James Buckhouse
Design Story
Published in
3 min readDec 4, 2014


@buckhouse: Friends and Strangers

Friends and Strangers

Nearly every day I paint a portrait of a stranger.

I always ask first, snap a photo for reference, and then paint back in my studio. You can join the project here.

@buckhouse: Friends and Strangers

Groups of friends are perfect models, as they are comfortable with each other, even though they usually don’t know me. I almost never learn anyone’s name or occupation or interests or hopes or dreams or frustrations or laments or triumphs or loves or banalities — but I imagine a story for each. The strangers remain a walking fiction. (More about the process here, in slightly dreamier language—originally published by 306090 for Princeton Architectural Press).

@buckhnouse Friends and Strangers: She came to my art opening in a floor length fur coat (in LA, in spring) and drank all the wine, and then asked me to guess her starring roles from movies and TV. She only agreed to have her portrait done if I promised to give her longer lashes. No Problem I said. Note the enormous rock in her ear and the flawless hair and her piercing stare from her one good eye. Her age? maybe 75? 80? My guess when asked? Not a day over 45…

Sometimes I sketch with a pencil. Other times with a Cintiq, but my favorite medium is watercolor. With watercolor, the multi-layered, semi-transparency of skin has a chance to bloom through the paper and paint. Thirsty brushes wick-up excess, paper towels blot out highlights, and color blends happen through happy accidents as well as expert (ha!) control.

@buckhouse: Friends and Strangers: This couple was dressed up in SF on a non-halloween day. The women wears a horsehead mask. You can just see her peeking through the eye hole. He is dressed as Kurt Cobain? At least that’s how I painted him…
Friends and Strangers (with hue constraints)
Secret double portrait reflected in his aviators
The weirder I got with the pinks and purples and blues the more realistic the painting became. Somehow letting go of “true color” helped vivify this image.
General Stanley McChrystal (painted for an event at Sequoia)
In progress of Ash Huang
#AdventurePainting of Ben Saunders’s trip across Antartica

Painting friends is a different story — I usually get a chance to shape the pose a bit more — moving an arm here or a hand there to catch the light. But to get a really good photo for reference, both model and artist need to act like strangers, to forget what we know and pretend the other person is a total mystery.

If you’re a friend or a stranger, and you’d like your portrait painted, even if you might not ever see it, send me a snap through this form. Nothing illegal or shocking, please. Try to look straight into the camera and think about something interesting. Please only send photos that you actually own — don’t steal/borrow someone’s pic without their permission. Your photo should incite narrative curiosity.

The finished portraits end up in gallery shows and publications and people’s living rooms or sometimes my studio floor. Twenty years from now you might see a picture of a younger version of yourself in a surprising location (Rundown used bookstore? Fancy gallery? Friend of a friend’s favorite Aunt’s apartment in the upper west side?).

In that moment, when you meet your younger self, let’s hope what you see will feel both strange and familiar.

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James Buckhouse
Design Story

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford GSB/d.school & Harvard GSD jamesbuckhouse.com