3. Do you think like an Artist or an Architect?

Years ago in NYC when I was teaching sketching at Parsons in the Environmental Design and Architecture department, I had a student who had transferred in from the Art Department. I had everyone in the class start their sketch by ignoring the details in front of them and just drawing the big shapes of the buildings and spaces. This one art student, however, could never do it. After 20 minutes of drawing when everyone else had a pretty complete sketch on their paper, she had only a small piece in the corner of the page, fully completed and beautifully rendered, while the rest of the page was empty. I don’t think I could ever get her to see her sketching process differently, and it made me start to notice a difference in the way a designer’s mind worked and the way an artist’s mind worked. Many years later when writing my book, I describe this as Tip #49: “Sketch like an Artist: Grow your sketch” and Tip #50: “Sketch like an Architect: Start with the big shapes”.

If you see his posts online, rockstar sketcher Paul Heaston, can start with one area of his sketch and sort of grow it from that point, much the way the artist in my Parsons class worked. He often first draws his own sketchbook on the page, then uses that sketchbook as a reference to locate and size everything else as he grows his sketch in a clockwise direction. He’s got to be clairvoyant as from the beginning, he can somehow visualize how his sketch will sit on the page and its extent — he somehow gets everything to fit and look right. It’s an amazing skill, and other artists have it too.

I, on the other hand, Sketch like an Architect in what is really a different approach that reflects how a designer’s mind works. I reduce what I see in front of me to simple shapes like squares and rectangles, and those shapes are the first things I sketch on my paper using very light and loose lines. I believe there are real benefits to taking this approach, especially when sketching in perspective:

  1. Within the first few minutes, I know everything will fit on my paper. Have you ever sketched a tower only to find 45 minutes into the sketch that the most important part, the top, doesn’t fit on the page?
  2. These simple shapes provide something of a road map to follow. Once the shapes are on paper, the hard part is done. The rest is filling in the lines and then details. I do this working in layers in several passes.
  3. It’s much easier to capture true proportions using this method. No more buildings that are too tall or squat.
  4. Starting with simple shapes makes a really complicated view easier to draw and less overwhelming.
  5. It doesn’t require the remarkable ability to visualize that Paul Heaston has!
Here is the wide angle view in Dubrovnik.

Started the sketch with these simple shapes… probably started over 5 times to make sure everything would fit.
…became this finished sketch.

I think why architects tend to draw this way is because we think about the relationship of the pieces to the whole. Architecture is not just about making a beautiful, functional building, but about how that building sits in its context, how it creates spaces in and around it, and how people interact with those forms and spaces. We don’t see surfaces, we see volumes. We also tend to approach the design process by starting with the general and working toward the specific, that is, starting with massing and figuring out the details later in the process. OK, this is a gross simplification of the process, but I’d say it’s the way most designers that I’ve known tend to think and work. There is also a strong correlation to the way designers sketch — start with the big shapes, add more information in layers by breaking the big shapes into smaller shapes, then adding details toward then end.

While I think this process is easier than growing a sketch, the hard part is finding the simple shapes in your view and then transferring them to your paper with true proportions. More on that process in the next post!! In the meantime, here are some sketches showing the simple, big shape that I drew first on my paper:

Binnenhof and Ridderzaal in Den Haag, The Netherlands.
Street in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Chiesa San Donato in Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy.
Can you guess which shape I used to start this sketch of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia?
(I’m planning to have a workshop on the Croatian coast next year!! Fingers crossed.)

One more thing, I’d love your feedback on these posts so far…too long, too much writing, too much detail? Font too big, how does it look? I’m still figuring out how to post to this new blog platform. Send me your thoughts and questions. And if you like these posts, please let other folks know too…we can all help each other stay sane during these challenging times!

49 thoughts on “3. Do you think like an Artist or an Architect?

