my wandering days aren’t over

View from San Francisco Hilton

It was my first trip down to San Francisco in almost two years, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. I didn’t have a plan. Sometimes when I come to the city to sketch I know which general direction I will head in and follow my nose, but on the whole I play it safe. I might have planned this trip a little better, plotted out a route of old favourite spots plus a couple of places I’ve never been, but as it turned out I just decided wandering would be enough. Wandering and sketching, but also just wandering. When I was a teenager I would wander, I would sometimes get on a bus on a Saturday morning from Burnt Oak headed to Harrow or Hendon wherever, find a library or a bookshop to sit in all day reading, or get a travelcard and jump on a tube down into central London, and just explore an area until it got dark, no particular plan, and where I went was where I went, then come home for dinner. I would follow my nose. I wasn’t sketching as much out and about when I was a teenager, just occasionally, but not making it my main reason for going anywhere. These days I don’t get to wander quite as often, so when I do I usually feel like I have to have a collection of sketches by the end of the day to make it worth the effort of all that wandering. 

On this particular Saturday morning, when I was on a solo overnight trip to San Francisco to wander and sketch, I watched the Denmark-Finland game in my hotel room on the 23rd floor, and was pretty shocked by what happened to Christian Eriksen. He has been one of my favourite players for years, all those seasons at Tottenham, so to see him almost die on the field on live TV was very disturbing. His picture is still on my son’s wall, along with others from that great Tottenham team that nearly made it (but not quite). The game was called off before half time (though they restarted later that day), and after a while on the phone to my wife who was watching it too, I went down the end of the hallway and sketched the view across the city to gather my thoughts a bit. There is a lot of detail to cover. I’ve always wanted to just look over the San Francisco cityscape and pick out the puzzle. You really have to observe. Putting one thing slightly out of place or making a building that bit too narrow in relation to the other ones around it can mess everything else up. It’s therapeutic though. I stood and sketched this rather than sat at the desk in my room which would have been comfier, but I did have to check out of the room before I finished so I wanted to give myself more time for the details. I did colour it in later though on the train back. The blank area in the corner, that wasn’t because there was something in the way, I just never got to that part of the city, but I did draw the skyline above it, so it looks like a panhandle. This isn’t “the” Panhandle though, which is up near Haight, this is Nob Hill, as it rises out of Chinatown, which is a pretty big area of the city. That’s where I headed next, after dropping off my card key, I went across to Portsmouth Square Gardens.  

portsmouth square SF

I’d never actually walked through Portsmouth Square before, so this fulfilled the ‘something new’ check box. It’s not super exciting, but it was pretty interesting as a place for people from the neighbourhood to hang out on a sunny Saturday lunchtime. I remember one of the Worldwide Sketchcrawls being held here in Portsmouth Square many years ago, but I didn’t go on that one, so I’m not sure why I brought it up, other than it’s always made me wonder about coming sketching here. There were so many interesting people here though that I mostly just did some quick people sketching. It feels like a very long time since I have come to a public place and done quickfire people sketching. Most people were Chinese, of all ages, but mainly older people. Some were sat on benches feeding birds, or talking occasionally to each other, or gathered in groups playing a very involved card game around a bench, there were several such groups. Everyone wore masks, no exceptions. I did too. I drew some of the rooftops above us, and also a statue called the ‘Goddess of Democracy’, a replica of the one from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, placed here in 1989 during the events there that year. I listened to a passing tour guide as I drew, referencing that it’s difficult for people to reference that event online there, that they would use terms like the “35th of May”. I didn’t listen in on much else of the tour, but there were several walking tour groups parading through here. Portsmouth Square is one of the most historic spots in the city, as this was the first public square in the original Mexican settlement of Yerba Buena. The name of the plaza comes from the USS Portsmouth, the ship of Captain Montgomery who took Yerba Buena for the United States and raised the flag here in 1846. The city was renamed San Francisco a year later. A year after that the prospector Sam Brannan held up his nuggets of gold here and told everyone there was a lot of it in the American River, so off they rushed towards Sacramento. After the 1906 Earthquake, Portsmouth Square became a place of refuge for those displaced from their homes. These days it’s sometimes called the “Heart of Chinatown”.  

portsmouth square SF

I walked through Chinatown, mostly looking for the perfect spot to draw, where I wasn’t going to be in the way of anyone walking past, not in the sunlight which was pretty strong. It was colourful, and I’d intended on doing a colourful lively sketch, but in the end I stood on the corner of Sacramento and Grant and drew the sketch below, with little bits of colour popping out. Along the street some drummers were playing while some performers did some balancing acts, it looked like they were having a great old time. San Francisco’s Chinatown is generally considered the oldest outside Asia, even the largest. Certainly in the context of California, the most historic. Apparently it is “the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan” with most residents being monolingual speakers of Mandarin or Cantonese. The area dates back to the first Chinese immigrants to the city in 1850. I would love to dive deeper into this area’s history, what little I’ve read about is dripping with story.

