I’m still in not-scanning-my-drawings-quickly-enough hell, but it’s time to catch up with this past summer’s travel fun. I went to England, France and Belgium earlier in summer, to attend my brother’s wedding, spend time with my family, take my dad out for his birthday, ‘experience’ the (now-dead) Queen’s 70th Jubilee, then escape the (now-dead) Queen’s 70th Jubilee and get some quality sketching time in Lille and all over Belgium in rain and sun and cloud. One trip back over to the home countries is not enough for this sketcher, so in July we took England and France trip #2, this time with my wife and my son. Or rather, just my son at first, as my wife stayed back for a few more days to care for our sick cat. So, my son and I went to San Francisco airport to catch our plane to London. We got there well early, had a nice dinner, played some MarioKart on our 3DS devices, iPads well stocked with Ghibli films to watch on the journey, and sat and waited to board our BA flight. Right as the boarding time came up, we were still waiting. A few whispers, I don’t think we’re getting on this plane. Then as we were preparing to board, it was announced the flight was cancelled because, get this, the tyre had been damaged upon landing, and they did not have a spare anywhere at the airport that fit that plane. It was a particularly big plane, double-decker. So, they said, they have to have a new tyre sent up from LA on a big truck. We ain’t flying tonight. Lots of confused people. We waited to get our bags, we waited in line for information as to whether we could board another flight, but no can do, they had already cancelled a flight earlier in the day because Heathrow wanted fewer incoming international flights that week due to staffing issues. Now I am usually travel lucky, as you know. Things usually work out. So to have my flight cancelled when travelling with my son was not ideal, but we made the best of it. My wife was able to find us a hotel quickly nearby to the airport (too late to go back to Davis), while we waited to see if BA could fly us the next day. It wasn’t cheap, but thankfully BA covered the cost. And there we stayed, me and my son sitting in the room playing our ukuleles, racing each other on MarioKart, watching Disney Plus shows. We went back to SFO the next day for many more hours of waiting. They were able to finally get our flight scheduled, although we still had to wait in a very long line of about 2.5 hours to check in. I recognized many of the faces from the previous evening’s lines. Some people from Ireland who had long missed their connecting flight, a few English people, and loads of people from Scotland, specifically Aberdeen, so I spent a lot of time listening to the Aberdonian accent which is a pretty nice accent. It seemed like spending one more night in San Francisco was not necessarily the worst thing in the world, although drab hotels near the airport aren’t exactly Mai-Tais at the Fairmont. That line was long, slow and exhausting. My son went and sat on a bench and read his book, played his 3DS, watched his iPad. I sketched a bit using a blue brush pen from Belgium, see above. Had to document the experience. I also played my 3DS, read a book, listened to a podcast, anything to pass the time. Eventually, we checked back in. We went to security. We had another dinner at the terminal. And finally, we made it onto the plane. It took another couple of hours to take off, but it took off. Our section was not crowded; I think several people may have found another flight. Our seats were nice, and it was exciting to land back in London, finally, very very tired, and see my mum. My son was happy to be back in London again after over three years since the last visit, and we got a travel story to tell. It all worked out in the end.
