Tackling Chinese architecture

April 26, 2013

Kian An Keng Shrine scan0039

In Bangkok recently, I was exposed to Chinese architecture, or rather exposed to sketching Chinese architecture. In the past, I’ve spent time on meditation retreats at Nan Tien Temple, a grand Taiwanese temple in Unanderra near Wollongong, but haven’t been back to sketch it.  My Asian counterparts at the Bangkok urban sketching event were obviously completely at home with Chinese architecture. Unlike Christian churches which are part and parcel of any Western sketcher’s repertoire, Chinese temples and shrines are completely outside my comfort zone. So since returning home from Bangkok, I’ve resolved to get out and draw Chinese architecture.

There are few examples of Chinese buildings in Sydney and entry onto their premises to the general public is restricted to just a few hours every Chinese New Year. The most accessible is the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Haymarket, near Darling Harbour; admission price these days includes a morning tea option (I can recommend the jasmine tea and dim sims).

So three of us visited the Chinese Gardens today. The specifics of unique roofing style were immediately obvious in the ceiling of the teahouse:


Not only is this roofing style completely at odds with Western architecture, it contributes to the unique roofline of Chinese buildings. I’m aware of roofing processes, reading recently about Sydney’s earliest colonial buildings being severely compromised by their rudimentary roofing systems. Eventually properly trained architects arrived to take control.

We spent time in the Boat Pavilion and after sketching, we simultaneously whipped out our cameras to take a photo reference shot.



The theme for today was sketching using a framing device, and, secondarily, considering sketching something seen through or past something else. This Boat Pavilion seemed a natural fit: the distant building framed by dark woodwork in shadow, itself part of a pavilion with seats and floor jutting out into the water.

This began life as a very simple tonal thumbnail, purely to get things ‘into perspective’. In restating it, adding detail of the frame, it took on life as a sketch in itself. The high point for me was the final red lantern in the ceiling because this was a flashback to the ones I was sketching in Bangkok. I was hankering after an eraser to ‘knock back’ the far building, but have left it as-is. From this thumbnail, I was intending to pick and choose elements for a ‘proper sketch’, but the thumbnail became a sketch in its own right. I added people at right later on; garden visitors weren’t deterred by three sketchers occupying the space.

Comparing it to the photo in hindsight, I realise I was looking at a rectangle not a square. My companions worked with a viewfinder (a square one, as it turned out) and I will use one next time.


From the general to the specific. In this second sketch, I was here to consider Chinese roof lines and frankly, tackling a building like this, in a style I’m completely unfamiliar with, was foolhardy as a three-quarter view. I would have been far better off doing a sketch of the building face-on, concentrating on accurate proportions. Instead I worked from the tiled roof downwards and outwards, realizing eventually that I was being ‘stopped’ by the wooden frame. The frame, itself, not even square, became a framing device and eventually the details joined up with two women and a child who wandered into view for a short time. The willow trees were so important I added watercolour at home. As it turned out, I kept working on the shadows – entirely with the one pencil, whereas normally I’d reach for a softer pencil to consolidate tone – and it took on a book illustration feel. I kept the figures simple so as not to become a barrier to the building’s “portrait”. My chop seal is far too big for an A4 page, but I like it (and the colour) as a design element. I had time at the end to include a vignette of the peak of The Peak, the high-rise apartment block built over the former Sydney Markets. I sketched this same peak from half-a-mile away last week at Central Railway Station. The Chinese Gardens create a wonderful self-contained environment, but there is a lot of ‘borrowed environment’ from the city buildings beyond.

Here are some more Chinese roofs for me to consider, views from the teahouse including the Boat Pavilion where we were sketching:


Lastly, half-an-hour of details as a warm-up before the Gardens opened. The pavilion roof (far right) is visible from Liverpool Street. I spent time looking at the traditional roof tiling. The wooden windows ended up being those of the teahouse, so I was able to see the detail up close when inside. These were quick sketches in HB pencil; I’ll return to pay attention to proportions and measurement, sketching with a H pencil instead. I get nice and quiet and slow and accurate with an H pencil; once I move into HB or 2B, I get too “expressionist”.



One Response to “Tackling Chinese architecture”

  1. Chantal Says:

    Looks like a wonderful place to sketch. An informative and beautiful post Rod.

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