 Chinatown

I was hungry, but I didn’t stop for Chinese food, because I headed down Grant to that French place, Cafe De La Presse, and at outside there while an voice of unknown location belted out live opera in Italian, echoing across each building. Refreshed from lunch, I made the mistake of going through the Union Square area, rather than somewhere more interesting. I popped into the Nike store and went all the way to the very top floor, to the furthest point at the back where they were hiding the soccer shirts, just to discover that they didn’t have the new Tottenham shirt. Oh they had Chelsea and Liverpool but not Spurs. Right, fine. I went down to Market Street, not entirely sure where I was headed next. I had no intention of drawing Market Street, it’s just not that interesting, and what I like about it I have drawn before. It’s an uncomfortable place at times, Market. This is the problem with wandering though, you sometimes end up somewhere and feel a bit stuck. I thought about getting on a bus to Lower Haight, or a Muni up to the Inner Sunset, but I didn’t have change and couldn’t be bothered figuring out how things are done now. I did have a BART pass though, so I just went down into the subway and jumped on the first train and headed towards the Mission.    

Roxie, mission SF

Each area of San Francisco has its historic culture. North Beach is the Italian area, Chinatown is Asian, The Castro is historically associated with the gay community, the Haight is the Hippies; and everywhere is the expensive real estate developers and gentrifiers pricing all these communities out. Historically, the Mission is a mostly Hispanic part of San Francisco, and there are lots of murals celebrating the Latin American community. Since I first came down there the area has been changing, going more upmarket and trendy, but it still has a lot of character. The large Mission Burrito was invented here. I had a massive burrito, about the size of a Greyhound bus, after I was done sketching. I wandered, coming across the colourful Clarion Alley, a narrow street of political murals between Mission and Valencia. I was going to sketch there but it was getting late. Plus, some bits smelled quite strongly of wee. I did sketch on 16th by the Roxie, whose distinctive sign was much harder to see than I remember, due to the growth of the trees around it. I remember years ago photographing this (not having had time to draw it evidently; come back another time I probably told myself)and there being no foliage around it, or very very little, but not now, those trees have grown. Still I stood beneath and got an okay view, and again despite it being quite a colourful scene I only added the red bits. It was busy in the Mission, most of the bars had full-up outside seating/standing areas, it would have been quite a nice afternoon to stand outside with a pint and people watch, but my legs were tired, really tired, and I wanted to get to Mission Dolores Park. In Covid times as in normal times, the park was packed, as you’d expect on a hot Saturday afternoon in June, with most people being young trendy types. Unlike in Chinatown, very few people were masked. Well it’s not required now, but I kept mine on anyway because I sometimes sing to myself when sketching, and I can pretend it was someone else if anyone looks. Not that that would be a problem here, several people had their music on for others to hear. I actually listened to a podcast about the X-Men (not the usual one, but a different one, this one talking in depth about Nightcrawler) and drew the skyline. It was a pretty pleasant way to spend the rest of the day before heading back to Davis. A lot has changed in this skyline since I moved here to California. It was a clear day, no fog at all, and I really enjoyed my little bit of time back in the city. I wish it were a little bit more normal (maybe a bit more space in the street and not so many outside seating huts, making things feel claustrophobic and yet remote; not so easy for a weary wanderer to just pop into a dark cool bar to refresh during a day’s heavy sketching), but the world is evolving, and I’m happy to have finally gone and had a look at some of it. 

  Mission Dolores Park, SF

You might like to see a whole Flickr album of my San Francisco sketches going back to 2006 or 2007, when I first started coming down here to wander about. It’s interesting to see how the city and my style of sketching has changed in all that time. Here it is: https://www.flickr.com/photos/petescully/albums/72157602126887832