There’s a lot to explore in San Francisco, and I like a bit of urban hiking. The problem is that whenever I go to the city I usually only have a limited amount of time, most of which is spent stood on a pavement clutching a sketchbook in an awkward-looking but comfortable manner, drawing some building, and that takes up time. If I wander too far, I might miss the Amtrak bus back to Emeryville. A bit of urban hiking is fun though, although in this city it’s more like urban mountaineering, the hills are so steep. I had seen a few interesting city-scape views online that I’d not seen before, ones that would make good sketches, so I looked up the path to Corona Heights, a large hill between the Castro and the Haight, and filled with energy from a little sugary bag of Turkish Delight I’d bought at the Ferry Building I scaled the steep streets and found my way to the orange rocky promontory at the top, with a near 360 degree panoramic view of San Francisco. There were a few people up there, people with their little dogs, people just sat chilling and taking in the view, and the sun had come right out and was giving it all that. I always love to draw this city from above, so I found a spot in the shade of a rock and drew furiously. It was a lot of observation, although didn’t take too long. Drawing a scene like this you have to match things up like a puzzle, but also be careful not to put too much detail, and this pretty much reflects how my eyes were able to see things. Having the big rock formation in the foreground helped give it some perspective but also helped to make the job of drawing the landscape much easier, breaking it up so the view is more manageable. I remember drawing a similarly-sized panorama overlooking the city from Telegraph Hill years ago and it took ages, but was way less detailed, and I think it was because it overwhelmed me a bit. I take any opportunity I can to draw a cityscape but some are easier than others. This one for me represents a nice day, more than anything, exploring an area I’d not been to before. I got a text from my son while I was at the top, my new Casio keyboard had arrived, so I could play some tunes when I got home. I bought myself a keyboard to mess around with, not an expensive one, just one so that if I feel the need I can start playing a little music. I haven’t played a keyboard since I was at school, when I learned a bunch of chords from a teach-yourself-easy-keyboard book I got with my Christmas present keyboard in 1988. It’s nice having one again, and I’m already figuring out a few tunes. Anyway I think of that now when I look at this sketch.
Afterwards I headed towards the Haight, so it was downhill, uphill, downhill, repeat. The streets curved and I might have gotten very lost were it not for that smartphone that keeps us all where we are meant to be, doesn’t it. I have been lost in some great cities. Paris, Porto, Portland. Even London, where those late night buses would take me to parts of the world I’d only heard rumours of, after I’d fallen asleep and the driver said it was the last stop. One time in Edinburgh back in the late 90s, I was leading my group of festival-flatmates back to our shared digs from the theatre, and we were so lost that they decided to go their own way, while I continued on my route. After about 30 minutes of being even more lost, I actually bumped into them again, coming in the opposite direction. They laughed at me for being even more lost, but they were lost too weren’t they? Still they ended up following me and we found the house, but I never heard the end of it. Thing of the past now, with our modern world. So I didn’t get lost, but I wandered about and saw some amazing houses. One of them I saw from below as I climbed Masonic Avenue, the rear looking like something from a Ghibli film, and I thought about drawing it then. However when I reached the top of the hill, I was blown away by the front, a picturesque brick house adorned with hearts for Valentines Day, with pink blossoms lined the street. The garden was very pretty and there was a sign calling it ‘le Petit Chateau des Cavaliers’ above a picture of two dogs. It wasn’t ‘petit’, but there were cavaliers; a man came out walking two cavalier King Charles spaniels, who I’m assuming are the masters of the house. I used to have a dog like that when I was a kid, she was called ‘Lady’ but I just knew her as ‘Soppydog’. I told him that this house was really beautiful and had brightened up my day hugely, as I was juts wandering around the city. He said it was a hundred years old. I stood on the corner opposite and did a very cursory outline sketch, but didn’t want to stand here too long and decided it was a ‘do later’. So I ‘did later’, drawing it on the train and back at home around the outline I had started. I went down to the Haight, and didn’t do any more drawing there because, well, I always forget I don’t like the Haight that much. So I went for a bit more urban hiking, and climbed Buena Vista Park, before making my way down again to catch the N-Judah down at Duboce. Day in the city, done. Though I did stop into the Lego store on the way home.
