Wendy MacNaughton’s sketches draw inspiration from SF denizens


Wendy MacNaughton is a fifth-generation San Franciscan – her family dates to the Gold Rush – but she didn’t really know the city until she began to sketch locals in cafes, parks and libraries, at farmers’ markets and Giants games, or riding BART and Muni.


MacNaughton, armed with a 9-by-12-inch sketch pad and pen, has spent years observing and drawing the denizens of San Francisco, whether hipsters in the Mission, workers in Chinatown or residents of Sixth Street. These characters – and dozens more – populate her new book, “Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words.”


“This is my favorite thing to do,” MacNaughton said of her sketches of everyday San Franciscans. “There is endless great subject matter.”


While the book is a playful love letter of sorts to the city’s rich diversity, it also captures the divisions and differences, the haves and have-nots. It is MacNaughton’s first solo book. She illustrated “Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology” (written by her partner, Caroline Paul), and did the drawings for “The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.”


MacNaughton’s art studio on Potrero Hill is a few blocks from the home she shares with Paul, a former San Francisco firefighter. In between the studio and home is Farley’s coffeehouse, where she likes to sit and sketch.


“It’s where I go to loosen up,” said MacNaughton, taking in the scene on a recent morning. “The cafe is perfect because people are sitting, they’re holding still.”


She surveyed the patrons: Most stared at their silver Apple laptops, a few studied their smartphones, and one or two actually chatted. MacNaughton liked the way two men were framed by the front window. She noted the different postures, expressions and details – of hand on chin, white earbuds dangling, coils of bracelets, stickers on computers.


She always uses the same spiral sketchpad, an Aqua Bee with multimedia paper that she can draw on and later paint on in watercolor. She takes pictures of her subjects when there is more detail than she can remember. She can sketch without looking down, and knows to wave and smile and hold up her pad if someone catches her staring.

Universal expressions


MacNaughton, 38, has always loved to draw, though she stepped away from it for years at a time. After graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, she landed a job as a copywriter at the San Francisco ad agency Goodby Silverstein. Her next gig – a world away – came about through a friend who was looking for someone to create a public relations campaign around an election. In Rwanda.


“I was 23 and thought, ‘Sure, I can do that,’ ” MacNaughton said, laughing. “It was Rwanda’s first democratic election, and I came up with these drawings I thought were great. We needed drawings because half the population is illiterate. I had drawings of a tree. Strong. It can bend and flex. It grows. I took it to the head guy there and he says, ‘It means nothing.’ I said something about the metaphor, and he just looked at me with this long face.”


She realized that she needed to talk to people about what the election meant to them, and try to find universal expressions.


“We ended up with a thumbs-up sign with an inky fingertip and the word ‘dutore,’ which means ‘we vote,’ ” she said. “It was a symbol that this is good. To vote you had to use your fingerprint. It turned out to be a very successful campaign, and it changed the way I thought about communication. I really learned how to listen and how to ask open-ended questions.”


She returned to the States, enrolled at Columbia University and got her master’s degree in international social work. She came back to San Francisco and went to work for a nonprofit. It wasn’t until she was commuting on BART that she had the urge to start drawing again.


“I looked around and saw people halfway between their work lives and personal lives,” she recalled. “They were such perfect models. I started sketching people, and it was like an old addiction. I couldn’t stop. I did it every day, and I would come home and paint the drawings.” She got good at drawing quickly, and drawing without looking down. As she drew, she wrote down her ideas of what people were thinking.


She was doing individual illustrations for the online literary magazine Rumpus when she thought of working on longer form narrative illustrations. Her first narrative drawing piece for Rumpus was on the chess players who hang out on Market Street.


“There was a lot of crazy s- going on there,” she said. “I just started writing down everything they said. I spent two to three weeks with them.” She came up with the idea of her book, “Meanwhile,” because of all that goes on in San Francisco on an hourly basis.

Diversity of characters


For “Meanwhile in San Francisco,” MacNaughton spent considerable time with her subjects, ranging from the regulars at the San Francisco Main Library to Chinatown merchants. She hung out in Dolores Park and drew a map of who goes where in the park. She dissected the heralded Mission burrito. She did touching portraits of dog walkers, vegetable vendors and Muni drivers.


“I wanted to have a good diversity of characters and communities,” said MacNaughton. “And I wanted to go into communities that don’t get a lot of press.”


As she left Farley’s to walk to her studio, she made a mental note of a homeless man holding a sign. She looked at the people waiting for the bus. She saw subjects to draw everywhere she looked.


“Working in advertising taught me to tell stories,” she said. “Working in the nonprofit world made me want to give voice to the underrepresented. I love what I do.”



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