On drawing buildings

July 27, 2012


No drawings of my own today. I’ve been out and about, with sketchbook and WalkStool always at the ready, but it’s been raining too much. I’ve been obsessed with Paladio, with the Early Christian Church (important examples in Milan, Rome and Aleppo), the Ancient Roman law court basilica becoming the Christian church form and the business of constructing domes on circles and on squares. And last night, glimpses of architecture in Palermo on television in Sicily Unpacked, following a documentary last week on Gothic cathedrals (Beauvais, Amiens, Rheims) and why their builders took risks reaching the heavens, resulting in their being unsafe structures nowadays.

I wanted to mention three books by Ernest W. Watson and some of the points he raises which I’m finding work for me. But more pressing is the latest post by http://scratchyas.wordpress.com on the difficult business of drawing buildings. My experience echoes hers and the examples of sketches she’s used of other peoples’ work all come from urban sketchers who constantly inspire and motivate me.

So here’s my eight burning issues and my fourteen bits of advice:

 #1. Seeing buildings. To see them, to draw them (which means to really see them) is something you need to want to do. And want to do very much. Especially if you are not an architect. I could spend the rest of my life just walking around looking at buildings, but I’m a bit mad that way.

 #2. You can run from them but you can’t hide. They are an important, if not highly significant, part of any urban sketcher’s repertoire. The Old Masters moved constantly between landscape, portraits, figure drawing and still life, so it follows naturally that urban sketchers will do the same and include buildings, either as stand-alone “portraits“ of individual buildings, or as the inevitable backdrop to street scapes. Sooner or later it dawns upon all urban sketchers, I’m sure, that they really have to tackle buildings seriously.

 #3. What’s to improve? In writing music reviews, the word always at the tip of my tongue is “convincing“. Does it “convince“ the listener? Similarly, with a sketch or drawing, is it a self-conscious mess or is it a delightful mess, enchanting and convincing? As a former potter, I look at a potter’s work these days and ask, “Does it speak to me?“ (Gently please, but with presece and authority – the pot mustn’t “shout“ at me). Anyone, even a child, can come up with a representation of a house, but a “convincing“ building has a variety of marks, a variety of tonal values, interesting ‘pattern‘ and so on. If your building is looking “childish“, take out an eraser and knock back parts of it – rub them out or to a feint line. Mix it up and tackle it in another way.

 #4. Photos and sketching on-site. Use photos as research: don’t turn up “cold“ to a building and expect to turn out a wonderful sketch. Consider buildings you might want to draw in the future, take photos when you pass by. Think about what time or day might be most suitable, what season might be suitable (those deciduous trees out the front will lose their leaves in Winter), look at Google Earth for the ‚strange‘ view from the middle of the street at about two metres or so above the ground (not your standard pavement view!), look at how others (amateurs and professionals) have photographed the building. I go a step further and investigate the building’s style so I can work out if I’ve already sketched a different building of similar vintage. I might not know the names of architectural features, but I can sure tell you which other buildings around town were built at the same time. Historical photos (especially in dramatic black-and-white with lots of shadow) will show you what it looked like before the greening of our cities. Keep going back: if Monet could paint haystakcs (and church facades) several times, then we all can. Don’t kid yourself you’ve conquered a building by sketching it once.

#5. Different drawing techniques. If you’re not happy with your results (and I don’t think anyone can master buildings without drawing lots of them), throw in a different technique or mix up your current palette of techniques. Drawing with the non-dominant hand, drawing just the negative space contours, continuous line – either blind or half-looking: moving between these will get you out of a rut and will be just as effective as changing from dry to wet media. Before you change your medium or your paper size, change your existing drawing technique. All my building sketches at the moment use a combination of techniques: negative space, blind contour, etc. The only thing I can’t do on location (but I can do it with a photo!) is turn the subject upside down. And it’s okay to turn the sketchbook around while you’re sketching – it’s not fixed like a canvas on an easel. Take note of scratchyas in her delightful treatment of the Chinese gardens: very convincing use of thick and thin lines, dark darks and areas of light. Excellent balance of fine detail and broad areas of space, a not overly-engineered sense of architecture and perspective, but enough accuracy in the perspective to render it realistic.

#6. Size of paper and ‘fitting it all in‘. I worry about this less as time goes by. Start on one of the four Golden Mean points and go for it! If I want to fit “everything in“ then I’m probably taking unncessary risks: I will definitely need a larger sketchbook, e.g. A4, but am I intending to spend one or two hours or more, repeated sessions perhaps on the one sketch to justify this size page? While there is no minimum size (one of my best sketches recently was done in under three minutes – the train I was due to catch was arriving at the train station! – and is barely an inch square), I normally stick to a 5×8“ sketchbook working across the double-page for a 30-40-60 minute drawing, knowing it will look “unfinished“ and there’ll be tons of white space around it.  Almost without exception, wet media means you will fill the whole page or nearly all of it – that’s a whole different ballgame in terms of paper size. Ernest Watson’s urban sketches done in pencil invariably measure 8×11″ on 9×12” paper – only an architect would work on a piece of paper larger than A4.

#7. The disegno. I was brought up on the idea of the Renaissance study in chalk or bistre or sanguine (or three-pencils in the case of Watteau): an “unfinished“ main subject, with a close-up detail off to the side. Contemporary Urban Sketchers work MUCH more closely to the modern illustrationist model which falls out of book publishing and animation cells: filling the whole page, no “unfinished“ areas, something not unlike A Painting. The ideal in contemporary urban sketching is the 19th-century watercolour or lithograph. Urban sketchers are closer to J.M.W.Turner’s youthful street scenes than to life drawing sketches of the 15th-century.