A few weeks ago I took the train down to San Francisco for a day of wandering and sketching. It was just before my birthday, and I needed a day out with the sketchbook. You can only draw so much Davis. I didn’t have a plan as to where I would go, but I thought I would like to try climbing one of the big hills for a big vantagepoint view over the city. I knew the weather was supposed to be nice, though it started off foggy as you’d expect with the city. I took the super early train down from Davis, walked over to the Ferry Building to get the little bombolini from the lady that sells them there, I have my habits. This is what I do, I don’t mind being predictable. When I am long gone what will be remembered is that I would get the early train into the city for a sketching day and start off eating little bombolini, one filled with nutella, the other with lemon cream. In the book of my life that will be one of the scenes they film, over a soundtrack of a nice song I like, something by Belle and Sebastian. I decided to go sketching up in the Castro. It’s been quite a few years since I was sketching up there, and I wanted to draw something colourful. The last panorama I did in the Castro, back in 2013 before a sketchcrawl, I’d left uncoloured apart from the red sign of the Castro Theatre. The panorama above, which I sketched in the shade on the corner of 18th and Castro, was a lot of detail. So, I drew as much as possible in the almost-hour I stood there, added in a few spots of red and a few rainbows, and coloured in the rest later, which itself took ages.
I actually drew this one first, while the morning fog still lingered, on the corner of 17th and Castro looking up towards Sutro Tower. I added in the watercolor while standing there, the sky had a strange pearlescence, and people lined up at the cafe across the little street form where the F car stops to get their brunch (it may have been a late breakfast / brunch, which is sometimes shortened to ‘lunch’). There was a guy camped at the bus stop, and there was a fair bit of odor wafting up, so I just remember a farty smell now when remembering sketching this, so I wanted to be done and run. I had decided I would go exploring up Corona Heights, but would draw around the Castro first, maybe eat lunch myself down there. I had a burrito at a place near 18th, and it was not very good. I didn’t even finish it. I had some Turkish Delight that I had bought at the Ferry building though, and that gave me some energy when climbing up the steep hills later that day.
Above, this is a very quick sketch of the Ferry Building I did while waiting for the F streetcar to arrive on Market. I splashed a bit of watercolour on there for effect. I did the same on the other half of the page when I got on the F, and as it dried I added some lines in while we trundled uphill towards the Castro. This is a fun way to draw while on public transport. I haven’t spent a lot of time on any public transport for quite a while, save for the Amtrak occasionally, so i was glad that it wasn’t too busy and that they have a number of single seats still. These old streetcars are well known – they aren’t the famous San Francisco cable cars, but these historic vehicles originate form all over the world and have found a new home here in the city. You can learn more about them at: https://www.streetcar.org/streetcars/. The one I was on was a classic San Francisco original from the 1950s, but many others come from Milan, Philadelphia, Zurich, Kansas City, Melbourne, even Japan. I do love the streetcars. When I spent a year in Belgium, some Saturdays I would go wandering in Brussels and would get on the streetcars there until the end of the line, and just read my book while the streets of Ixelles, Etterbeek, Laeken passed by outside.
Below are a couple more sketches I attempted on the Castro before climbing big hills. The first, two big old houses where I just drew the outline and the alley, and ended up juts not bothering with the rest. The page is a bit dirty because as you can see from the sketches below, I decided to use coloured pencil to do some brass rubbing (well, masonry really), I saw the word ‘Castro’ on a stone plaque on the street and thought ‘that would look good in my sketchbook’, having seen someone else do that a couple of days before. Maybe it would have worked better not on the fairly thick Moleskine paper, because you can barely read it. So i drew some people instead with pencil. I didn’t get any interesting characters (such as the naked guy who I’d usually see passing by every other time I come here) but sketched a few passers-by and went off up the hill. I’ll post that next time.
