In June I spent an overnighter in the city, San Francisco, staying at the Hilton on a really high up floor, as you’ll recall, I drew from the window next to the elevator while news about Christian Eriksen was still fresh, and I drew the Nob Hill view in great detail. I have always wanted to do a longer panoramic of this view, but rather than go back down there I decided to get a big piece of paper and draw that view once again but this time with the area to the right included, from various pictures I took that morning. So one Sunday evening and late Monday afternoon I drew this, and this will be my piece for the Pence Gallery’s 2021 Art Auction. I decided to leave it uncoloured, unlike the original, and I think that would look good on any wall. Well maybe not any wall, it might look out of place on the Great Wall of China, for example, or on Bob Wall from Enter the Dragon, or on Wall’s Ice Cream, or maybe I’m wrong and it would look great on all those things. Part of this view shows San Francisco’s famous Chinatown, as it leads up towards Nob Hill, and looking out to the left at Sutro Tower, and to the right beyond the wide road of Broadway is Russian Hill. Every block in San Francisco is worth exploring. Every window, a story. Ok, “every window tells a story”, that is a great thing to say when looking out over a cityscape, you should say it to someone next time you are looking over a city, particularly at night, I dunno, it sounds like it’s quite a deep thoughtful thing to say. “Every window tells a story, every story, a universe,” etc. But then you say, “not a very good story,” so you don’t sound like you’re being a nob. “I mean, most stories aren’t very interesting,” you say next. “Most stories are actually not worth telling. We should mind our own business about most stories. Actually stop looking through all those windows, nosy bugger.” That’s what you should say next. It’s true though, about stories. Some are brilliant, most are kind of “ok, skip to the end”. I recently got a subscription to a well-known audiobook provider, and frankly, the past couple of books I’m struggling to finish. I love a good story. The one I’m listening to right now would probably be better if I had just looked at the book, although the storytelling is a bit blah. The narrator however is terrible. When reading the story itself he is ok, reading in a precise actorly tone, but when he does the voices of the characters it’s like he thinks he’s in a 1970s production of “Oliver!”, being completely unable to read any female voice without going into a strange high-pitched fake cockney flower girl voice, “eeeer woss yorr gime?” type thing. I’m deliberately not telling you the name of the book or the narrator. So maybe I will skip audiobooks for a bit and go back to reading paper. My eyes are going a bit though, those mid-forties have caught up with me. As my glasses get stronger for seeing far away, I find I can’t read or see up close as well, so I need to take my specs off and bring the book nearer to me. Same with the sketchbook, or in this case, the big piece of paper. When drawing from life I relied on what I could see with my eyes, and it was a bit easier; drawing from a photo on my ipad screen and then leaning into the paper with my glasses off to see the detail, bit trickier. Yet I completed this all in one evening and an afternoon. The scale is actually the same as in my sketchbook, it just looks a lot bigger because it’s twice as long, and inside a 10×20 inch frame. I really like it, it would look good on any wall. Well, most walls.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, for our anniversary, my wife and I took a couple of days down in the City. That is San Francisco to you. We stayed at the Fairmont Hotel, which is an old San Francisco spot of legend up on Nob Hill – it was here that Tony Bennett first complained to lost and found about losing a vital organ, through the medium of Croon. I’ve always wondered, is that song supposed to be a metaphor, or did he actually leave his actual heart lying around? And his other city based songs, is Chicago really just a tantrum-throwing two-year-old? I don’t know, Tony. I love San Francisco though, it’s honestly one of my favourite places in the world to be. I did leave a shirt there once, hanging in the closet in the Hyatt. Above, Crissy Field, out near the Presidio. We went to the Walt Disney Family Museum, very interesting.
Our room had absolutely stunning views over the City. As the sun went down, before getting ready for dinner, I sketched a couple of the views – the peak of the TransAm Pyramid, golden in the sunset light, and Coit Tower, up on top of Telegraph Hill. I wish I were rich, I would just live in San Francisco for ever and ever and ever. It’s a city that is pricing people out though, so I don’t think drawing a few pictures and writing a few books is going to get me to San Francisco. When Tony Bennett sang that song, he was actually talking about having to farm out his own organs just to cover the rent. Ah, perhaps it’s for the best. One of the things I love about San Francisco is getting to visit it – it is so utterly different from Davis in every way, it’s always a nice change of scenery.
I have sketched this big old church before, Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. I did their Christmas Concert program a few years ago. Since we were staying so close I wanted to get a Sunday morning sketch of it in. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I drew in my new purple Leuchtturm sketchbook that I got in Manchester.
After that, we went to ZineFest, and that was kinda fun. Actually probably enjoyed it more in previous years, I found fewer gems this time around, though I still spent on a few zines. I tended to buy some of the really random ones. We got the Muni back down to Union Square for a little bit of shopping; I bought some underpants at Uni-Qlo, I really like their underpants. I realize you don’t need to know that, but I’m just saying for those of you who also wear underpants (a good deal of you, I suspect), that Uni-Qlo do make really comfy ones. While my wife continued shopping, I sketched Tad’s Broiled Steaks outside, an old eatery on Powell Street. Always wanted to sketch this place, though I don’t of course eat steak. And there you are, San Francisco again. I want to go back!
