In July 2020, 24-year-old Nathaniel J. Bice sat in Harry Bridges Plaza across from the Ferry Building and painted a portrait of the San Francisco landmark, with Pride and California flags blowing in the wind. Bice had biked all the way down Market Street and found that, for the first time in a long time, the waterfront area was deserted. The theater professional and set painter just wanted a chance to shake off some of the COVID stress and painting was how he chose to decompress. But that picture would turn his painting hobby into something more.
In the months since, Bice has painted 25 portraits of restaurants, bars, bakeries, and businesses around the Bay Area including legendary burger joint Red’s Java House, Hi Dive Bar, and retro Castro diner Orphan Andy’s. Sometimes he just draws buildings he loves, and sometimes he’s commissioned for his art. In both cases, it’s a way for him to get connected to the city and an industry eager to have his talent represent small businesses. “I honestly walk around the city and see what catches my eye,” Bice says.
Bice grew up in Albuquerque, but found his love of urban sketching while living in Seattle and pursuing his degree in performance production at Cornish College of the Arts. He moved to San Francisco for a fellowship with the American Conservatory Theater, which wrapped in 2019. As Bice’s theater career was just beginning, the pandemic made live performance unsafe. That’s when he opened up his sketchbook again.
He sheltered in place at his partner’s apartment in the city for the first six months of the pandemic, eventually leaving his place in Oakland. Once he moved to San Francisco, Bice found himself adjusting to life in the Church and Market area and his love for drawing came upon him in full force. A painting of the Mission District Bi-Rite was Bice’s first big hit for his ongoing series of paintings of San Francisco food businesses; while he’s found opportunities through word of mouth and his Instagram, the attention he received on Reddit was an early sign he was on the right track. “That painting was more successful than anything I’d done before,” Bice says. “It opened up the idea that I could dedicate my time to this and have it be useful and satisfying.”
As people noticed their favorite bars and restaurants in his paintings, some began to commission him for work. Bice creates his 2-inch-by-3-inch gouache paintings, which is also sometimes referred to as opaque watercolor, on site, taking photos of the work the second he finishes. He loves getting the chance to work directly with local institutions, like Sweet Adeline in Berkeley. A couple who had their wedding cake made by the bakery bought his painting, then Sweet Adeline’s owner commissioned Bice for another, larger version, ultimately printing postcards for the business’ anniversary.
Another such moment came when a woman reached out to Bice on behalf of her partner who loved going out on Lower Haight. He was sad to miss his usual birthday bash at his favorite neighborhood hangouts due to COVID, so looking for another way to celebrate him, she commissioned paintings of both Toronado and Molotov’s as gifts. A painting of Eddie’s Cafe on Divisadero Street was a commissioned gift, too.
While the list of places to paint grows, Bice would love to get plugged into theater again, too. He’s struggling to find the balance between taking theater jobs, like building models for Bay Area scenic designer Nina Ball, and painting commissions now that the world is inching toward normalcy again. Bice has ventured into murals, too, working with Randy Wong-Westbrooke on a Van Gogh mural in San Francisco. “I hope to continue to combine those skills in the future,” Bice says