  1. Hi Stephanie
    I really liked today post explaining the difference between an artists view and that of an architect. I have struggled with that as I have an Art background and annoy myself when I inadvertently miscalculate the page space. So frustrating!!! Your description today was enlightening. Ahhh haaa… so thank you ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Stephanie,

    Great post! I tihought it was just the right length, good interspersing of photos given examples of what you were describing, and (just like your Bluprint class on Sketching Architecture), you do a very nice job of making whatever topic you’re writing about understandable.

    In my case, I understand now why I struggled so hard with complex sketches when I used to sketch from one end of the scene to the other (my mind is much more analytical and scientific than artistic). When I learned a couple of months ago to approach sketches by drawing the main volumes first, everything changed,

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    1. Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for the feedback, it’s much appreciated. I think architects sort of combine the math and art minds, so the analytic mind of a scientist would probably like this approach. Glad you found it and experienced the difference!
      S

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  3. Hi Stephanie,
    thanks for the post, and reminding us to stay “sane”.. I suspect I tend to see like an architect.. or at least I hope so.. I tend to get lost in being percise- and wish I could drawing more loosely.. When I practice lines tend to loosen up… right I have more time now- so new goals.. to practice!
    Thanks for the blog posts, I enjoy the long explanations.

    ps.. with respect to your first post- connections- I spent 2 days, almost 3 weeks ago, with Naomi, in NewCastle.. in Australia..(can’t believe we were there !!! amazing). Never would have happened except for our Civitas connections..

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    1. Hi Debbie, that’s right, you saw Naomi in Australia!!! Fantastic! I bet it seems like years have already passed, there is so much going on in the world now. And yes, I’d say you definitely think like an architect!! I appreciate that you like the long explanations, it’s like I finally have the chance to share it all!!!
      Take good care,
      S

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  4. another reason I like the architect approach is that you can stop the sketch at anytime. Once the basic shapes and just a touch of detail are down you have a loose sketch, often that is all we want. Yet you have the option of getting as detailed as you want.

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  5. Oh, Stephanie, that first paragraph really hit home. I know you said that over and over in our class, but reading your description of that student, you could have been describing me. I love details, but sketching has to be refined, as you said, to basic shapes. I am going to print your post and put it on my bulletin board and try to adhere to the basics.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Stephanie, so sorry your workshop schedule had to be cancelled, I know how much you love to teach and students will miss (this year) a great experience. Just wanted to say thankyou for your generous sharing of knowledge with this blog, Even though “i know this stuff” its great to refresh and see again how you apply it in your super sketches, ron

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  7. I too sketch like an artist, and you are right it would be much better to sketch like an architect.

    I like the format of your posts, enough information, and lots to think about as well.
    I found myself wanting to paint that scene from Old Town Dubrovnik.

    It took me some time, but I found the exact spot, almost, on Google Street View, however can’t get to the exact view as in your photo.

    Are we allowed to use your photo to create a painting? It might be fun for us to paint some of the scenes, to see what different people paint?

    Have you thought of starting a Facebook Group?/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. HI Terry, I have thought about a FB group, people from workshops have suggested in the past, but it seems I am already terrible at managing what is already on my plate!
    That photo was taken with the panorama feature on my phone, as I LOVE sketching wide angles. You are welcome to sketch it, although I think it’s much better to find your own view and sketch that–it’s the best way to learn as it connects to your own experience! Even in the Craftsy/Bluprint class, people typically find their own views to paint. And if you post it to IG and tag me, I will see it and offer feedback!
    Stay tuned for much more…
    S

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  9. HI Stephanie Great article thanks; clearly explained and the diagrams you’ve included are really helpful. Hope your’e keeping well and safe! Love Chris

    >

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  10. Thanks so much, Stephanie. These are wonderful posts and as someone else said, it is most generous and kind of you to share you knowledge here. I love the way you break things down so helpfully for us beginners!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Stephanie
    I really enjoyed your last book (101 tips ..) both in English and French (I live in Paris, France).
    I really liked today’s post, which is very pedagogical. I have a scientific background and I tend to go from the global to the detailed, but I never thought of this approach from the point of view of an artist and an architect.