alright del boy

hotel del coronado

We spent a couple of days in Coronado, San Diego, at the amazing Hotel Del Coronado (commonly known just as the “Del”). We stayed pretty socially distanced – we got a fantastic room that opened right out to the ocean, with a firepit for toasting marshmallows (we made delicious s’mores). It was a once in a lifetime type of hotel room, not huge, but pretty spectacular. Coronado is pretty spectacular. The weather was beautiful (February and in the high 70s), the sunsets incredible. I didn’t draw much; we relaxed, had cocktails, looked at the sea. I did do a little sketching – I went out to the beach and looked back, and did a quick sketch which I added to later, of the Del itself. It’s a historic building (the movie Some Like It Hot was filmed here), and one that my wife has wanted to stay in all her life. This was her birthday trip and we all enjoyed it here. The Pacific Ocean was cold but we still splashed our feet in it. The sand itself glistened with a strange metallic golden sheen, I think there must be a lot of shiny minerals in this particular sand. It was also full of these strange little round objects I had never seen before, but that my son told me are ‘sand dollars’. Beautiful, delicate little things, so I drew a few of them. Apparently there are legends about these things, also called sea biscuits, that they are the currency of mermaids or from the lost city of Atlantis, I mean they might be I suppose.

sand dollars coronado beach

On the way to san Diego we did stop at one historic Mission, the Mission San Juan Capistrano. It’s pretty big with a lot to see; it’s pretty expensive too, and cost almost $40 for the three of us to go in. I had to get at least one sketch. Much of the older parts are just rubble, destroyed by an earthquake not that long after it was founded (they must have known even then not to rebuild those bits, so they could charge people a lot to have a look at them years later). Still, these historic places need a lot of upkeep and we want them to be open for us to see and learn from, so it’s worth it I suppose. I had been reading a Bill Bryson book on this trip, and he regularly infuriated me whenever he would turn up at a museum he had taken a while to get to, then baulked at a small entrance fee and refused to go in, before going off to a cafe to complain about their sandwich prices and moan at serving staff for not understanding punctuation, or something. Seriously, Bryson.

mission san juan capistrano, south of LA

Sonoma

Sonoma Mission Sept 2020 A few weeks ago we went to the town of Sonoma for the afternoon, to have an outdoors lunch with my wife’s mother. It was nice to get out of Davis and I took the opportunity to go and do a sketch of the Mission, above. If you don’t know about the Missions of California, here is a good site for you to find out about them: https://californiamissionsfoundation.org/the-california-missions. The one in Sonoma, called San Francisco Solano, is the most northerly one, the end of a trail that leads all the way down to San Diego. This little adobe building dates back to 1823 as the culmination of three hundred years of Spanish-Mexican settlement in California, going back to 1523. It was actually badly destroyed in the 1906 earthquake but was rebuilt and restored. I have drawn it twice before, but it turns out it was a really long time ago: 2007 and 2006!sonoma mission

the sonoma mission

The very first time I came to California, in 2002, we spent a couple of days in Sonoma housesitting at my (future) wife’s friend’s place. I really liked Sonoma best out of all the places I went to on that trip, and I remember the delicious wine and the great cheeses from that cheese shop. Now during the pandemic there are still people out and about but the cheese shop was closed, and seating at restaurants and cafes was all outside. We had an early dinner in one of our favourite spots, Hopmonk Tavern, and I sketched my son on his device while the ladies talked. This is one of only a few occasions we have eaten out since the whole pandemic started. This was a brief respite form the terrible smoky air in California, but that soon came back. That very night there were enormous fires that erupted near here in Napa Valley, destroying some historic wineries and lots of homes, raining large flakes of ash down on all the towns around. I hate this awful year, and I really hate fire season. It’s never been so bad, and it’s terrible on all the industries around this way.

Son in Sonoma on his device

wrapped up in books

dog eared books SF

“I was a man on a mission.” No, no I wasn’t, I really had no plan to my day, just aimlessly following my nose. I always end up on Valencia Street though, wherever I happen to be. Despite running parallel just a block or so over, it’s quite enormously different from Mission Street. I’m not sure of the history, but I believe that when the hipsters first arrived in America as refugees from the terrible Third Fashion War they set up a safe enclave here, where they could wear ironic hats and ‘shave’ and live free to worship organic coffee without fear of percolation. I do love Valencia though, it is full of little stores packed with kitsch nonsense nobody in their right mind would ever need to buy (but then I feel that way about Target). It certainly has cool bookstores, and as a devout bookstore lover I feel right at home there. This is one place I always stop at, Dog-Eared Books, on the corner of Valencia and 20th. There is so much to find in here, and they are well aware of the importance of a bookstore – scrolling through lists of ebook suggestions on your Kindle or iPad is nowhere near as good for your soul as being physically surrounded in real, tangible books, books to surprise you, to pique your interest, to capture you forever. I completely lost myself in libraries and bookshops for years of my life. Dog-Eared is decorated on the outside with painitings of books, and in the window they have an eye-catching display of hand-drawn obituaries of well-known people who have died recently. I’ve meant to draw this bookstore for a while. I stood outside for an amazingly brief 35 minutes, doing all the linework in explosive speed while stood by a parking meter, and added the colour later on (it was starting to get cold).

