In downtown Napa, a small crowd is gathered in front of a taco truck.
Firefighters in their blue uniforms, a teen in low-riders and a red hoodie, and a hipster couple look at the menu. A big guy in an orange San Francisco Giants T-shirt waits for his order. A happy customer gorges on the signature item, his eyes closed in taco de cabeza bliss.
Most nights of the year, it’s a colorful scene at Tacos Chavez, the four-wheeled fixture of the A-1 Food Store parking lot on South Coombs Street. Napans of all types flock to the truck for its steamed beef tacos and traditional Mexican drinks.
From his basement studio 600 miles to the north, in precise lines and rich colors, Portland artist Nick Doughty has captured every detail on a 12-by-12-inch block of wood.
A Napa native and career restaurateur, Doughty moved to Oregon in 2006. When he did, he took with him a head full of food and wine images that inform what has developed into a unique body of artwork. Tacos Chavez, parked around the corner from his parents’ home for as long as he can remember, is one of these.
There are more than two dozen others, and counting: intricate, brightly colored images that he describes as “Japanese-inspired art.” To execute them, he engraves dark lines onto specially milled wood blocks, employing a traditional wood-burning art called pyrography. He colors in the images with wax-based pencils and water-based ink pens. The results are intricate and playful.
“I got a wood-burning pen in probably 2007, like a little hobby pen. I was just messing around with it, but I really liked it,” Doughty said, hosting a visit to his home studio in Portland’s Woodland Park neighborhood. “And I started thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what happens if I take these pen-and-ink drawings’—which I’d been making—‘and combine them with wood-burning in a Japanese style?’”
He figured out he could mix the pens and pencils, whose colors match up seamlessly, and apply them across a grainy surface of wood to create vivid, textured images.
“What I love about color pencils is they provide texture. Pencil and wood together have a lot of it. But, you know, you can only kind of see through pencil, so you don’t get saturation. And what I love about ink is the saturation. So I combine them, the color pencils and ink pens.”
He uses a wide variety of hues in each. It allows for experimentation with tones, shades, and levels of saturation. With pyrography, however, there’s no room for error. “You can’t erase a line burned into wood at 700 degrees, so the level of precision required is paramount,” he said.
Precision and detail are intrinsic to Doughty’s art.
The works comprise two series. “The Food and Beverage Series” was Doughty’s first group of wood blocks, begun in Portland in 2015. His culinary subjects includes barristas, bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, and, of course, chefs.
A second group he started last year, “The Vineyard and Winery Series,” is based on viticultural landscapes, from Oakville and Yakima Valley to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Corsica. Doughty recently completed a piece on Castiglione Falletto, a township in Italy’s Piedmont region and hub of some famous Barolo vineyards. His current work-in-progress is a winter depiction of dormant vines at Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, a hallowed grand cru site in Burgundy.
They all spring from the mind of a guy whose one-time academic ambitions intersected with a love of food, wine, and hospitality.
Doughty graduated from Vintage High School in 1993, then went on to Napa Valley College and Chico State. Art and history classes in college led him to pursue an masters in Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast in 1998. While there, he became acquainted with the work of the mid-20th century Irish artist, John Luke, whose Regionalist style of painting was an early influence. Another influence, though it didn’t register at the time, was his part-time job at Feasts, a popular Belfast deli.
After finishing his masters in 2000, Doughty recounted, “I was coming home to just recharge for a minute, work for six months, and then go and do a PhD in art history. I wanted to become an art history professor.”
Back in Napa Valley, he got hired to help run Palisades Market, the prepared food and fine wine shop in Calistoga opened by Joel Gott and his late brother, Duncan, in 1993. As Doughty eased into the “temporary” position, it became a professional turning point.
“I came back and started working for Joel and Duncan at Palisades. And it was working with them, I just fell in love with the industry. I couldn’t believe that this thing, this cooking and selling cheese and wine and everything — I’d been doing it to pay my way through college — was what I actually wanted to do.”
Doughty had already been drawing and painting for years, and even experimented with woodblock carving. But he described Joel Gott as “a massive influence” on his culinary career.
“He didn’t even know I did art, and I don’t think he cared at the time. But he introduced me to food, and he’s the one that made this my job in food and beverage. He made me want to do this for a real living.”
The purveying skills he learned under Gott would serve him well in 2006, when he was offered a management position with Elephants Delicatessen, a large operation in Portland. At the time, he and his wife, Heather, had a 3-month old daughter and a desire for a change of scenery. He accepted the job offer, and they’ve been in Oregon ever since.
Along the way to becoming the company’s food and beverage director, Doughty maintained and expanded his interest in art, particularly the 19th century ukiyo-e paintings of the Japanese woodblock masters, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. A print of Hokusai’s famous work, “The Great Wave,” hangs in the Doughtys’ home.
“Hokusai is like Van Gogh to Impressionism. This is the one that you first learn about in Japanese art,” Doughty said, pointing out details in the iconic piece. “It’s all about composition. Composition means everything in Japanese art.”
