Capturing Bay Area houses with watercolors and a brush

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Watercolor illustrator Pamela Baron has set out to capture Oakland’s unique neighborhoods through her hand-painted images of people’s homes, a project she calls “The House Portrait Commission.”

Baron wets her thin brush and takes out her portable paint pad. She dabs her brush into a palette and begins to slowly draw lines on pristine white paper. Her final product will show the face of a house that is made up of rectangles placed within each other; the colors will be light pinks, purples and blues to reflect the classic Victorian homes of San Francisco, also referred to as the “Painted Ladies.”

Baron began painting watercolors of people’s homes around the year 2013 thanks to requests from people who had seen her work hanging in galleries throughout the Bay Area. “In this area everybody has the coolest house fronts. I see people’s homes as a reflection of themselves and of something loving,” said Baron. “One of the coolest homes I’ve painted was here in Oakland—this family had a plastic parrot hanging in their front window. I just loved how it was so original.”

Baron graduated in 2008 from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in illustration. In between her junior and senior years, she visited Berkeley and fell in love with the Bay Area. After she left college, Baron took several temporary jobs, including being a personal assistant and managing gallery spaces. About four years ago, she moved to Oakland, which is where she was able to focus on her art again.

“When I first got to the Bay Area, I took the first job I could find, which was dog-sitting for a family in the Castro,” said Baron. “As I was walking around the neighborhoods every day, I was inspired by the architecture here, and it quickly became something I was interested in using as a model for my paintings.”

As a college student, Baron had studied abroad in Rome, where she became enamored of the city’s architecture and its patterns and lines. She saw people’s love for their homes reflected in their personal spaces. It was also during her time in Italy that she started exploring the use of watercolors. An art supplies shopkeeper told her watercolors were his best paints, and so began what Baron calls an “epic love affair” with the medium.

Some artists note that difficulty of working with watercolors: It is a paint that is hard to manipulate because it runs down the paper when it is wet. But Baron said her artist friends advised her early on that the paint is a lot more forgiving than she might think, and once she removed the fear of working with watercolors, she would be fine.

Baron’s art style has changed since she was studying in college; she says that while in Rhode Island her work was extremely abstract, layered, and weird—and nobody was interested in it except for her. When her professor, her abstract guru, passed away, suddenly her work shifted to what it is today: more simple, clean, and relatable, meaning her art more exactly reflects reality. “I am in the minority—I do everything freehand. I do not use a pencil sketch,” said Baron. “The process usually involves me getting inspiration from a photo or for taking a walk through my neighborhood. “

Baron usually works from her home studio, though every now and then she will shift location to a nearby coffee shop. She carries with her numerous to-go palettes of paints and brushes. Her paintings can take between eight and 20 hours each; she takes short breaks in between sessions to keep her hands steady and precise.

“When I am painting I have no idea what it is going to look at like when I finish, which satisfies my love for abstract,” said Baron.

Baron enjoys working with clients to paint a portrait of their homes because she sees the need for people to capture an image of something they have put a lot of work into in order to call it their own. “There is something really beautiful about having something made in a loving way in your home,” said Baron. “People have told me where my art lives in their house and how much they appreciate the work.”

Baron sells her illustrations to a variety of art boutiques in the Bay Area and she also takes on clients for custom freelance work. Most of her income comes from her artwork being displayed in galleries, but her custom house paintings project is slowly becoming more popular as Baron attends more craft fairs. Baron also illustrated the pages of a children’s book, Troupe is a Group of Monkeys, which came out in 2013 and won a Gold Benjamin Franklin Digital Award for best cover design.

Over the past few years, Baron has seen her neighborhood near downtown Oakland change at a fast pace she says she could never have imagined, including new buildings being constructed and people moving out. She said she hopes that her paintings can be a reminder to the people who own the print to hold onto the place they call home.

She has no plans to open a storefront but she hopes to continue promoting her house portrait collection using social media and attending more local art fairs. “If you can support the people in your community by choosing to purchase local art, it gives back to the faces and homes that make up the place you call home, too,” said Baron.

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