Many of my favourite things to do got sidelined during the pandemic. Going to the cinema – I loved doing that. The last thing I’d watched at a cinema was Sonic The Hedgehog; I was determined not to have that be the last thing I saw at a cinema before the cinemas all closed down and replaced with streaming. I love travelling to other countries, not exactly an easy thing to do even now. My last trip to the UK was November 2019. And I love to sketch in pubs. I love to sit at the bar, nice slow pint, sketchbook out, putting the atmosphere of the pub on the paper. Historic old pubs, all the better. I’ve missed that. So, down in the city for the third time in less than three months, I found myself in the Inner Sunset neighbourhood, on my way for an afternoon wandering about Golden Gate Park, because I’ve not really spent much time doing that. I had some new green paints and fancied drawing a bit of foliage. I am usually bored by foliage but I thought, different park innit. However, I needed a wee. I didn’t think I could wait to go looking for the public toilets in the park, so I stopped by the Little Shamrock pub on Lincoln, which dates back to 1893. As I approached, I could see through their open window that they still have a sketch of the pub that I drew in 2013 hung proudly on the wall, next to all the historic photos and articles about the old place. That was a nice surprise, and a sign that maybe I didn’t need to go to the park just yet. so I decided to stop here; you still have to show the vaccination card to get a drink, but it wasn’t very busy and I found a lovely table by that open window for the breeze (and I was sat beneath my old sketch). And over a couple of beers, I drew the scene above, which is my first pub interior since 2019. I was pretty pleased with it. It surely ate into my foliage sketching time, but pah, I prefer sketching a pub. The couple seated at the bar were, I guess, on their way to the baseball to see the Giants, the man was in a Buster Posey jersey. That brings me back to 2012, 2013 myself, when we were watching the Giants a lot ourselves. Back when they were winning stuff. Posey was the young buck; he’s still there. I haven’t watched baseball in about eight years. I think the game I was watching might still be going on. Anyway there is a lot to sketch, all the flags, all the colourful lamps, all the ornately shaped chairs. The dark areas, the light areas, oh I have missed this. I spent a good hour and a half or so in there. Here’s my old exterior sketch on the wall, I love the red frame. Makes me feel like part of the story.
And here is my other sketch from 2013, for a bit of ‘Throwback Thursday’ on a Saturday. This was done sat at the bar. I remember listening to a couple next to me talking about the art world, I think they worked in galleries, so I knew I was in good art company. I usually am, in the city. I had just attended the annual ZineFest, and was armed with some of my own zines, that short bar-zine I produced back then, Davis Bar-By-Bar. The guy who worked there even bought one, and really liked my sketches of the day, and not too long after that they must have bought that print of the exterior sketch, because next time I came here with my wife we saw it in there. It’s a great old pub this, maybe my favourite in the city (well top two, I do love Specs down on Columbus) it would be nice to come back in the evening some day. I’m not quite ready for busy bars right now though, but this was a fun way to spend the afternoon, and involved very little foliage sketching.
I did go to Golden Gate Park though, eventually, wandered about. But there were a lot of people, a lot of cars, and not really enough things I wanted to draw. There was a long line to go into the Japanese Gardens, and it was a bit expensive for the amount of time I’d have been in there, so I gave it a miss. I wandered without sketching, and headed back to the Inner Sunset.
I used a bit of the green paint. After stopping for a cookie at a counter, I crouched down on the corner of Judah and 5th and sketched this hydrant with a nobbly top. There’s always a fire hydrant. These ones with the little metal bobbles on their hat are very specific to San Francisco. I was told years ago that it was for the horses, the fire horses would be tied to the big ball on top of the hydrant. That’s true, I’m going to say. It has been a while since I drew a hydrant like this too, I think.
I had wanted to go across the park to the area along Clement, to finally find Green Apple Books, to explore a part of town I’d not been to. Alas I never made it. But there is another branch of Green Apple Books right here, “By The Park”, so I went in for a browse and picked up a little postcard book of artwork from My Neighbour Totoro. I had a little bit of time before I had to jump on the Muni back downtown, so I stood in the street and drew as much as a I could of the shop and the view up 9th. The fog had rolled in by this point, but it had been a really nice day. I had to finish it off later, but I was tiring and needed to get back to Davis. Another well-worth-it day out in the city, I can’t wait for the next one. I’m already studying the map for more exploring. ‘Sketchploring’. I am a sketchplorer. Or maybe a sketchsplorer?