the obituaries window at dog-eared books

the obituaries window at dog-eared books

Dog-Eared Books was the last sketch I did on my sketching day in the City. I hadn’t intended it to be, I had wanted to close out the last pages of Moleskine 11, but when you’re done you’re done, and I left it on a high. I popped by the excellent Mission Comics for a while for a mooch, picking up a Thanos comic to read on the train home. They had in their rear gallery an exhibit of art called “Batman on Robin”, and yes it was exactly what you are imagining, and a lot more than that too. ‘Graphic’ is putting it mildy. I finished up in the Mission with, of course, a burrito – but this one was different. It was a chicken tikka masala burrito. I will say that again in case you didn’t quite catch the importance of that statement. It was a Chicken Tikka Masala Burrito. Je ne vous merde pas, as they say. What a combination; for me, that’s like going to the San Francisco Giants stadium and watching Tottenham beat Arsenal. It was at a place on Valencia (where else) called “Curry Up Now”, and oh yeah, baby.  And so that was it. I considered going to North Beach for a beer and a sketch at Vesuvio’s or Spec’s, but forgot that this was the day of the big Chinese New Year parade; we had gotten caught trying to get up that stretch of Columbus on the same day last year and it was rather difficult to say the least. So I just went home. My feet were weary enough.

IMG_1881

left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping

Mission Street, SF
San Francisco: I walked around South Beach looking for a Chase cashpoint (their tagline should be ‘Chase – because you have to run around looking for them’) until I finally found one after walking about fifteen thousand miles. The thing about getting money out from cashpoints over here is that it’s so darned expensive if it’s not from your bank. You get charged about two or three bucks by the cashpoint, plus another three bucks by your own bank for daring to get money from someone else. Six bucks just to get out a twenty, just to get change for the bus? You’re having a laugh, ‘int ya? Cash is so old-fashioned anyway. Anyway I finally got some dollar bills, and then because I was already at Market St I decided to hop onto the BART, wich is the Bay Area’s subway system, for which you don’t actually need to use cash (doh!). The BART ticket machines are so bizarre when using cash it is hilarious watching newbies try to figure them out (and I used to be one of them), the whole adding your money, subtracting 5c here and there to reach the right amount, well I’m not making it sound complicated but it really is. I ended up at the Mission District, which is my go-to area when I’m not sure what to do in San Francisco. There’s so much to draw, so many interesting shops, lots of colour and character, great food, great art, and a lurking mix of unbearable hipsterness and extreme danger. I was happy though, because I found a football shirt shop with the Barcelona game on, and chatted to the women working there about football (soccer) shirt designs. This being a big Spanish speaking area you see a lot more people in football shirts, which is a good thing.

I sat on the sidewalk and drew this old closed-down movie theatre, the Tower. I’m drawn to old run-down buildings, with history and personality. I overheard someone ask as they passed me, “why is he drawing that building? Maybe it means something to him.” It doesn’t, but I’ll bet it means something to a lot of other people. One comment when I posted this drawing on my Facebook page told of going to see double-bills for four bucks as a kid. there are lots of old movie theatre buildings about, some repurposed into other things such as stores or religious venues or night clubs, some refashioned into art-house cinemas, and some just left to the termites.

all the people, so many people

sc31 end meetup

The meet-up at the end of the sketchcrawl is always a lot of fun, a great chance to see and ‘wow’ at new work, and the San Francisco group being so big and varied it’s always a pleasure. We met at 4:30 back at the very crowded slopes of Dolores Park, as the Mission sun shone, and fog drifted around Sutro Tower above us. After seeing a few incredible sketchbooks, I decided to catch up on my people sketching. There were some familiar faces (see Jason above with the beard, I have sketched him a couple of times before) and lots of new faces. You can catch up with everybody’s great work on the Sketchcrawl website.

I realised that apart from a little orange and a brownie, I hadn’t actually eaten. So I ran off to a taqueria, El Toro on Valencia, and got myself a grilled salmon burrito (which was great, though next time I’ll not get so much refried beans). Gotta have a burrito in the Mission, eh. I do like a burrito. 

sc31 grilled salmon burrito

I left the Mission by BART, passing down the piss-stenched escalators at 16th & Mission,  and heading back to the Embarcadero. I kept sketching on the way home…more to come…

a thousand things i wanna say to you

sc31 valencia postsc31 valencia musicians

Valencia Street is full of art and artists, drink and drinkers, food and eaters, and interesting folk. Strolling down on the way to Mission Comics and Art I was striuck by these great message posts up and down the street, places where people can post their flyers without getting all over the telegraph poles. Each was decorated with a different colourful headpiece. A little further down, some Mexican musicians were taking a break to tune up their instruments, so they got sketched as well.

