top of page

Realism from a San Francisco Painter

With a touch of Impressionism, San Francisco painter Calvin Lai explains his process of making realistic paintings of the San Francisco cityscape

The studio never really gets cozy, but I’ve settled in for the day. A heavy downpour filters its constant rattle throughout the building. Since I don't have a window,I can only imagine how the wet streets mirror the city above them. The real world floating on top of it’s murky doppelgänger below. I had planned to take photos for more cityscapes this afternoon, but I waited too long and now it's dark outside. It's all right though. Paintings don't paint themselves, and I don't mind staying in. So I'll work till my eyes start to itch again, then head home to my cat and my clarinet.... I like these moments. It's a good day to be an artist.

I mix some white with terra rosa, yellow ochre, and a touch of blue. For the commission I’m working on, I’m having trouble matching the subject’s skin tone with my palette. It’s the blue that makes it. People don’t realize that it takes a little bit of blue or green to get it right. Little tricks you learn with realistic paintings. But then all skin is affected by light and shadows, so in reality one needs to mix several colors for a person. Often times I’ll begin each day by mixing one shade after another to get a general spectrum of skin tone to work with. By the end of the day my palette is crowded with different colors and shades all to capture how a cheekbone recedes into the background. I’m fascinated with mixing colors, but it’s not this that I love about painting. One mark can say so much. It can define, or direct, or describe. Anything you intend it to do is possible. From Impressionism to Realism to abstract, painting’s ability to range from the suggestive to the descriptive is what I love, and I strive to achieve this in my own work.

What Does it Take?

With a touch of Impressionism, San Francisco painter Calvin Lai explains his process of making realistic paintings of the San Francisco cityscape

Before being a San Francisco painter I was a dreamer. I would dream of images, and those images haunted me. Sometimes they would be visions from my mind, other times they would be people I've met, things that I've seen. I don't know why I felt the urge to put down on paper what I saw in my head, but I had to do it. Otherwise it would gnaw at me, and I would obsess over it until I got a chance to grab my pencils and papers. Even when I did get that chance I would obsess over the image. I'd labor over each line. I'd make sure the shading was perfect. I'd berate myself when it didn't look right. When I was young I never wondered who I was doing it for. It didn't feel like it was just for me. Nor did it feel like something I did to impress others. I just did it, always wondering how to get better.

I've thought a lot about art over the years. I've thought about what elements are needed to make an artist become good, and help a good one become great. Not sure if I’ve figured it out yet, though I’ve got some notions that may be original, borrowed, or stolen, I can’t remember which.. I don’t think anyone asks to be an artist. Why it happens is a mystery. There are different opinions and explanations based on genes, environment, or a combination of both. But in the most lucid moments, I realize that art is an entity in itself. It channels the creative urge through people like me, the ones that need to create. So perhaps being open to the force where creativity comes from is what makes an artist successful. It will remain even after you put down your palette or run out of paint. For me, it sheds some light on what it takes, but doesn’t completely illuminate the reasons why. Viscerally I feel that there is something else. Another component that I haven’t yet uncovered. There’s still mystery in art, I’m still searching.

And Now a San Francisco Painter

Within the realm of realistic paintings there's a lot of variety. There are many different ways to interpret realism. I know because I've gone through a lot of phases with my own work. Even now my art is still evolving. But I've gone from near photorealism to a style that combines this with elements of Impressionism, even combining techniques that fall between these two. With painting you can do that. It's something that makes being a painter, especially a San Francisco painter, full of great possibilities. I'm grateful for this, and I keep that in mind everyday when I can spend it in my studio putting the visions within my head out into the world for everyone to see. But I still wonder where this comes from. Where does this urge to create come from? And what do I need to do in order to get better and be the best possible artist I can be? I think that all artists need to be a little bit uncertain. It helps us with our reasons for why we keep doing this. There's so many times when I've created a piece and felt unsatisfied. But there are other times when it all seems so perfect. I can only hope as I continue on this journey I will let the desire to be better motivate me to keep working. And maybe along the way I'll know what it takes.

1890 Bryant Street Studios is my home away from home, and I’ve spent many hours putting a color here or placing a line there. Though I’m working on a portrait right now, a cityscape waits on the side, a figurative piece is sketched out in the corner, and a freshly gessoed panel is drying on the floor. As a San Francisco painter I’ve learned to handle the slowness of my medium by working on several pieces at once. It keeps me busy, and it motivates me to keep painting. We all need our methods and reasons for getting out of bed. I’ve found mine, and I’m finding new reasons everyday. But when you take away the career, the need to prove something, and the desire to achieve, the heart of an artist is their love for creation. Or at least the heart of this one.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page