A few weekends ago, I went down to the city for the day. It was my third trip to San Francisco since June, that is, my third trip to San Francisco since months before the pandemic even began. Making up for lost time, making the most of an opportunity to get out of Davis, catching up on the sketching for this year. Lately I have found it harder to fit the sketching in, what with the heat, the soccer coaching (I have been tending to spend lunchtimes desperately trying to plan practices), and also the thing about having drawn everything in Davis and the need to go and draw something new. So, I went to San Francisco, and drew some things I have drawn before. It was a Sunday, and I arrived in the middle of the city right by the Westfield on Market, where I made a beeline for the Lego store. So much great stuff. It was also lunchtime by this point, so I went to the Food court. Now on the way down, my wife had mentioned to me, oh by the way I think San Francisco requires you to show your vaccination card to get into anywhere to eat. Um what? I didn’t bring it, I had no idea. Thankfully I remembered that I had a scan of it uploaded into my UC Davis profile, which I was able to access because, for sure, they checked them before entering the food court, where I had a delicious chicken philly sub. That saved me from a day of eating Snickers bars from train station vending machines. Anyway, well fed and ready to sketch, I headed out into Market Street and looked for a building I last drew about nine years ago. It is the big one with the dome, no not that one, the smaller one with the green dome and a big sign saying ‘The Hibernia Bank’. I’ve always just called this the ‘Hibernia Bank Building’, meaning I assume it’s actually called something else obscure like the ‘Howlett-Summers-Grey Building’ or ‘Number 1 Jones’ something. But no, it’s called the Hibernia Bank Building, and it dates back to 1892. Yes, before the Earthquake in 1906, which it totally survived, probably giving it all “call that a quake?”. Well it had a bit of damage in the fire but not too badly. The architect was a man called Albert Pissis, but I’m not going to make fun of his name, that would be taking the p-, er, that would be taking the mick. It’s a great looking building though, placed at an angle against Market which cuts diagonally through the edge of the grid. Below, that’s the sketch I did back in 2012, obviously from a few steps further along the street,
Okay, back from 2012 to 2021. Did I ever imagine nine years later I’d be sketching the same thing, but this time on the other end of a pandemic which has done what it’s done? No of course not. But drawing the same thing again over a period of many years does provide a kind of constant to anchor yourself to in time. Yes, I rewatched Lost recently, I love that oddball Faraday. When I was done with this sketch I decided I’d take the Muni up to the Inner Sunset, sketch around the Park. I had to stop though to take a look at the San Francisco City Hall. There was a market going on at UN Plaza, so I stood in the middle of the sunlight for a few quick minutes and sketched the big dome, which is the other big dome I referred to earlier. That was foreshadowing. Actually its not really foreshadowing if it’s not really a big event is it? It’s more like a callback. A small reference made earlier to a small reference I would be making later. I don’t think there will be any more of those, so don’t worry if you weren’t paying attention. So City Hall – this was where my friends James and Lauren, visiting from England, got married back in 2015, with me as the only witness. A beautiful day in the city that was, one I will always remember. The interior is pretty breathtaking, beneath that big dome. Now though, Civic Center Plaza is home to a huge homeless encampment, which is mostly fenced off.
I’ve drawn this here big dome before, but I’m not going that far back. It’s further back than 2012. Ok, you’ve twisted my arm. Here are a couple – the first was done in, gulp, 2007, while the second was in a much more recent feeling 2009. Oh mate. I have been sketching San Francisco since 2006, and it turns out that’s a long time ago. Like, when I first sketched San Francisco, it was as far away in time from now as it was from when I was a gangly fifteen year old at school playing guitar and obsessing about Spurs and spending my Saturdays wandering about London or in libraries reading books about languages and drawing big fantasy buildings and writing silly stories. Haha, ok when you put it like that, maybe I’m not too different. Anyway here they are.
