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Watercolorist Finds a Niche Doing House Portraits
By Maire Farrington
Three-year Noe Valley resident Susan Sternau first picked up a paintbrush and began dabbling when she was a high school student in Manhattan in the '70s. Later, while pursuing a master's degree in art history, she "started painting seriously, and I haven't stopped since. Painting really became my passion, my life."
Nowadays, the subject of her passion is often a quaint little Victorian in Noe Valley. For a fee ranging from $40 to $500, Sternau will do a watercolor portrait of your house, featuring your garden, your pets, your car, your street-sweeping sign -- you name it.
Now 39, Sternau spent most of her early years mining the rich architectural treasures of New York. "New York City is about buildings, and I painted city-scapes and scenes all the time," she says. She also found inspiration in the churches and older buildings of Europe.
But her love of painting Victorian houses sprang from a vacation in Cape May, a Victorian seaside town in New Jersey. There she met a client who really liked her style. "His whole house was decorated with my paintings. So he decided he wanted a painting of his house, to go along with the other paintings of mine that were in there."
After she finished his house, her client then asked her to paint a friend's house as a gift. Before long, Susan found herself fielding a steady stream of requests for "house portraits."
Then, on a 1994 visit to San Francisco, she got a peek at the West Coast variety. "Oh, Victorian houses! I was immediately charmed and struck by them, even though they have a very different look to them here in San Francisco," she says. "I started painting them on my vacation, even before we decided to move here."
Sternau and her partner, Nancy Welsh, a commerical real estate agent, officially moved to San Francisco in 1995, landing on 23rd Street in Noe Valley. Since then, she has captured close to 20 neighborhood homes in watercolor and ink.
"I enjoy meeting people and seeing their houses in Noe Valley," she says. "Everyone's conscious of the uniqueness of the area, and very proud of their homes and gardens. It's all very charming and a lot of fun to paint. I like the friendliness and sense of community of being a local business. It's fun for me to be part of the neighborhood that way."
Some of Sternau's paintings are used for going-away presents or given as gifts for weddings, birthdays, Christmas, or Valentine's Day. But often people will commission a portrait because "they are just happy with their own gardens or houses, and would like to have a piece that reflects that," Sternau says.
One couple on upper 23rd Street "had done all this work on their garden themselves and made this little goldfish pond with a fountain," which they wanted featured in the painting. In addition, they asked Sternau to include a view of the Bay, which meant she had to change the angle of the garden and rearrange a few trees.
"That's the advantage of doing a painting," notes Sternau. "You can change things around to suit everyone. You can make the flowers bloom if they're not really blooming, and put leaves on the trees or remove them."
Sternau frequently employs such artistic license. A family moving to the East Bay wanted a memento of their house on 26th Street and had their two children pose for Sternau so she could depict them in the downstairs window. They also made one other, rather unusual request: they asked Sternau to paint their deceased neighbor looking out his upstairs window.
"That was his spot, and that was what they associated with living there -- this neighbor looking out the window all the time," says Sternau. "My clients didn't have a photo, so I was asked to visualize the neighbor from their description."
Before beginning her creations, Sternau interviews her clients to make sure the painting contains the elements that are important to them. "I'm always very careful to ask clients if they want anything special included," she says. "This may be a favorite plant or tree, or a piece of stained glass, or a flag or a pet."
A portrait of one Eureka Street cottage included a cherished parrot in the window. A palm tree, which normally would have obscured the cottage, was "removed," but a favorite lemon tree was left in. Other items that often vanish by request are neighboring houses and trees, trash cans, and power lines.
Sternau magically changed seasons from summer to winter for a man on Fountain Street. She depicted a new mother with her baby in the window of her 22nd Street home. And for a woman on 23rd Street who stood in front of her house for the portrait, Sternau included a view of the entire block.
One house Sternau painted, for a young couple on 25th Street, had an especially colorful history. "It's a cute little Victorian which used to be a hangout for the Symbionese Liberation Army," Sternau says. "It's a very sweet Noe Valley house, and you'd never think that there used to be these FBI surveillance vans out front."
Though most of her days are spent sketching and painting houses, Sternau also enjoys writing about art and art history. She is the author of three beautiful books -- on Matisse, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. She has also created cover art and illustrations for several volumes of poetry, books on Irish fairy tales and folklore, and stories by children's author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Each fall, Sternau hosts an art show and tour of her upstairs art studio, with its view of Upper Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, and "a little slice of the Bay. It's an open house, literally," she says. "Nancy hangs the paintings, and people come by invitation and bring their friends. It's always a really nice atmosphere. I get to show my work in a professional setting, and people can see how works look hanging in a home."
How is Sternau's new hometown measuring up? "San Francisco is a wonderful place to paint," she says enthusiastically. "It's a beautiful city. I think it's the most European-looking city in the United States. There's something about the hills and the houses. And there's nothing quite like the California light.
"I love the houses and the bright flowers," she continues. "People's gardens, the bottlebrush trees, the flowers on the trees -- there's a lot of subject matter here."
Sternau has already put her talents to work for the community. For the past two years, she's donated house portraits to the auctions put on by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Now she hopes to do more.
"I like painting because it's a very personal touch," Sternau reflects. "Once you do it, it's there and you can look at it, and other people can look at it. It's something that remains to be enjoyed."
You can reach Susan Sternau by calling (415) 285-0696.