery!


watercolor in 8 X 8″ Field Watercolor Journal

I must admit that I wasn’t sure this would look like anything as I worked with watercolor to build up the overlapping shapes of the toilets. But the alternating colors helped to create the illusion without pen lines!


We had parked our car across the street from these buildings at Hunter’s Point. I loved the mural on one wall, the rusty towers and mosaic of broken windows. A parade of noisy (smelly) trucks rumbled by and it was a cold, foggy morning, so I managed a quick pen sketch on site and added color and detail later in warm comfort.


Next morning, foggy again, I met Laurie Wigham and Cathy McAuliff, my friends who are S.F urban sketch veterans, at the temporary Transbay Terminal. I had asked them to please pick a spot where I could practice buildings of the sort we don’t have in Sonoma County. So they picked the big ones, the ones that go up into the fog and disappear. Initially I wasn’t so sure they were doing me a favor! After I’d been struggling with the perspective (and failing) Laurie tells me that these buildings have numerous different vanishing points from one perspective, adding to the complexity. I kept trying to fix lines by borrowing Laurie’s pencils and finally coming in with pen.


fountain pens with Noodler’s red black and black inks and watercolor

Then I got a bit smarter and jetisoned all but a couple buildings like I’d seen Laurie do. (and later added the car since I needed some detail below) By this point the sun was out and the colors were amped. All the construction on this building makes for some pretty confusing parts, but it’s more an illustration of certain parts of a scene rather than a realistic capture.


What I really need to do is spend a week showing up at that intersection every day. Well, that’s not going to happen! So I did this one from a picture when I got home. It definitely helps to use a water soluble pencil to get those fine lines in when you’re sketching so small and want to suggest floors and windows. Many thanks to Laurie and Cathy for giving me some new tools to deal with buildings towering over me!

You can find Cathy and Laurie’s sketches on Instagram and the SF Urban Sketchers Blog.

To be continued: Flowers!


Marin County and Sonoma Sketching

I was out scouting for locations for upcoming sketch workshops. A new series of Bay Area Urban Sketch 10 X 10  workshops will be announced soon! And I’ll be teaching one of them, so stay tuned. This spot in Sausalito right on the Bay with a view across to San Francisco and the Bay Bridge was cold and windy, with colorful layers of clouds constantly changing.


fountain pen and watercolor in 8 X 8″ spiral Handbook Co. Field Watercolor Journal with the Fluid Watercolor paper I like!

The colors of water and sky and everything, even the values were constantly changing. You have to just decide where to set your sights and stick with it, something I’ve never been particularly adapted to. I get excited by all the changes and want to dip my brush in new colors. It can make for a mess. So I tried to reign myself in on this one.


Then, not so far away in Mill Valley looking toward Tamalpais Valley it was hard to find a spot where the wind was not blowing us to smithereens. Finally we found a building to block the wind and settled down to sketch this lovely scene of creekbed and lagoon beyond. I even managed to get the cyclists in! And then once again the weather changed while we were sketching, and the sun came out, wind died down, and all the colors changed! (Not that I’m complaining.)

Meanwhile my friend Laurie Wigham did a lovely sketch which captured the serenity of the natural scene and illustrated the reflections on the water, a subject she taught in workshops for the Nature Journal Club series last week.


On Saturday Bob and I headed to Sonoma Plaza so that I could scope it out for the May 5 workshop I’m teaching there titled Watercolor Simplified for the Sketcher.  I was immediately drawn to the ducks in the pond that were delighting the small children. And then when these geese settled down on the grass, I did a quick standing capture of them since they were relatively still for a few minutes. That is, until a small boy chased them away! Because of the softness of the scene I left out the pen did a quick pencil sketch before the watercolor.


I was looking for simple subjects of interest for students in the workshop. Sonoma is a town where California history is well represented in an historic park bordering right on the Plaza. Not only can you visit the Mission but the Blue Wing Inn, with its Gold Rush era gambling room and saloon, and the adobe barracks built to house General Vallejo’s Mexican troops. So much to sketch, indoors and out!