I did go to Inner Sunset but I will leave that for another post, because I can tell you need a sit down after this hike down memory lane. I think when you decide to head off on that trail, the memory lane, you need a guide to tell you if it will be ‘easy’, ‘moderate’, ‘difficult’ or just ‘bloody painful to think about’. I look at pictures from the olden days, the long long ago, and it gets me a bit sad. You can’t pause time, can you, it just won’t let you. (Admittedly we did try to back in March 2020, and we would have gotten away with it, but the months since just slid by like a shot of whiskey on a long saloon bar. Speaking of which, my next post will feature My First Interior Bar Sketch Since 2019, which is quite a milestone. You’ll have to wait for that though.
Speaking of waiting – nice callback there* – when I first arrived at Richmond station for the BART train into the city, I had to wait for 29 minutes for a train, 29 minutes that felt a lot longer than 29 minutes (just like years, the first 29 last forever, then after that you’re on a speeding train that ain’t stopping till it stops), so I got the sketchbook out, and drew. The sketch took about 15 minutes, because I needed time to fiddle about with my iPod deciding whether to listen to an audiobook or a podcast, and also there was an odd man loudly muttering nearby. Plus ça change…
(*Sorry not a callback, that was a segue)
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.
After waiting on Market Street for a long time for a bus that was never going to come – it seems some services were reduced or cut during the pandemic, but the bus stop obviously didn’t like to say – I jumped on an N-Judah Muni metro up to Duboce, on the way to my next destination that day, Alamo Square. I realized that I had not been to Alamo Square in about a decade, when my mum had visited from England and we went to see the ‘Painted Ladies’, that row of Victorian houses sloping down the eastern side of the park, with the backdrop of San Francisco behind them. I had not actually been there to draw in even longer – July 2008, if you can believe it. The drawing I did that day is below. I remember that I came down for an overnight sketching trip while my wife had gone up to Oregon, and covered a lot of ground, wandering and taking the bus and really connecting the city together in ways I’d not done before.
The big Victorian houses around here are impressive, many that pre-date the 1906 earthquake and firestorm, as they were saved from the flames. Alamo Square park sits on high ground overlooking the city from a distance, and that backdrop has changed a lot since 2008. The massive Salesforce tower for one, that wasn’t even a twinkle in the architect’s eye. The Painted Ladies – unpainted in this case, and you can click on the above image for a more close-up view – might be the most photographed, painted, drawn view in the city, maybe even more than the Golden Gate Bridge itself. It’s a romantic view alright; while I was sketching a wedding took place nearby, and there were lots of couples out enjoying the view. It was a sunny day, but breezy, easy to sunburn, lovely to look at. Most of the groups of people in the park were young, enjoying the day, making memories I guess. I drew and drew and drew, two hours I sat there on the grass, really working those eye muscles to try and see all the details in the distance. By the time I was done my body said “no painting, leave it, time to move along”. If I had been staying overnight, I might have sat there longer and added in the colours, but I think this way you can imagine them yourself. The Painted Ladies aren’t painted very brightly – they are different colours, but are quite muted. I should have drawn them arranged like a Zoom screen, very 2020-2021. Alamo Square park was busy, but not as crowded as Dolores Park was when I sketched a panorama there in June. There was a lot of space around me still. It’s quite an uphill walk to reach here though, I walked from Duboce Park, where I last sketched a few years ago, up Pierce and past the corner with Haight that I also sketched a few years ago, stopping off for a cold soda and of all things an Aero bar (this one corner shop had a lot of British chocolate for some reason), before climbing the steep hill to get here.
