By Daniel Krieger
Until last summer, painting was just a hobby for Sophie Fain. A special-education teacher who lives and works on the Upper West Side, Fain was finishing up her second master’s and thought selling her art could be a creative and fun way to help pay off her student loans. So she posted on a few Facebook groups that she was seeking commissions. And the reception revealed there was quite a demand for what she was offering.
“It blew up,” she said on a recent morning in Riverside Park, sitting on a bench near the community garden at 91st Street. The spark was a request for a painting of a brownstone on West 88th Street. From there, they kept coming.
“I always loved Upper West Side brownstones,” Fain, who is 27, said. “I feel like I could sit and stare at a brownstone for hours. An artist made it, which is so different from buildings made today.”
Pretty quickly, her vivid watercolors of brownstones and old buildings became a niche. That’s what people wanted — a pretty framed image of a special place full of memories that they could put on their wall. One woman had raised her children in the brownstone; a doorman of a pre-war building was retiring after 30 years; another woman requested her first New York apartment with her and her dog on the stoop, followed by others who also wanted to be in the picture.
“Everyone has some sort of connection,” she said, explaining that that is what makes the Upper West Side series so gratifying. Fain had tapped into this desire to memorialize a place by providing an elegant and original means.
Her subjects, commissioned or not, are the typical pre-war buildings that characterize the aesthetic of the neighborhood, which has been altered in recent years by a spate of luxury high-rises. She wouldn’t paint one of those, she said, “because I don’t feel attached to them.”
Fain is currently working on several commissions of buildings, and she also produces a fair amount of non-commissioned work for practice and fun. Still finding her footing, she wants to expand her repertoire, and recently started doing live painting at events, such as weddings. Another niche she has developed is pet portraits. She also gets commissions for homes outside the city and likes to paint natural settings, both urban and rural. And earlier this year, she started selling prints from her growing archive.
The child of Russian immigrants, Fain grew up in Riverdale, studied art at LaGuardia and history at Barnard, and then did Teach for America. She never aspired to be a professional artist and now, earning up to $250 for a painting, is still reluctant to call herself that. Her Instagram page puts it this way: “teacher by day…artist by night.”
“It’s more like a hobby with clients,” she said. “I feel so excited to do art, but my fear is that if I became a full-time artist, I would lose the joy. I’m happy with where things are now.”
She begins her process on site, where she spends an hour capturing the essence — outlining the structure in pencil — and then takes a few photos and finishes at home with ink and watercolor, spending about five hours total.
On Fain’s Upper West Side, cars do not exist, nor do dining or sidewalk sheds, scaffolding, garbage bags or other sources of visual blight. Colorful, bright and animated, the paintings show the neighborhood in an idealized light, a perspective that comes naturally to her, she said.
“People talk negatively about New York because of all the trash and the rats,” she went on, “but here’s something beautiful — this beautiful brownstone you walk by.”
What makes the series meaningful to Fain is sharing her affection for the neighborhood and its architecture by “making something that people can remember and love,” she said. “I’ve walked by these buildings that they ask me for a thousand times. I feel just as much attachment to the place. I feel like I’m just drawing my home.”