As mentioned in the previous post, I drew the cover for Grace Cathedral’s 2012 Christmas Concert brochure. Last Saturday my wife and I went down to San Francisco, and up up up Nob Hill, to see the wonderful show itself, courtesy of the cathedral. Naturally I took my sketchbook. While last year I drew the impressive vaulted ceiling all the way down to the singing choir, this year I took a panoramic approach; you’ll have to click on the image for a larger view, I’m afraid. I did all the penwork during the concert, and added the colour when I got home (from my detailed notes – shirt=yellow, hair=brown etc). I have drawn in here a few times now so i am getting used to this impressive space. It is always nice to draw with a cathedral full of singing all around you. The Christmas Concert at Grace Cathedral is a San Francisco tradition, and I’m very honoured to have illustrated their flier and brochure two years in a row. Here they are…
The concert was majestic. I love all the old Christmas songs, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and all that; though I’m not a religious person myself, they make me nostalgic, somehow reminding me more of England than America, Christmas Carols, mince pies, junior school concerts, Harry Secombe on the telly, Shepherds washing their socks by night. There was, almost inevitably, one deeply sad moment: a verse of Silent Night, added to the set following the terrible event that happened the day before in Connecticut. It was a well attended concert, one of several that have taken place this month at Grace; this weekend there are performances of Handel’s Messiah performed by American Bach Soloists. Many thanks once again to Abby and Bruce for giving me this opportunity again. As I have said before, I do love drawing a cathedral!
This year, I was given the honour of illustrating the Christmas Concert Series brochure of Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighbourhood. Last Sunday, with my Mum who was visiting from London, I went down to San Francisco and attended their show ‘A Cathedral Christmas’, performed by the purple-clad Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys. It was a surreal experience seeing so many people clutching copies of a drawing that I had done! My Mum, as mums naturally do, pointed out to a few people, “he did that!” After being introduced to the Dean of the Cathedral, we took our seats and listened to the amazing concert, and what a location! Immediately I got my sketchbook out – it’s not every day I get to attempt a cathedral from the inside. I intend to go back and practise some more! I drew during all the traditional Christmas music, including some pieces by Handel (I’m no expert on this sort of thing, but it was pretty good; I also learnt from my Mum that Handel lived in Edgware for a bit, so we were near-neighbours, a couple of centuries apart) (Good job he never went to Edgware School though, with a name like that he’d have had a pretty obvious nickname).
Many thanks to Bruce and Abby for this wonderful opportunity, and for inviting me to the show. Here’s the Grace Cathedral website: http://www.gracecathedral.org/. And here are the remaining concerts they have this Christmas season, click here. If you’re in San Francisco, I recommend it!
And Merry Christmas everyone! Just another week now, and last week I chopped down my first Christmas Tree (well I say ‘chopped’, I mean ‘sawed’) – there it is in the background of my photo above…
The cable car from Fisherman’s Wharf up to Nob hill cost me five bucks. Five dollars! (You don’t put bourbon in it or nothing?) So I turned the ticket into a piece of art. Well, I sketched on it. Not easy when you don’t have Pritt Stick on you to glue it down. I held it to the paper with my thumb as I sketched (harder than you might think, given it was a really windy day on top of a pretty windy hill), but I liked the image of the cable car so it became part of the sketch. this is the view down California, from Powell. I have sketched this spot before a few years ago in another odd fashion (I don’t seem to ever draw this view normally).
Down the hill we go, to Chinatown. It was Chinese New Year and there were lots of dragons and parades and celebrations going on down there. That was hours before I went, though, so it was much quieter while I sketched. I don’t come to Chinatown often (you go there lots when you’re new to San Francisco, but now I see it as a bit too touristy and cramped – hah, that’s rich after sketching at Pier 39). I like all the colours though, and there is always something to draw. Plus it’s historic, and you can’t beat historic. (Actually ‘cool’ sometimes beats ‘historic’, but this isn’t Top Trumps). This is my favourite spot, on the corner of California and Grant, by the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral.
And so I went shopping, and went home on the train, and had a nice cold beer while waiting to turn 35.
At the top of Nob Hill in San Francisco sits Grace Cathedral. Nob Hill is an interesting neighbourhood – full of big grand hotels and spectacular views, many years ago this windswept hill was too steep for regular San Franciscans to bother reaching, a place for hermits and rich mansion builders to live away from the rabble of the Barbary Coast. The cable car made it more easily accessible and it was by cable car that I made it up hill to sketch Grace Cathedral. I like this big cathedral. It has a labyrinth inside (it’s just drawn on the floor though, not with hedges or minotaurs, and the answers are at the back). That’s right – a Maze in Grace…
I then sat in Huntington Park, in front of the cathedral, and noticed other people out drawing in sketchbooks. The weather was amazing, warm, golden sunlight everywhere, and people were out taking advantage. I sketched a smallish house which I found quite interesting looking.