Mission Comics and Art on 20th is a great store, one I had not been to before but whom I follow on Facebook. I had a good nose around there, and loved the gallery of Mission comic images at the back. I wanted to get one of Joey Alison Sayers’s zines; I love her stuff, it is hilarious (see her site here) but have had bad luck finding her zines (and I gave the first one I bought years ago to my nephew). When I met her at her stall at SF ZineFest last September, I had already spent most of my money on other (less interesting) zines so only bought one then. I was pleased then to find another one at Mission Comics, “Just So You Know”, which was a lot of fun to read on the train home.

sc31 mission theatresc31 mission corner shop

And then into Mission Street itself. It’s a little bit rougher here, but it’s funny, because it reminds me of London a bit, Kilburn High Road or somewhere. Not the Latin-American feel – you can’t get good proper Mission burritos in London, for sure – more the rough edges. Definitely not the palm trees. I sketched the old Mission theatre, and then a corner shop. I wasn’t finished sketching for the day, but it was time to go and meet up with the other sketchcrawlers at Dolores Park… (to be continued)

gets me to the church on time

sketchcrawl 31 mission dolores

Mission Dolores. It’s the oldest building in San Francisco, and gets picked first in all the football teams. It was very windy by this point in the SF sketchcrawl, and so I hid beside a postbox to sketch it, nestling it on the page between two drawings of local fire hydrants (I’m back! first hydrants I’ve drawn in months). Using the magic of photoshop I have surgically removed them from the drawing so you can read them on their own merit, but if you are interested in seeing the page as it is in my sketchbook, the unaltered piece is at the bottom of the post.

sc31 hydrant 1sc31 hydrant 2

I like the fire hydrants with the little bobbles on top, you see those in the city. It reminded me of an albino smurf, so I had to add this to the collection. I also like those big fat hydrants SF has, like the one on the right. You’d want one of those on your side in a fight, I’m sure, stocky little things. 

After this I walked over to Needles and Pens, just down the street, an excellent zine store. I bought there a copy of the Comic Book Guide to the Mission, which I’ve been looking forward to. I love the cover by Chuck Whelon! I was going to wait until I got to Mission Comics and Art (which was my plan for later that day) before picking it up, as they have the original cover drawing on their gallery wall, but I just could not resist. Anyway, the drawings continued, many more to come…

sketchcrawl 31 page 3

hanging small in a pale blue sky

sketchcrawl 31 blue house

Moving on with the SF Sketchcrawl, I walked up past Dolores Park towards the Castro neighbourhood. I happened upon a particularly interesting and colourful old Victorian, and so I climbed some steps on the building opposite (whose windows were boarded up; I doubted anybody minded) and sketched from a higher elevation. This old house is very cool.

As I sketched, I was myself sketched by fellow sketcher Jana Bouc:

pete sketching in the mission, by jana bouc

More sketching to come… plus added fire hydrants!

man on a mission

sketchcrawl 31 dolores park cafesketchcrawl 31: mission high school

Sketchcrawl 31, continued. Well, this is where the actual sketchcrawl began: Dolores Park Cafe, on 18th St. I went there last year with my friend from London, Simon, but this year I didn’t try any mango smoothies, I just went straight into sketching gear. I stayed in sketching gear all day long, barely stopping to breathe; quite literally on a Mission. One of my missions however was to visit a couple of great zine/comic stores, and I wasn’t disappointed. There were quite a few sketchers there already, many of whom I’d met on previous sketchcrawls – it was nice to see familiar faces. Above left is the cafe itself, and on the right, the ornate domed tower of the Mission High School, directly opposite. I think everybody drew that one.

sketchcrawl 31 enrico casarosasketchcrawl 31 jana bouc

Here are some sketchers, drawn in my small ‘quick people sketches’ moleskine: Enrico Casarosa in the green, with the hat on, he is the founder of Sketchcrawl and the leader of the San Francisco group. On the right, long-time sketching inspiration  Jana Bouc of the Bay Area Urban Sketchers, who accompanied me sketching my long-winded route around the Mission district (always a pleasure to sketch with her). I also met (but didn’t sketch) fellow Urban Sketcher correspondent Gary Amaro, and met up again with fellow Davisite Allan Hollander, who I’d sketched on the way down from Davis. More sketches to come; we’re only on page 2 of 7…