But it was lunchtime, so we ordered at the Sunflower Cafe and I sketched in pencil til the food came, and later added color from memory (and imagination).

I hope you’ll join me on May 5 for the Watercolor Simplified for the Sketcher workshop. For more info and to register visit my website.

On the Embarcadero with Tania

It’s always good to start the day with a laugh! Tania and I were embarking on our third full day in San Francisco spent walking, sketching (me), photographing (Tania), talking to people along the way (mostly Tania) with some eating and drinking thrown in along the way. I follow her lead since she’s the one who has lived in the city off and on since childhood, but when I see a great place to sketch, I plunk down wherever for 15-20 min. and she starts talking to people and doing her marvelous street photography. We started the day where she lives, at the Ghiradelli Square area of Fisherman’s Wharf, walked down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, then west through the Embarcadero Center to Chinatown and north through North Beach back to her home.


Tania remembered the arcade and Laughing Sal was the star, so we headed into the Musee Mecanique first. Tania loaded coins into Sal so we could enjoy her belly laughs which shook her ample figure!


(ink sketch done on site, color added later)

Usually one doesn’t sit down next to a homeless person and start sketching them. But Tania made friends with Terry. He was busy enough with the pigeons and seagulls, feeding them food that he’d probably found in a trash can, since he’d not had a proper meal himself. Tania was assigned as the “look out”. It’s apparently illegal to feed the birds in public places in the city. The pigeons were in his hands, on his lap, in the air! An orgy of love for this man.


Photo by Tania Amochaev

Then the gulls got jealous and wanted part of the action!


As we proceeded down the Embarcadero there were suddenly lots of brightly dressed security guards with caution signs keeping people away from the cruise ship. I wondered about all the ruckus til I found out there were 3000 passengers who were hitting the street at the same time! Never having gone on a cruise of this sort before I was agape at the size of the ship, which looked like it could contain the residents of a small city! So while we were waiting for our lunch date friend to show up, I got a weird angle view. That’s the S.F. Bay there on the right.


After lunch we went inside the Ferry Building, a spectacular structure that among other things houses a daily Farmers Market-like offering of mouthwatering local delicacies. Committed sketcher that I am (and of course my stomach was already full after feasting on fresh sea scallops for lunch) I declined to eat/shop and took the opportunity to try to get the scope of this interior, something that many urban sketchers would find elementary. But yikes! Impossible! Tania (front figure) made a selection at the  smoked meat counter so that I could have a model.


That was already feeling like a pretty full day, and it was getting hot, but next we walked through the Embarcadero Center to Chinatown and Portsmouth Park. On this gorgeous, record-breakingly warm winter day the park was overflowing with Chinese community members sitting in groups, playing games, enjoying the sun and even. . .having a music lesson.

The teacher here on violin was playing lovely, western sounding music that I could not identify but certainly enjoy. Meanwhile the lady in the pink hat, holding a tiny microphone attached to a red “purse” which seemed to disgorge the sounds into the park sporadically and at an alarming volume, was singing something that sounded more traditionally Chinese, or to my ears more like a high pitched screech.

A rather down-and-out looking character sitting next to us clapped enthusiastically whenever a song was finished. I couldn’t help thinking that this lady was a brave soul to expose her voice lessons, which seemed challenging at best, to the entire Chinese community! We had to interrupt the lesson to meet them and share the sketch.


And of course they were so friendly and wanted lots of pictures taken with us. This is one of the very best parts for Tania and I about doing these “Flaneur” days where we become “passionate wanderers”.

A walk back to Tania’s home, stopping briefly to share a glass of wine in North Beach and our day’s adventure, number three in a hopefully on-going series of what I call “Tania Days” came to an end. (You can come along on the other ones here: Day One and Day Two.)

Next day I was beat and had to miss Jazzercise class and sleep in, while Tania was off early for a four hour hike.

About our day Tania wrote: “I needed a day to just wander around and let my mind roam where it wanted.” She’s busy right now preparing for the release of her new book March 1,  Mother Tongue: The Saga of Three Generations of Balkan Women, written under the name Tania Romanov.