#8. If it looks effortless… it probably is, but it conceals the sketcher’s years and years of painstaking efforts and constant practice. Architects move beyond their metier when urban sketching only because they have been “seeing“ (and imagining) buildings for ages and in ways that we non-architects cannot begin to fathom. Meegan mentioned shading (see my comments above about shadows, backing up Ernest Watson’s advice), composition – you have to think Golden Mean, patterns-of-threes and pay special attention to the Bottom Right Hand Corner of your sketch; variety of mark-making – only stick to one type of mark if you’re being deliberately minimal or “non-descript“ (e.g. line only, no tonal values) but otherwise use dots, dashes, squiggles; pattern – that balance between excitement and calm which relies on coherent repetition.


  1. Position, position, position. Finding a good spot opposite Your Building is more difficult than you imagine. If you can’t sit, stand. If you can’t stand, take a photo and sketch it at home (!). It is vastly different to plein air in the countryside or by the sea. Some things we can’t fix – Sydney streets are too narrow, Melbourne streets are too wide. Cities rarely have public seating situated in terms of the perfect vista – and if you like the view, so probably do lots of others, especially at lunchtime! Suss out every possibility for viewing the building from inside or on top of another building; building security is very strict compared to times past, but consider above ground-floor shop windows, shop restaurants, anything! Most historical photos of buildings – before the days of cherrypickers – were taken from above the ground floor in a neighbouring building. Once ensconced, let the passing traffic pass by, including parked cars. Take heart that everything and everyone will eventually move out of your line of sight. In the worst case scenario, draw the parked car in your way (but the driver will probably turn up and drive off, just as you are finishing it).
  2. Bugbears. Urban sketchers hang around in groups in part I believe to foster solidarity in the face of urban hordes who are rushing from A to B and we are getting in their way. You need stamina, determination and grit to sketch buildings in modern-day cities. My biggest bugbear is a nearby smoker – that really puts me off my game. The second worst is drawing under a tree and a dog owner lets his or her dog relieve itself right near where I’m sitting: you are so part of the furniture and the dog is so keen to leave his mark… Patience, endless patience is required. 
  3. Measuring. I notice Ernest Watson doesn’t measure with his pencil, as I do (half a pencil length here, a full pencil length there…). Watson instead recommends a 2“ square cut out of a piece of cardboard. You measure in 2“ lots around your building. I used to “just draw” – I still do, but some initial measuring really helps.
  4. Tackle panoramas, by all means, but lead the viewer in with some reference to the foreground. Otherwise you have a bottles-in-a-row look without any depth, literally without any depth of field – that’s not a sketch but more an historic document (where you might want to label the buildings, for examples).
  5. Slow down the hand. You are caressing those bricks and windowpanes; you are honouring the work of both the architect and builder by drawing them, so make the honouring process respectful. I get very excited when I start sketching a building I really like the look of. Being a typical male, I have to consciously slow down.
  6. Look for interesting shadow. This means drawing only or mostly on sunny days. If the day’s overcast, concentrate on flat pattern/detail rather than conveying mass or volume or depth or surface planes.
  7. Put the darks in very early. Once the darks are in, it’s easy to work through the greys.
  8. Sit rather than stand. People and animals, the passing parade, warrants standing up, but I’m increasingly finding that buildings (in any sort of detail) really do require sitting down. Because public seating is usually in the “wrong“ place, I take my own. A ‘portrait’ of a building, like the portrait of a person, needs time and respect. Bottom line: take a WalkStool or equivalent when out sketching buildings.
  9. Look for theatricality. Italian streetscapes are a “natural“ because they invariably look like theatre sets. Old English streets used to have that quality, but that’s disappearing. Contemporary urban planners like straight pavements, straight building alignments, 90-degree angles – which doesn’t make for naturally convincing sketches of buildings. Urban sketchers will of course maintain a varied diet: old buildings, new buildings, curvey buildings such as mosques, tall buildings such as skyscrapers, heavily-ornamented buildings such as cathedrals plus the most up-to-date of contemporary architecture (airports, museums, opera houses, especially).
  10. Don’t downplay the emotion. The sketch will inevitably carry or convey your emotional response to the building, as well as conveying the character of the building on behalf of the architect and builder. Yours is the last “layer“ or the last chapter in the story. Consider key – light or dark.
  11. Don’t disregard the air around the building. Asian urban sketchers convey this in large part because their cities are so incredibly busy and noisy. The “air“ enveloping buildings invariably shows up in watercolour sprays and dots or quietly panicked scribbly line – we “feel“ the exhausting humidity, the oppressive pollution and the milling throngs of people, even if we’ve never set foot in that city.
  12. Don’t overcomplicate things. If you’re thinking shadows and pattern, you might not get so distracted by the trees or gardens or streetscape: if you put everything in, in the same amount of detail, the whole thing will collapse under its own weight. Practice and personal temperament will affect how many ‚extras“ you add to a portrait of a building.
  13. Buildings as Boxes-with-Ornaments. The issue of ornament is a vexed problem for all architects. For urban sketchers, it’s a problem too with a building ending up looking like a box or the whole thing weighed down by too much detail. Suggest detail (see Ernest Watson on how draw inside shadows).
  14. Situate the Building. Just as you would suggest or allude to the poser’s surroundings in life drawing (suggesting a floor, table, architrave), find some excuse to “ground“ the building – an horizon line, real or imagined, a tree/vegetation to suggest or convey depth of field.

More on Ernest W. Watson later, but in the meantime, check out the Urban Sketchers website, Urban Sketchers Australia and www.lizsteel.com (especially her Sketching Architecture weblog)! I look forward to more sketches and commentary from scratchyas as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: