Meet Nathaniel Bice, the artist behind these tiny paintings of beloved San Francisco restaurants and bars
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, complete with Pride and California flags waving in the wind. Bice had cycled down Market Street and discovered that, for the first time in a long time, the waterfront was deserted. The theater professional and set painter just wanted a chance to take some of the stress out of COVID and painting was the way he chose to decompress. But this picture would turn his painting hobby into something more.
Over the months that followed, Bice painted 25 portraits of Bay Area restaurants, bars, bakeries, and businesses, including legendary burger joint Red’s Java House, Hi Dive Bar, and retro restaurant Castro Orphan Andy’s. Sometimes he just draws buildings he likes, and sometimes he gets commissioned for his art. Either way, it’s a way for him to connect with the city and an industry eager to see 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 for urban design while living in Seattle and pursuing his studies in performance production at the Cornish College of the Arts. He moved to San Francisco on a fellowship with the American Conservatory Theater, which ended in 2019. While Bice’s theater career was just beginning, the pandemic made live performances dangerous. It was then that he reopened his sketchbook.
He sheltered in place at his partner’s apartment in the city for the first six months of the pandemic, eventually moving out of his place in Oakland. Once he moved to San Francisco, Bice found himself adjusting to life in the church and market district and his love for drawing took full possession of him. A Mission District Bi-Rite painting was Bice’s first big hit for his ongoing series of San Francisco food business paintings; while he found opportunities through word of mouth and his Instagram, the attention he received on Reddit was an early sign that he was on the right track. “This painting was more successful than anything I had 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 started commissioning him for work. Bice creates his 2-inch by 3-inch gouache paintings, sometimes called opaque watercolors, on location, taking photos of the work the second he finishes. He loves 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 their painting, then the owner of Sweet Adeline ordered another larger version from Bice, eventually printing postcards for the company’s anniversary.
Another such moment came when a woman reached out to Bice on behalf of her dating partner in Lower Haight. He was sad to miss his usual birthday party at his favorite neighborhood spots because of COVID, so looking for another way to celebrate, she ordered paintings of Toronado and Molotov as gifts. A painting of Eddie’s Cafe on Divisadero Street was also a commissioned gift.
As the list of places to paint grows, Bice would also like to reconnect with the theater. He’s struggling to balance theater jobs, like building models for Bay Area set designer Nina Ball, and painting commissions now that the world is moving closer to normalcy again. Bice also ventured into murals, working with Randy Wong-Westbrooke on a Van Gogh mural in San Francisco. “I hope to continue to combine these skills in the future,” says Bice