Brick by Brick

A sketch I did a few years ago of the Sydney Opera House. I didn’t know how to approach it so I turned it into a tonal study.

Over the last month or so I have undertaken a study into drawing architecture. Now that I’m drawing outdoors more and living in an inner-city suburb I’m increasingly aware of buildings and architectural structures dominating much of the urban landscape. So now that I am drawing outdoors more I cannot avoid architecture in my drawings therefore I want to draw them better.

That was part of my task as well – defining what “better” is. Like others who haven’t got an architectural background my buildings tend to start off well, but once I say… draw in the windows I find I’ve either run out of room for the next window or they don’t line up with the level below. I don’t feel as though my drawings need to be more accurate interpretations but I don’t want them to be a blurred afterthought or a confused mess of lines. I also believe if you are drawing from reference even the teeniest attention to detail makes for a more convincing picture.

Drawn on the same day as the Opera House, this is the opposing view of The Rocks and the beginning of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When I look at this picture it lacks depth of space between the three levels of building and bridge.

I also want to avoid pencilling in perspective lines or vertical lines to help set up my drawing. I have completely omitted pencilling from all my informal paintings and drawings so I didn’t want to introduce it again just for architecture. The reason why I don’t pencil in is I can get too fastidious with it and it takes over the entire drawing and becomes very heavy and smudgy.

I guess what I’m after is a way of portraying the beauty of architecture – its sturdiness, its lightness (or heaviness), its direction, its structure, its practicality, its details, its sense of space and it’s age… just to name a few. But still portraying it in a way that is still loose, full of my personality and enjoyable for me to draw.

A pretty picture, but for me lacking character and interest.

For the first step I wanted to see how many styles or techniques I could use to depict architecture off the top of my head. When I wasn’t drawing outdoors I used the flickr site The Commons or Shorpy to supply me with reference material. I tried to find photos that were pretty simple in terms of composition and lighting as I didn’t want those artistic elements to influence my drawing method.

The image reference for my first study. Photo of Detroit City Hall supplied from

Attempt #1

To avoid using perspective lines I placed little dots instead to mark out the width and height. As the building was quite ornate I tried to focus on its basic shapes but it ended up reminding me of a school project made up of  cardboard boxes taped together. It also started to look too much like a sketch study which is not what I’m after. Overall it wasn’t feeling very cohesive.

Attempt #2

This one I tried using a continuous line and I started at the top of the building and slowly worked my way down. The result was a lot more striking with more character and unity and has a better finish to it. The only problem was I couldn’t plan the layout. I had already used up two thirds of the page and had only drawn in the roof.

Attempt #3

I used a looser style here and tried not to get bogged down with detail. Again I started at the top and worked my way down. I treated it like a 3 minute life drawing where you cant stop and think about it too much, you just keep drawing. I like the result as I managed to keep some areas clean and that balances out all the line work, but it is still very sketchy and I’m not sure if I could use this technique with a dip pen.

Attempt #4

Another continuous line experiment but more of a continuous scribble. I held the pen loose and let it fly across the page like a dog scratching a flea. It’s a very therapeutic way to draw and also a great shading exercise.

Four pages later…

So at the end of my first four attempts I didn’t feel like I had made a huge breakthrough in understanding or drawing architecture any better.

One thing I did discover as a key aspect to think about is how much do you put in and how much do you leave out?

Particularly ornamental buildings such as this. You can get so lost in all the detail your drawing ends up looking like one of those magic eye pictures and dolphins start dancing around with fairies.

Technically you should only draw what you can see with the naked eye.

For example, if there was a statue on top of a 5-storey building the details of it wouldn’t be as clear to you as say a lion statue sitting at the building’s entrance on ground floor which would be closest to you (unless you were drawing from a hot air balloon then it would be the opposite, not too mention an extraordinary feet in itself!).

It’s harder to gauge this “visual illusion” when drawing from a photograph as you have a clear view of everything. You can even pick up or zoom in on the photo for a closer look which you can’t do en plein air. So my next step was to draw outdoors.

Live and unleashed

For those who have never drawn out in public it is a real test for all sorts of reasons.

Finding a good spot

In a city location it’s not always easy to find a great place to set up. Occasionally you have the luxury of a bus stop shelter or park bench, but more often than not its cold hard cement.

Newtown Medical Centre

The other challenge when drawing a building facade is that the only public space to set up is from the footpath opposite which may only be 8-10 metres away. I prefer to see the whole object in one glance as it helps me “plot” the drawing and keeps everything in proportion. It’s hard to get an overall view of the building sitting so close, your eyes are constantly darting left, right, up and down cross-checking everything is where it should be. It’s like trying to fit it all in a camera’s viewfinder. Another issue is you get little perspective sitting at that distance.

You also neede a little patience with large vehicles pulling up or people walking past blocking your view.

Crosstown traffic

Braving the elements

Enmore Road. Sketching in dwindling light with headlights coming at you from all directions makes for difficult drawing conditions.

Depending on how brave or impulsive you are some locations can be down right scary. I drew this old post office sitting on a bench situated at a busy intersection, about a good foot from the kerb. It was peak hour and the bench was facing oncoming traffic. Every three seconds I would feel a whoosh of wind from a passing car or be blinded by headlights. So drawing outdoors in an urban landscape isn’t always the relaxed, indulgent past time one associates with en plein air art.

