"> Friends on canvas | David Tomb

“Buzz,” 44" x 30" mixed media on paper, 2001

He labels his paintings “Buzz” and “Fudge” and “Peaches.”

These aren’t still-life depictions, but David Tomb’s subjects don’t mind the names he affixes to their portraits. They’re also his friends. They drink coffee with Tomb, pronounced “Tom.” They dissect the day’s news and probe life’s meanings.

Then Tomb, a well-known San Francisco portraitist whose works are on display at the Hartnell College Visual Arts Building gallery through Dec. 20 in “the Figure Unstudied,” reaches for his brushes.

Quickly, he paints his friends.

“They must be good friends, too, because even when they see the results of my work, they come back,” Tomb said.


“Fudge,” 44" x 30.25" mixed media on paper, 2001

“One sitting per picture. I maintain a caffeinated conversation so we’re both engaged in the process. I socialize and work at the same time.”

Tomb works in his studio, which is part of what once was a 1950s police precinct station, a building complete with holding tank, in the Mission District.

“Brick and concrete in the Dragnet modernist style,” Tomb said of the structure.

Since his friends are often restless souls and not professional artist models, Tomb limits their sitting time. Usually, it’s one three-hour session with two hours for the head and face and one for the body.

Creating quickly helps capture a spontaneity of moment and an authenticity of character, qualities of a portrait that tend to slip away with repeated sittings, he said.

The exhibition at Hartnell shows drawings, mixed-media collages and paintings.

“On the drawings, Tom works on poses lasting no longer than six or eight minutes,” said Gary Smith, gallery director.

One reason Smith brought Tomb’s works to Hartnell was to show students how a master artist uses “line and gesture to capture the essence of the human figure.”

Tomb grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a boy, he became fascinated by art, which also ran in his blood.

His great-grandfather, for example, ran a booth along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk early in the 20th century. Great-grandfather sold souvenir landscapes that he painted on redwood bark.

“He was a painter and raconteur, and I still have a couple of his works,” Tomb said.

Tomb’s mother studied to be an illustrator. His brother, Bruce, is an architect who also enjoys doing art.

After a subject has stood and stretched and left his studio, Tomb may develop the portrait further. To do so, he’ll turn to notes he took during the session.

“Spidery fingers, knobby knees, double chin, major schnozz, buzz cut …”

“It’s all good,” Tomb said. “Faces and portraits. It’s what turns my motor.”