San Francisco Before the City

500 years ago: imagine standing on Nob Hill in present San Francisco looking eastward towards the East Bay, Mt Diablo barely visible in the distance. The middle ground Bay shore to the right is the site of downtown SF, since filled in with landfill. Market Street with tall skyscrapers would fill the view today. Treasure Island lies in the middle distance, and Oakland and Berkeley are in the background shore. Sand hills, coastal prairie with diverse bunchgrasses, California buttercups (Ranunculus californicus), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), lilac bushes (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), and a shed tule elk antler are visible in this early scene of San Francisco past. 

San Francisco View From Nob Hill, 500 Years Ago. Oil on panel, 11 x 21.5 inches, 2003. Private collection.

I painted the bay waters with a glaze of verdigris in Copaiba balsam to make a translucent glassy effect that differs from the opaque greens of the grassy hills and flats. The glaze was placed over a bright white acrylic gesso ground, and light bounces off this white ground through the glaze to add sparkle to the water. This is something you can better appreciate when viewing the original painting.

Over the green glaze I added touches of ultramarine blue and a bit of alizarin crimson to moderate the green hue. The sky is painted with ultramarine blue and a lot of white to give the feel of clear oceanic air, and a cold humidity that dances in the wind, slightly obscuring the distance.


This photo I took shows the same scene today, looking down towards Market Street. This landscape has changed drastically, and I had to do a lot of research using old maps, descriptions from historical accounts, botanical archives, as well as searching out relict natural areas in the city.

Imagination, art, and science, combined to model an early California landscape.

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