On the other side of the square, over the hill where they let the dogs run free, I stopped to draw this big imposing mansion on the corner of Fulton and Scott. It had a very ghost story, whodunnit, creepy mystery hotel look about it, and if I’d had the time I would love to have drawn the whole things in more details. The day was moving along though, so I kept it quick. I had more wandering to do before zipping back across town to get the Amtrak bus. Besides as I drew, I noticed that, hey man, I’m kinda stinky. I didn’t think I’d been particularly sweaty, after all I hadn’t walked as much as usual by this point, and surely I would have noticed when I was sat drawing in the park. It could only be me though, there were no other people around. It was a strong stench too, to the point where I moved right away when people passed me in the street, it was embarrassing. I imagined the train home, people getting on and sitting down nearby then moving further away. I would really need a long shower when I got in. I stood next to some purple flowers to draw this thinking maybe they will mask the B.O. smell. When I was done with the sketch I walked back through the park, and noticed that the smell was gone, and I wasn’t stinky any more. That was weird, it definitely smelled like sweaty sketcher smell. Oh well, maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Then I passed by a flowerbed containing more of those purple flowers and whoosh, that smell was back. It wasn’t me, it was the flowers! Flowers genetically evolved to smell like sweaty human. They were pretty gross. I walked away and yep, smell was gone. Relieved that I wasn’t a stinky sod, I walked about the Fillmore neighbourhood, where I hadn’t walked since my 2008 walkabout. You can see where the zone of big Victorian houses abruptly ends in the Western Addition. I passed through the Fillmore (a street worth another sketching day to itself, with its history of Jazz music and of the African-American community) on my way to Japantown. I didn’t get a lot of time to spend here but I went into one second-hand bookshop, and nosed around the little plaza of Japanese stores and restaurants before sketching the big Peace Pagoda building at the Japantown Peace Plaza. The San Francisco Japanese community was torn apart during World War II with the awful legacy of internment camps, a part of US history not talked about often enough. There’s a graphic novel by George Takei “They Called Us Enemy” that I am going to read, about his experiences during that time. It wasn’t busy around here that late afternoon, but still there was a good atmosphere, summer in the city. I walked off to catch a bus after sketching this, and head back home.
To catch a bus – yeah, I’d not really been on a bus in a city since the pandemic began, not even in Davis. Let alone San Francisco, where the buses are typically full of people quite close together. Sure, we’re all masked up but I was a bit anxious still about being in close proximity to people, and it was a long ride. I had decided not to walk down to the N-Judah metro, the bus was closer and would take me all the way to the Amtrak bus. Well as people got on and off and shuffled past I decided to bail out at the Tenderloin, getting a bit more space on the streets. I headed off to the big mall on Market to grab some food, getting slightly sidetracked by the discovery of the Lego store (I can’t help myself), before finally heading home. It was a long day in the city, tiring, productive and I’d done a bit of exploring, a it of learning, and now I have a bit of reading to do too. All worth the $62 round trip fare I guess. It was still about forty degrees cooler than it was in Davis, and that’s always worth it.
It was too hot in Davis (stop the press!) so I took a 7am train down to somewhere much cooler, San Francisco, where I got sunburnt. It always happens. I put on lots of sunscreen, but those rays still get through that fog. It was breezy too, and it’s easy to forget. In Davis that never happens because it’s so hot I am never out of the shade. still, it was a nice day to be out and about. I arrived early, so I could spend a bit of time around the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building. I’d not been there since before the pandemic; there were a lot of people around, but it wasn’t too crowded. I even got my favourite food in this city, these little ‘bombolini’, small doughnut things filled with lemon or custard or nutella. Absolutely delicious, and worth the $62 round trip Amtrak ticket to get down here. Yeah, it’s not cheap getting down to the city these days. But a break from the oppressive heat Davis, it’s always a good idea. I stood on a long wooden log and drew the Ferry Building, as that morning fog drifted in and burned out. A bit like myself; I drifted into the city in the morning, and then by the end of the day I burned out. I got a lot of sketching and wandering done in the meantime though.
I drew some of the people who were in the market that morning. That guy in red was wearing a 2006 Spain shirt. I always think of Robin Williams when I come here. I remember spending a weekend here with my wife in the late 2000s and we came down to the Ferry Building Farmers Market and there he was, Robin Williams, buying some food. Always makes me feel a bit sad. He lived locally, until his passing in 2014; they eventually named the tunnel you pass through after the Golden Gate Bridge after him.