The print hangs near “The Bath,” Doughty’s own ode to composition: an over-sized portrait of their daughter, Ruby, as a toddler. It took him his first three years in Portland to complete the whimsical oil painting. The girl feeds leftover Chinese food to koi fish in the bathtub while Hokusai-inspired waves splash around her, and their pets look on with varying levels of interest.
The image, he said, showed up in dream in 2006. “Man, I want paint that,” he told himself afterwards. So, he did — but oil paint, like his earlier attempts at woodblock carving, wasn’t his ideal medium.
“I don’t work in traditional Japanese woodblock printing, but have instead married two different traditional styles,” he’d written in an earlier email. “One being the folk art of pyrography, the other being the stylistic compositions of the Japanese ukiyo-e and shin hanga art movements. My goal is to update these two traditional art forms into my own unique style, while honoring both.”
In all of Doughty’s woodblocks, he includes a feature that also honors his grandmother, Zee Doughty: a small, red acorn in a circle. He explained that it’s called a kamon, or the Japanese equivalent of a signature.
“When I was a kid, my grandmother and I would make ‘acorn people’. We would go collect acorns and paint faces on them. That always stuck in my head as my first introduction to art. So I decided to memorialize her as a way to sign my pieces.”
The acorn appears in a different place on each woodblock, as does Japanese lettering in a vertical box that Doughty noted is often mistaken for his signature but is actually the work’s title. The Tacos Chavez title, which he’d intended to translate as “Kitchen Car,” caught the attention of his good friend and Japanese speaker, Hiro Sone.
“Hiro pointed out that I made a slight mistake on the angle of one of my strokes, which muddied the translation,” he confessed. “Since then, he’s really helped me by sending me stroke charts and encouraging me to keep working on them.”
The well-known St. Helena chef further contributed by posing, via photograph, as a “hand model” for a 2018 woodblock, titled “Sushi Chef.” He and his wife, Lissa Doumani, are fans of Doughty’s and own several of his prints.
“I grew up in Japan, and I know there are two famous artists. I thought the first time I saw Nick’s art, it really crossed these two great artists,” Chef Sone said by phone, mentioning Hokusai and Hiroshige.
“He’s done lots of scenes of vineyards, pizza-making, cooks resting in a back street,” he added. “For us, it’s really interesting to look at the detail, the really nice detail he puts in his work. He knows the industry, so he doesn’t make a mistake.”
Though he wasn’t fully aware of Doughty’s artistic bent in the early 2000s, Joel Gott identified something special in his former employee.
“You know, I worked with a lot of people over those years at Palisades Market,” Gott recalled over the phone recently. “Nick was definitely the leader in curiosity about food and wine and was one of the few people that would actually go and read and research stuff. Then he’d come back with crazy ideas and brilliant ideas and was gung ho. He was just a very motivated, inquisitive person.”
In his basement studio, Doughty pulled out the woodblock originals of many of his works. Like the ukiyo-e and shin hanga masterworks or the Regionalist paintings by John Luke, they’re small. But his potential range of subjects, on both sides of the Atlantic and across most categories of the food and beverage world, is enormous.
It’s a logical progression from the images of a noisy kitchen line or an evening by a taco truck to “Vineyard,” Doughty’s 2016 take on the historic Red Willow Vineyard in Washington, with its stone chapel, tiny workers between the vines, and the majestic Mount Adams in the background.
Or “Napa Valley,” the third woodblock in the “Vineyards” series he created last year that depicts the back side of Far Niente Winery, an expanse of Oakville, and, looking east, the varying shades and contours of the Vaca Mountains. Being a Napa native, it’s a work he’s especially proud of.
“When I was thinking about a Napa piece, there were so many I wanted to do. And I thought, ‘I have to pick one thing that represents this area that means everything to me in Napa. You know, the whole valley,’” he said. “Oakville, I think, really kind of hit home to me.”
In the summer of 2017, in between producing these works, Doughty took a trip back to Napa. With some prints in hand, he paid a visit to Gordon Huether. The highly established Napa artist is one of his mentors, though his work and Huether’s famously large, site-specific public art couldn’t be any different. Still, Huether both admired the woodblock prints and appreciated the many hours he spends on them each week, on top of his Elephants Delicatessen job — Doughty’s other passion.
“I’m not sure that he wants to fully make a living doing it. I think he’s still kind of testing the waters to see if that’s possible. The style that he’s working in and the technique is kind of old Japanese, very, very detailed. And, you know, each work has a deep kind of story,” he said recently at his studio, while a couple of his assistants worked on a massive metal sculpture right outside the window.
“I think that Nick’s work is very unique and very unusual. And I think that he could be very successful with it.”
Back home in Portland, Doughty takes a slightly different view of his dual careers.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you become a full-time artist?’ One, I love what I do; two, art doesn’t pay that well; and three, I wouldn’t have anything left to draw because, I mean, all I’m drawing and doing my artwork on is food and beverage, and I need to see it every day. I’m living it every day.”
Nick Doughty’s artwork is viewable on his website, www.nicholasmdoughty.com