Sketching Architecture

Bush House Watercolor

Bush House

During the sixth and final week of Sketchbook Skool Liz Steel showed us her technique for sketching architecture. I did two sketches of houses in Bush Pasture Park in Salem, Oregon. The first (above) was Bush House and the other was Deepwood Mansion (see below).

Bush House is tough to draw from the front because it sits on a hill and you are looking up at it. I tried Liz’s method of working. I first spent some time looking at the structure. Then I did a thumbnail to learn about the basic shapes and proportions. Next I sketched with a Burnt Umber watercolor pencil and then I added ink using a Sailor Calligraphy pen with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black ink. Finally I added watercolor. I lost track of time, but I think the whole process took about an hour and a half. Drawn in Moleskine 5.5 x 8.5 inch watercolor notebook.

Here are my initial notes done on location before drawing.

Bush House Notes

Bush House Notes

With this workflow I end up doing three drawings of the house – the thumbnail, the watercolor pencil, and the ink. This allows me to warm up and practice and learn about the structure before drawing with ink. It works, but it takes a long time.

I used the same technique for sketching Deepwood Mansion – look first, then do a preliminary sketch to figure out the basic structure, next lay out the sketch with watercolor pencil, and finally draw with ink.

Deepwood Mansion Notes

Deepwood Mansion Notes

Deepwood Mansion Ink

Deepwood Mansion Ink

Deepwood Mansion Watercolor

Deepwood Mansion Watercolor

I added the watercolor later at home. This is a good way to work. It breaks it up into manageable chunks.

Looking at this again a couple of days later I see a problem. I forgot a very important point in my workflow. You are supposed to work from the whole to the parts and then back out to the whole again. I worked on each part individually and forgot to step back out and check how the parts affected the whole. As a result some of the parts look disjointed – not connected properly to the surrounding parts. The top of the chimney is not lined up with the bottom of the chimney. The middle window isn’t aligned with the top and bottom windows. The peak of the roof is squashed (actually that’s because I ran out of paper and tried to fit it in). In general I worked my way down from the top and out to the sides drawing the overall shape of the next piece and then filling in the details of the section. It was careful piecemeal observation, but each section was tacked on as I went. I got so focused on each part that I forgot to step back occasionally and consider how the parts related to each other and to the overall structure of the whole house. This is a lot to do in one go on location particularly with a complicated subject. I can see why Liz prefers to do a fast sketch which captures the structure and personality of a building instead of attempting a detailed drawing.

When I go back out to the whole I step back and look at the entire picture. I no longer shift my gaze from piece to piece. I take in the entire thing as a unit. Instead of looking at the detail I consider the overall design – such things as overall structure (this picture for instance is based on a large triangle that goes from the bottom left corner to the peak of the roof to the bottom right corner), contrast (also known as values) where I look to see how much of the picture is lights, darks, and grays (usually you want a lot of this and a little of that – in this case I have a lot of gray and little black and white), color scheme (of which there are many variations too many to list here – this one mostly has greens, browns, grays, with some blue and a touch of red), and finally I look to see how each part fits in with its surrounding parts (things like alignment, proportion, and scale). So it’s a very different mental activity than when I’m working on each part’s detail, shading, and color. This sounds much more complicated than it is. In practice it may take only two or three seconds. Then I’ll discover something that needs work and I’ll shift back to working the part.

I should note that I really like this drawing of Deepwood. It has character and a good gestalt. I often do a post production project analysis which is a fancy way of saying that after resting a bit I look at the thing with fresh eyes and try to figure out what’s what and why things happened the way they did. I’m not thinking in terms of faults and strengths as such, more of seeking a deeper understanding of how these projects evolve and why things happen with a goal of doing things differently in future projects in order to reach a desired outcome. I know now that if I draw things piece by piece, it will look this way and if I do a bit more pre-planning with periodic checks for alignment and proportion, it will look that way.

Sketching or painting on location require dynamic solutions. Things like lighting and moving subjects change over time. Also as you explore the scene you discover different pieces as you go. One of the hallmarks of dynamic solutions is the notion of “checks and balances”. Working from the whole to the parts and back out to the whole and then back to the parts and then back to the whole is a key “checks and balances” technique when working on a complicated project with many different parts. In this case I realized I didn’t do that and because of that the drawing had certain inaccuracies. Surprise, surprise – process affects outcomes or to say it in a longer way: the steps or stages that you take and the order in which you do them affect the finished product. The way you change the outcome is to change the process. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget and hard to put into practice particularly if you’ve already formed a habitual way of working.

Wisdom comes from knowing how ignorant your are and seeking understanding. I prefer to try different things and different ways of working. I don’t like doing the same thing in the same way over and over again. I say “If something isn’t working, try something else”. It might work. It might not. If not, try something else. If you’re lucky, you might discover something completely, wonderfully, unexpectedly different.

Jim

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