Weather can also be another factor that determines your staying power –the wind, the cold, oncoming darkness, even intense heat can test your level of endurance as well as your art materials.

Back to the drawing board

I was happy with what I came back with but still looking for that spark. So I decided to check out some work by other people and visited the Urban Sketchers main site.

Many of the artists I checked out had an architectural background but have the ability to go beyond their academic discipline and training to paint and draw like a fine artist. (I hope I haven’t insulted anyone by that comment) Collectively, they all attack architecture, among many subjects, with so much flavour and spice and all things nice their drawings leap off the page.

The ones that caught my eye were: Kiah KieanMarc HolmesSimo CapecchiBezhad BagheriDanielle McManus and my fellow Sydney Sketch Clubber Liz Steel. If you would like to check out their sites (and I recommend you do) either click on their name above or on their picture below.

What really appealed to me about these artists was that they all have very free, confident styles and aren’t afraid to use colour and that I can identify with. After drooling over their artwork I wiped my chin and worked out what it was I liked about their architectural treatment. I came up with five key elements that carried through all their individual styles, and they are:


A very textural building and what cuts through all the vertical and horizontal lines is the shadow play on the windows and sides of the building. Artwork reproduced with kind permission from Liz Steel.

Shading can help create more dimensional depth in a picture but it can also be used as a design element. For example, it can help direct your eye around the page or create atmosphere.


Beautiful balance between the large, clean, white, blocky building on the far right with the softer tonal landscape. Artwork reproduced with kind permission from Simo Capecchi.

Whether in a sketchbook or drawn on loose leaf paper you can add more excitement to your work by putting some thought into where your drawing sits on the page and how it spreads out from there. And also whether you decide to use the entire page for your work or let it “breathe” a bit by keeping some areas blank.

I love the fluidity of this double page layout – the way the colours, shapes and brushwork eventually undulate towards the one area. Artwork reproduced with kind permission from Ch’ng Kiah Kiean.


There is so much happening in this scene – lots of detail and line work, but it is perfectly balanced out with the empty space and strong diagonal shapes. Even using colour sparingly gives more depth to the picture than if it was completely coloured in. Artwork reproduced with kind permission from Danielle C. McManus.

Which leads me to space, and by that I mean clean untouched space. It’s always hard to pull back and not want to fill in every part of the page with line or colour, but if you can leave areas free of anything, it really lifts your work and creates some balance.


Not only do the white areas of the paper help animate the scene, but having the background and foreground painted in lighter washes of similar tone and in fewer layers helps make the main building the hero of the picture. Artwork reproduced with kind permission from Marc Taro Holmes.

Because I’m not intimidated by using colour, I can be quite heavy handed. It’s like when my dad’s family used to get together at Christmas – everyone would talk at the same time and the volume would get louder and louder with no listening to each another.


This picture shows contrast in so many ways: areas of light and dark; concentrated areas of details with fine brushwork against broader subdued painted areas. Artwork reproduced with kind permission from Behzad Bagheri.

Like all artistic disciplines, contrast not only creates excitement but also balance. And things like shading, light background washes, space and composition help create that. Contrast can be used to help distinguish things as well, like foreground from background or lift the subject matter from its setting.

Take Two

So with all these key components in mind I decided my next phase was to do a few more exercises where I isolate each element. Stay tuned…

20 thoughts on “Brick by Brick

  1. What an interesting post! I think your sketches are lovely and strike a very nice balance between too much detail and looking like an afterthought. When I try to include architecture in a drawing, I wind up obsessing over the details, probably because they’re not going anywhere, as a live subject might, and the drawing suffers for it. Good luck with the exercises!

    1. Hi Abbey, thanks for visiting. Totally agree about obssessing over the details and yes I think I am trying to inject more character into these buildings. love your illustration style btw.

  2. Hello Meegan,
    I tried to post yesterday but for some strange reason it wouldn’t work. So I thought I would try again today 🙂
    I think this is a fantastic post. Really interesting.
    One thing…you are way too hard on yourself. I think all of your work is amazing!

      1. thanks for the comments stew. and i think a few people had issues leaving comments around same time as you. hope it was a temporarry glitch.

  3. Thanks for the wonderfully informative post. I am putting your blog on my homepage to read daily starting today!!!

  4. I really enjoyed your post – so interesting and informative – I shall certainly be back for more!
    I do like your drawings and i don’t think it will take you too long to get to where you want to be.

    1. Thanks margaret, glad you enjoyed it. Love the lillies btw, beautiful shapes and linework. And great page layout. One day I will tackle flora too and will visit your blog for inspiration.

  5. These look great! 🙂 I haven’t done any buildings or structures for a while now, and yours are definitely very inspiring. Thanks for your comments too

  6. I loved this extensive post all about architecture. Very nice work for you and the artists you admire. Even though you are not penciling in the perspective lines, keep them in the back of your head as you make your first couple of lines. Keep going!

    1. Thanks Revelle. Yes that’s good advice and I do find my hand races ahead before I have a chance to think. Love little bella by the way. Amazing painting.

  7. I agree with Stew …. You’re too hard on yourself! Your post was very interesting and thought provoking, and I think your drawings are amazing! nancy

  8. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

Comments are closed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: