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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Braving the elements
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 Kiean, Marc Holmes, Simo Capecchi, Bezhad Bagheri, Danielle 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:
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.
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.
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.
4. LIGHT WASHES
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.
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.
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…