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Sketching the City

Artist Eileen Goldenberg takes to the streets of San Francisco for inspiration

By Sharon McDonnell

The image of an artist alone in his or her studio (or "La Bohème" style garret), perhaps feeing lonely and isolated, just doesn't fit Eileen Goldenberg, 70, of San Francisco. For her, art is a connecting force that's profoundly social.

A colorful sketch being held up. Next Avenue
Artist Eileen Goldenberg's sketch book  |  Credit: Courtesy of Eileen P. Goldenberg ART

The lifelong artist draws outdoors daily. "What happens when you sketch outdoors is, you make friends. People talk to you, and want to know how and why you do it. "We're like artists in the wild," says Goldenberg,  whose hazel eyes brim with fun and irreverence beneath her turquoise-colored glasses (unless she's wearing her red glasses that day). "Our species is supposed to be indoors in our studios."

"Travel is totally different when you sketch — it changes everything."

She doesn't just draw in her native habitat in the Bay Area: when she travels, she does so in the company of fellow artists. "Travel is totally different when you sketch — it changes everything. The things you see, you really see," she says. "You notice details. I can't imagine travel without sketching."

An Urban Sketcher

An avid member of Urban Sketchers,  a nonprofit association of over 120,000 members in 394 cities in over 60 countries around the world who get together to draw on location, she contacted local chapters to meet when she visited New Mexico and New York. (The group's website has links to chapters' Facebook pages or websites.) 

Goldenberg has traveled to Portugal, Amsterdam, New Zealand and Chicago for Urban Sketchers symposiums, which feature daily workshops on technique plus locals showing the visiting artists prime spots to sketch.

"I'm gonna meet another 500 people I'd never meet otherwise," she enthused, shortly before leaving for Auckland. She also rhapsodized about her sketch vacation in Seville, Spain through Studio 56 Boutique, founded by a former Urban Sketchers staffer, which also featured a flamenco performance and a stay in Las Casas de la Juderia, an unusual hotel composed of 27 15th century houses linked by patios and passages in the Santa Cruz quarter.  

"A woman who worked at the hotel snack bar watched me sketch postcards, and fell in love with me," jokes Goldenberg. "She gave me free snacks, and kept showing my postcards around to promote me." 

"When people ask how long it took me to make a piece of artwork, I say 50 years. There are no shortcuts."

Many people think they're not artistic. Hogwash, she says firmly. These are adults, she clarifies, not kids. When she told a seven-year-old girl she teaches people how to do art, the child was puzzled. "Did they forget?" the girl asked her.

The Myth of Talent

"There's this myth of talent. When people ask how long it took me to make a piece of artwork, I say 50 years. There are no shortcuts. It's a lot of practice," says Goldenberg, who also makes ceramics, paintings and felt sketchbooks, and showcases her work at art fairs from the Smithsonian Craft Show and Minneapolis-based American Craft Council shows to art festivals from Sausalito to Ojai, California.


Galleries in Tucson and Bellevue, Washington, have also shown Goldenberg's work, but she's not a fan of the gallery scene.  

She adds, "What I find so interesting is, people often say, 'I can't draw.' I ask, 'Do you want to?'" Too often, people were told by a bad art teacher they lacked talent, and believed it, or acquire fears and inhibitions about making art growing up, she notes.

Making art awakens the non-verbal, creative side of the brain, according to the book "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards, Goldenberg explains.

A colorful sketch of the golden gate bridge. Next Avenue
A sketch of the Golden Gate Bridge  |  Credit: Eileen Goldenberg

"Your brain is so happy — it's going, 'Yeah.' You enter a realm where time doesn't exist, a sense of flow. There are no mistakes in art," says Goldenberg, who has a degree in art from Alfred University in upstate New York and two graduate degrees in photography from the University of Iowa. "You'll evolve. No one else draws like you."

Have Supplies, Will Sketch

Her plein air art tools are eminently portable. Her fanny pack contains a pocket palette about the size of a business card with about 20 water color paints ("enough for over 100 sketches for two weeks in Spain"), brushes, pencil, fountain pen and small bottle for paint mixing.

Goldenberg starts by drawing an outline with her mechanical pencil, adds ink, and then fills in with color. Standing while sketching is easy: the metal palette sticks to a metal plate her brother made with a magnet.

The Brooklyn-born artist leads sketch sessions in the Bay Area through Meetup on weekends, teaches private classes and for the past 25 years has taught ceramics at Burlingame Recreation Center. The Meetups and classes feature two hours of sketching, followed by a "throwdown" when everyone shares their art and socializes. Since 2020, despite COVID, she's led about 350 sketch sessions and classes, most outdoors but some on Zoom during lockdown.  

"What I find so interesting is, people often say, 'I can't draw.' I ask, 'Do you want to?'"

She showed me the Google Map with 1,000 locations in San Francisco she created. "Do you want to draw boats, buildings, cafes? I have whatever you want," Goldenberg says.

Some of her favorite local spots for sketching are the cafe right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, Round House Cafe, for gorgeous Bay and mountain views, the Japanese Tea Garden for its five-tiered pagoda  and San Francisco Botanic Garden (both in Golden Gate Park, where she teaches classes), the Palace of Fine Arts for its Greco-Roman-style columns, arch and dome, and the tribal collection in the de Young Museum. 

She asks everyone to put away their smartphones so they can focus during classes. "I'm going to die if I don't have my phone," a young woman fretted.

Goldenberg told her she doubted it very much and urged her to stow it anyway. "Sure enough, she didn't."

Sharon McDonnell is a travel, culture, food, drink and “green” writer since 1999 in San Francisco, published in Conde Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, AARP, CNN Travel,, TEATIME, Travel + Leisure, BBC Travel,, PUNCH, Blue Dot Living, The Telegraph (UK) etc. plus university magazines for Bryn Mawr, Princeton, U of Michigan, U of WA and U of WI and custom content for Silversea Cruises. She loves offbeat ideas, people and traditions, and has taken cooking classes in India, Morocco, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Italy, France, Bali and New Orleans. Read her work at
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