I turned around after drawing the Ferry Building and the people and drew the view looking the other way. The sun was out a bit more now, but I needed to draw this SoMa skyline as it has changed so much in the decade and a half since I moved out here. Even this scene here, that building behind Gate B is where I used to pick up the Amtrak bus after a day in San Francisco, but that’s all been redeveloped into a nice plaza now. Many of those tall buildings weren’t here a few years ago; it’s like London and San Francisco are competing for new skylines every time I’m away. Still I enjoy drawing all these details. I had to wait until later to add the colour though, because the day was moving along and so was I. Lunch was a couple of tasty Argentinian empanadas from inside the Ferry Building, and then I wandered over to Market to decide where I would wander next. As before I didn’t really have a plan, I just wanted to sketch somewhere I didn’t sketch in June, but somewhere with a good view and somewhere I could just sit for ages looking at it. Find out next time where I ended up…
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.
So, I went down to San Francisco for the first time in nearly two years for an overnighter. It was a beautiful early evening as my Amtrak bus crossed the Bay Bridge; I had come down on the train after work on a Friday and it was still light enough when I got there to get to the hotel, and get out for some sketching before dinner. My hotel was tall – I was on the 23rd floor, so I had an amazing view over the city. I couldn’t resist drawing some of that view from my hotel room window, while I didn’t colour it in or finish all the details it was great to sit at a desk and look over this view, even with my increasingly poor eyesight. Sutro Tower poked out above the fog-free sky, and the evening light was soft. But I wanted to get outside and wander, to see what was different about the city in my two year absence.
First of all, the restaurants and bars all have outdoor seating on specially built wooden platforms that come out into the street. It makes a lot of the areas around North Beach feel quite crowded, and more claustrophobic than before. I was right by Chinatown, and many of the restaurants there had the same thing, and were fairly busy. A few places were closed; the Comstock Saloon (which I drew two years ago, while enjoying a delicious cocktail). still had boards over the windows, with signs dated March 2020 saying they were closing for a bit. With so many other places still operating (such as Mr Bing’s across the street, which was positively bursting with merry drinkers on its wooden platforms) it was a shame to see the Comstock closed. I sketched in the street in Chinatown stood in the gap between two covered outside seating areas, the Great Star Theatre, but didn’t bother adding colour.
Everywhere in North Beach was quite crowded, so I found a less busy restaurant down the quieter end of Columbus, and had some gnocchi. I grabbed a cannoli at Mara’s for dessert, before stopping at Vesuvio’s for an Anchor steam before bed. I sat in the small outdoors platform, with the traffic of Columbus zooming by, and drew the above. There were many people sat at tables in the well-lit Jack Kerouac alley in between City Lights and Vesuvio, you had to be directed to your seat by the Vesuvio door man and service was table-only, but you could go in to sue the toilet. In fact there was limited seating indoors too but very limited, and all taken. As things open up a bit more, things will start getting back to some kind of normal, I am just glad to see that Vesuvio, and my favourite place across he street, Spec’s, is still operating in These Unusual Times. I finished up by beer and my sketch and went to bed; my hotel was only five minutes’ walk away.
So when I woke up in the morning, I popped down to the donut place on the corner of Kearny and Columbus, and did an early sketch of that very scene looking down past Vesuvio, toward the TransAmerica Pyramid. I have of course drawn this view a few times before. It was 8:30am but already warm, for the city. I drew what I could and then headed back to the hotel to watch the Denmark-Finland game, which turned out to be the one in which Christian Eriksen collapsed. I went out after the game was abandoned (temporarily as it turned out) and sketched for the rest of the day. I’ll post those another time. It was good to finally be back in the city, I’ve missed it, but it’s not yet the same. I suppose in this city, it’s never the same.