Architecture for Urban Sketchers (4)

July 29, 2012

Continuing with the Chiesa San Lorenzo in Milan, I thought I’d step my way through my own process today. I’m not being prescriptive; what I’m looking for is the weaknesses that I tend to bypass or ignore or “speed past” when sketching on location. If I take my time today, working with a photo (and a flatbed scanner) as well as a commentary articulating the inner dialogue along the way, I might see ways of improving what I’m doing.

 Materials. I’m playing today, so loose A4 pieces of photocopy paper and Derwent graphite pencils. Construction Lines in light 3B, moving to 5B for firmer detail and tonal values.


Step 1. Construction lines.

Process. Some people draw light lines, others dots. Dots must help because they reduce the amount of graphite or ink on the paper. Because this photo shows the chiesa in light and shadow, I’m consciously drawing the geometric shapes created by the shadows. When it comes to the profile against the sky, I’m very conscious of negative space contour (not the line of the building but the line created by the sky behind it).

I’ve gone with what’s natural for me today – light lines which get darker every time I go back over things. My drawing is often called “sensitive” which is sometimes hard to take as a bloke, but it’s my own doing: I’m constantly re-stating and don’t rub out wrong lines. I’m shown to be struggling with my vision, my regarding the building.

Conclusions. Mood.The building is shooting out from the ground. The building is actually wider (the towers are squatter) but I like the idea of its daring being on show to all. It was the biggest building of its type in the West at the time, so why not show that? Built outside the city walls of Milan on the road to the small town of Pavia, it would have risen straight out of the flat plain of the landscape (the Italian word is pianura). It’s triumphant, unprotected by the city walls – it dares to be sacked by barbarians.

Aspect.This particular photo is taken from the BACK of the building, from a grassy park. The grassy park backside is at total opposites to the sophisticated urban piazza at the front of the building. Trees at the bottom contrast with the bare bricks. This particular photo shows a street market going on under the trees, but I’m choosing not to detract from the building. Also this photo is NOT taken at street level. Goodness how the photographer did it, but he’s way off the ground (!).

Mark-making. Normally I’m not so scribbly, but I’ve been looking at Veronica Lawlor’s work today.

Accuracy. I’m conscious of the three towers on show (SE, SW and NW from right to left) are ‘right’, as well as the two roofs (S and W right to left), as well as the facetted octagonal Baroque drum holding up the dome. Below are the roofs of the smaller chapels attached to the church, which I am downplaying (I’ve been concentrating on the main church, not its extrapolations.


This is how it looks on the full A4 page.

Step 2. Tonal values.

Process. Normally I’d go in now and go crazy with the detail, sticking to line and adding tone after that. Today, I’m going to follow Ernest W. Watson’s advice and focus on the geometric shapes of the darkest shadows and make them obvious.

If I was working in watercolour, I’d probably add washes of the darkest colour in now (followed by the mid-grey, resulting in a three-colour result: white paper, mid-grey and black). I notice Liz Steel mentioned using a grey watercolour pencil (presumably at this Construction Line phases, on heavy, 200gm+ paper, with watercolour washes to follow); I’m thinking of investing in grey fountain pen ink to do the same thing.

Conclusions. I’ve resisted drawing lines around the windows and “filling them in”. Rather like Michelangelo chipping away the marble to liberate the figure within, I’m bringing out the tonal values first with the option of tidying up with line work later on. I’m happy with the basic contrast between dome/drum/tetraconch roovs. The four outer towers aren’t the same height and were built at different times (notice the Romanesque slits for windows for example). The far right tower looks a bit anorexic but it is a fraction further away from the viewer (notice I have yet to rub out the earlier construction lines which don’t flatter the lovely profile of the entire building).

In re-stating AFTER having established a foundation, I have made it very difficult for myself: I am inadvertently shading in areas that need to be kept white or light grey. This reduces the impact of light-and-shade for the viewer and if I get even more pernicketty about accuracy, then I’ll end up with a mass of graphite on the page (a bit like watercolours turning to mud). So, at a cetain point, I have to stop construction and move to detail (a point of no return!).

The best tonal work is in the Baroque dome drum – I’ve fallen victim to black holes for windows in the attached chapels further down.

Mood. It still has the air of a Baroque Bavarian castle on a German mountaintop, but that’s okay. The stark window openings make the building look semi-abandoned, but that’s okay too.

Mark-making. I’m going to stop now, resisting the additional of more fine line work detail. This doesn’t look as fine as a Ernest W. Watson pencil drawing, but it could if I was working on Bristol board and could literally cut and scrape back into the paper with a knife point and bring out white light highlights with a rubber eraser. Any eraser on this 80gm paper now would simply smudge what I’ve done. Watson says in his Sketch Diary (not in his other books) that paper quality is more important than pencil quality. If I’m going to persist with graphite pencil (and not all that many urban sketchers do), then I need to move to Bristol board. For the look that I’m aiming for, see my Tempietto Barbaro of Paladio from a couple of weeks ago – done on 200g multimedia heavy card.

Digression. I caught up with some of the vimeo videos done by Florian Afflerbach this week (see pencil of cars and buildings, with very light colour wash added later. Highly recommended if you like (a) pencil drawing, or (b) are interested in drawing those mechanical life drawing poses otherwise known as motor cars.

Next steps:

  • Go back to basics and draw the geometrical shapes with tone – as if it was a model made out of wooden cylinders and cones (add perspective lines);
  • Review the floor plan for the elaborations (the added chapels)
  • Tackle the front of the building in pencil;
  • Tackle the interior (dome, squinches, etc.);
  • try dots instead of lines when doing the light construction/foundation marks (the other way is to draw just vertical lines);
  • Upgrade to Bristol board and aim for an Ernest W. Watson look in pencil;
  • Try something in the looser style of Veronica Lawlor (pen) and Danielle McManus (colour);
  • Try the sky background watercolour wash idea (200gm+ paper);
  • Try drawing with grey watercolour pencil or grey fountain pen ink, with watercolour/gouache added.

Move to examining Sta Costanza (Rome), San Vitale (Ravenna) and others (that’s code for Really Simple Architecture), eventually tackling Hagia Sophia (photos) and local Sydney mosques (on location), as well as other Sydney buildings using domes (wooden domes at Hyde Park Barracks, copper domes at Observatory and QVB). The thing about mosques is that photographers tend to do closeups of the roof domes; ground-level ‘overall’ shots seem not to be as attractive.

Aiming also to sit inside the Sydney Town Hall next Tuesday lunchtime  and sketch – a free organ recital (Veronica Lawlor’s Grand Central Station sketch is the inpiration for this one!).



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