Mother Tongue is an exploration of lives lived in the chaos of a part of the world known as the Balkans. It follows the lives of three generations of women―Katarina, Zora, and Tania―over the last 100 years. It follows countries that dissolved, formed, and reformed. Lands that were conquered and subjugated by Fascists and Nazis and nationalists. Lives lived in exile, in refugee camps, in new worlds.

This is a book you won’t be able to put down!


A Walk Down Polk St.

Last Tuesday I met my friend Tania at her apartment next to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco to launch a day-long exploration of the city with a meandering walk down Polk Street from the Bay (at the top) to Market Street (at the bottom). I was armed with my sketcher’s gear and ready to plunk down and start moving the pen at any opportunity. She travels light with her iPhone in her pocket with its camera and built-in photo and voice editing, etc. We were both after stories and people to inhabit them and had no agenda beyond that.


ink and watercolor in 9 X 12″ Canson Mix Media sketchbook (spiral bound)

The day was perfect for this kind of strolling with sunny sweater weather and no wind, a rare treat in S.F.  A lifelong resident of S.F., Tania was already sharing her stories of the various neighborhoods we passed through. Of course she knew where to get the perfect cup of coffee to start our day at Saint Frank Coffee in “Polk Gulch” right below Russian Hill.We sat in the window so I could capture some of the city scene along with the coffee drinkers and their dogs.

While I sketched, Tania read me one of the spell binding autobiographical stories/travel sagas she’s working on. Check out her blog where she publishes some of her stories. Her book Mother Tongue  a Saga of Three Generations of Balkan Woman, will be coming out in March.

As we were leaving Tania noticed that there were only men in the coffee shop all lined up in every seat and at work on their computers. She couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask them what they did to scare away all the women. Smiles broke out on all the faces as we left, something that tends to happen a lot on these excursions with Tania.


Our walk continued with brief stops to check out the kind of unusual storefront and businesses one finds on S.F. streets. Some of them left us scratching out heads. I couldn’t resist the road crew with their colorful orange vests and plopped down on the sidewalk to sketch the work-people (that’s a woman holding the sign) while they ate their lunch. Behind me was MCC, a community center for “Diverse Beliefs, Common Values. A Home for Queer Spirituality”. Five inches in front of me was rushing midday traffic which vibrated the ground and caused me to blink madly to see the construction scene. That’s urban sketching for you!

After lunch we proceeded through the Tenderloin where homelessness and drug addiction is abundantly visible. It wasn’t an area where either of us was prepared to stop.

Arriving at the magnificent Civic Center Plaza and City Hall, Tania said “Let’s go inside.”


I would have been happy to sketch the magnificent interior of City Hall with its classical, ornate elegance for days! But it also turned out to be a feast of elegance of the human sort with a steady stream of wedding couples, photographers capturing romantic poses while bridesmaids arranged the gauzy white trains.

As I sat down against the wall, this elegant couple in matching attire were posing for their engagement photo shoot (hence not white). I can only imagine what the wedding attire will be! (Note Tania with her iPhone camera)

The photographer told us that on any weekday you would find 25-50 weddings at City Hall and over 100 on weekends. But we found that number to be low because we saw at least 20 couples in the hour or so we were there!


By the time the couple had changed outfits and come back for more pictures on the marble staircase, Tania had met them and urged me to show the sketch which had a bit of color on it. Aman held it up and wanted their picture taken with it.

We left City Hall with a bit of the glamor and romance and definitely sweetness of that day still clinging to us. You can’t help but feel hopeful for this couple as they launch into married life!


It was time to soak up some sun in the Plaza and we were delighted by the knitted giraffes encasing some of the trees. Directly ahead where the orange cones were pointing was Market Street and a building with the word TRUTH drawing us toward it next.

As we neared Market Street we met some friendly “neighborhood embassadors”, people from the Hunter’s Point project who we gathered were there to help out with the homeless population as well as to help keep the public areas properly maintained. They had great pride in the fact that within moments a mobile soup kitchen would be set up and they would be helping to serve hot meals to those in need.

We watched as a van drove up and a nun was helped to unload deliscious smelling pots of food and boxes of bagels and salad. A tent and tables were quickly erected and people started lining up. The “embassadors” told us it would be OK for me to sit and sketch.


And so, sitting on the cement wall with people eating steaming hot food on either side, I sketched as Tania listened to a woman with a heart breaking tale and the pigeons and gulls swooped in and out, scavenging what they could.

There’s a kind of alchemy that happens sometimes with this kind of sketching where you can begin to simultaneously experience not just the inside of your own space but that of others. I could feel the caring and enthusiasm of the servers, the relief and satisfaction of the diners all mixed in with my own gratitude for being there in those moments.


Tania suggested a tram to get us back uptown where we could have dinner near her apartment. We could have taken a regular city bus or trolley or cable car, but the trams in S.F. have a special charm and claim to fame. As other cities in the U.S. were discontinuing electric cable methods of transportation in favor of buses, S.F. decided to continue, and to this day has a fleet of historic trams from cities all over the country. So we hopped on the Kansas City Tram for our rush hour ride and I got in my last sketches of the day.

Bijan Stefan writes In Praise of the Flaneur in the Paris Review, “The figure of the flâneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart. ”  I think it’s safe to say that we were . . .last Tuesday. . . walking Polk St. . . for that day at least . . .embodying a modern version of the  “flaneur”. Perhaps you have a bit of flaneur in you too?

A Weekend at S.F. Bay

Catching up a bit here! Two weekends ago I was footloose in SF while Bob was taking a workshop at the Center for the Book. One morning I planted myself on the cement bleachers below Ghirardelli Square to watch and listen to the endless parade of tourists, bay swimmers, summer camp groups (the list is so long!) I was trying out my natural hair ( floppy) paintbrush. For many years I’ve used a springy one, so my accuracy with this one, a Rosemary Co. round travel brush, is not great. . .yet.


But as I painted there were innumerable distractions. The lady resting quietly in the foreground suddenly woke up and started screaming accusations at the group beyond, and their fear was visible on their faces. Later she left and another similar group came to stand close enough to me that I heard their leader giving instructions or something. It was puzzling. They were dressed in ordinary pedestrian clothing with small backpacks and seemed like tourists, except they were being invited to search for armed terrorists or something and were consulting their maps and phone apps. OK, so it must have been some kind of game, like a terror scavenger hunt?!


My fellow urban sketcher Cathy McAuliffe met up with me bringing colored paper which we tore up and glued onto some pages before we went off exploring Fort Mason. This was a fun technique she learned in the Urban Sketch Symposium from Lynne Chapman. I abandoned paints for the afternoon and just used pen and colored pencils. There’s a white Uniball Signo pen in there too (for those of you who notice everything). It was an extremely complicated scene with the GG Bridge, Fort Mason buildings, SF Bay with boats of all kinds including a wind surfing regatta, Marin headlands across the bay, etc. But somehow the construction paper made it more necessary to pick and choose and get a better design going.


To get out of the wind we went to the other side of a building on the Bay and this view is looking across to the East Bay and Fisherman’s Wharf. There was no point getting everything in perspective, with those bright colored papers, so I had more fun just putting in what I wanted for the story.


We ended our day at the Interval at the Long Now coffee shop/bar/museum where I’ve always wanted to sketch but never gotten the right seat. This time the couch in the corner was available and once again, I’m not exactly sure why, the colored paper helped! Thanks to my friend Cathy and Lynne Chapman for sharing this fun approach.


All my sketches are done from real life, but something possessed me to do one from memory of real life. I mean there are moments when you see something so impossibly wonderful and you can’t get your phone camera out quick enough and you have to rely on memory, which fades too quickly. There was this bright blue city bus and a string of schoolbus yellow Go Cars right behind it on North Point St. So when I was home I got it down in my book. More inspiration from the colored paper do you think?

Expressive Figure Drawing With Oliver Hoeller

On May 13 I took one of the 10 X 10 Urban Sketch workshops taught by one of my favorite urban sketch artist/illustrators, Oliver Hoeller.  I originally ran across him through his blog, the Visual Flanuer and have loved his zany depictions of festival life in San Francisco.

We met for the three hour workshop in Dolores Park in the Mission. It was a blustery, cool day and I still had my runny nose and cold left over from the cold week in N. Y. Nevertheless I was determined to learn his secrets for lively sketching of busy city scenes in pen and watercolor.

dolorespark2 After some contour sketch warm ups we moved on to sketching heads of the people in the park, drawing the shadow shapes rather than specific features.


Then we went on to draw shadow shapes on full figures of people sitting relatively still.

Next we sketched parts of people, heads, torsos and legs/feet. When sketching people who are moving you often need to complete your sketch with the parts of another person who steps into your field of vision. So we also practiced putting tops and bottoms of different people together into one!

The next step was to form an opinion of what you’re interested in and then be ready to exaggerate it.


This was more challenging as we switched to people who were moving. It helped me to write down what I was initially interested in so I wouldn’t lose my focus.

Lastly we were to add some detail and context to the picture. (By this point I was too cold, so I took myself off to the Dolores Cafe where I nursed a latte while adding color and waiting for my friends to finish the workshop.)

I definitely think the workshop helped me loosen up and get more playful. Drawing the shadow shape first definitely helps. The white of the paper is always more lively than when you color in shapes with blocks of color.

Thank you Oliver!

A long weekend in San Francisco


Pigma Sensei pen, w/c in Stillman and Birn sketchbook, 5 X 8″

A four day weekend with my husband was packed with San Francisco sights, from Japantown to the Legion of Honor, Turtle Hill and the Castro to Fort Mason and Haight Ashbury. This enchanting city  never lets us down.

The Bonnard exhibit at Legion of Honor was so much more spectacular than I’d anticipated. When we got to this mural room, we couldn’t resist taking pictures of these guys, ignoring the art and tuning themselves to cell-land.


We were with Andrew’s friend Maura, and finally at lunch Bob and she got into a conversation so that I could (without being impolite) start sketching madly, trying out some of Bonnard’s space/perspective flattening techniques and color play.


We were staying in the apartment of a friend which had views of Fort Mason (see the Golden Gate bridge peaking out on the right) and the harbor looking out at Alcatraz and across the bay to Marin.  So I did some thumbnail sketches, getting a bit carried away on the painting of them. i don’t think I’d ever get tired of that view.


Next day I joined a SF Urban Sketchers meet up at Turtle Hill and the Mosaic steps (two sets).  Most of the sketchers climbed to the top, but I enjoyed the leisure and the view from the bottom.  In San Francisco the “bottom” would mean the Bay and this was already up many steep streets and commanding a view of lower lands.

A cool wet wind was blowing and I’d forgotten to bring my stool or any munchies. It had been an uphill walk from my car, and it was far from any warm cafe. And how was I to paint all those mosaic tiles? I leaned against a parked car and started in.


A few blocks around the hill was another set of mosaic steps and these were a popular tourist attraction with carloads of people disembarking regularly. I found a curb to sit on and was alert to any cars that might accidentally head for my toes.

Later we saw Laurie Wigham’s exhibit titled “The Changing City” at Spark Arts Gallery in the Castro. A thoughtful, sensitive show of her masterful watercolor paintings and sketches of the developing scene in neighborhoods in San Francisco.


Our last day we headed for Haight St. and got there before the shops opened. I sipped coffee, watching the diverse parade of people passing: from fresh faced young students in groups to stylish professionals to the gypsy/hippy garbed to the addicts and homeless people talking to themselves and picking remnants of joints out of the gutter and lighting up. As the shops opened the smell of incense wafted my way. It was a strange time capsule I’d happened into, this street with alternating tie dye, water pipes, and trendy sterile clothing shops catering to the new tech-y crowd.


What a deal!  We were seated opposite the sushi chef at lunchtime.!


I took a few pictures and wanted to get at least one of the street people, so I did this at home today from my Iphone.