    I had a hard time figuring it out because I have a background in art and I get bored when I inadvertently miscalculate the page space. It’s so frustrating!!! Your description today was enlightening. Ahhh haaa… so thank you

    Regarding the form of the posts it was just the right length, with very appropriate examples.
    Thank you for the quality of your work to make any subject you write about understandable.
    Thank you for sharing

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  12. Hi Stephanie! I love your online workshop! I just have to tell you that my great friend Maja is from Croatia. You met her at my wedding. You can’t forget she brought the Belgium chocolates! She just bought a small flat in Croatia! Maja loved your book so I gave her mine and bought another! I am including her on this email as I feel sure she would like to hear from you and join your Croatia sketching group next year! Two of my best people in the world! My chosen sisters! I love you both so much❤️ Lelia

    On Fri, Mar 27, 2020 at 4:47 PM Drawing Perspectives wrote:

    > stephanieabower posted: ” Years ago in NYC when I was teaching sketching > at Parsons in the Environmental Design and Architecture department, I had a > student who had transferred in from the Art Department. I had everyone in > the class start their sketch by ignoring the details ” >

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  13. The series you are now posting comes at the most perfect time. I have enjoyed your craftsy classes and the books, but these posts have really helped me focus on sketching again. The post is straight forward and the photos truly help explain the concept. I believe my view is like the architect view, I love details, but quickly get bogged down. Please keep up your most excellent project during this time, it means the world to many of us. I for one love to see the emails coming. Take care and blessings to you.

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  14. Well put, Stephanie. After reading your analysis of art and architectural drawing I had a flash-back to my high school training in drafting and looking at things in 3-dimensions. That training was followed by Engineering Graphics in college. But no art courses, freehand drawing or painting. In retrospect what a shame that I missed out on the art training. I finally took drawing, watercolor painting, print-making at a junior college in my 50’s. I did catch up but too old to make it as a career in art. I did not want to starve, I guess. Enough about my journey. When are you coming back to San Antonio/ Austin?

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    1. Hi Rene, interesting background…I too did not take art classes in college, plus I’m pretty much self-taught in watercolor!
      My mom and brother live in SA, so I’m sure I’ll be back as soon as we are allowed!
      Stay tuned…
      S

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  15. So appreciate your mindset insights, freeing and confidence-boosting for the artist mindset, giving practical tips for success even for not the greatest artist types. Not too detailed at all, inspiring, warm, generous. For what it’s worth, don’t agree with FB group, think WordPress blog is perfect for you (humble opinion).

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  16. Thank you, Stephanie. I like the balance between description and visual example throughout your post. Your first paragraph helped me to quickly grasp the concept, and I even got out my copy of 101 Sketching Tips and penciled in a cross reference to this post on the page with tips #49 and #50. I think the length is perfect. Your instructions help me feel more confident that I can simplify a scene and sketch more quickly.

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  17. Hi Stephanie. It’s so helpful to be shown how to start to tackle a complex scene. I took a life drawing class in which the teacher emphasized first getting the overall shapes and proportions right. Otherwise one might end up with a perfectly drawn eye and ear and mouth the wrong size and/or distance from each other — a recipe for disaster. You balance the written description and illustrations perfectly.

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    1. Thank you so much, Debra!! And yes, life drawing classes use the same approach of big shapes first…great lessons!
      And thank you for the kind comments, I’ll keep the posts coming! Much to cover…
      S

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  18. Thank you for sharing your tips with us and reminding us about simplifying the big picture by starting with the big shapes and working inward. Especially the note about fitting what we want to sketch onto the given size of our paper. There have been many times where my image went off the page and I was disappointed with the outcome.

    Many years ago I took a figure drawing class at our local art museum and when the art instructor saw me fiddling with my sketch he barked at me “don’t put on the eyelashes until you’ve gotten the model’s shape, look the outline of her body and contours of the muscles, not the details like eyelashes”. Well, needless to say, that stuck with me, and your question about whether we draw like an artist or architect has been a lifelong challenge of learning to see the outside first and than work inwards.

    Love your posts and stay well.
    Beth

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    1. Hi Beth, thanks for this message! I also think artists can think like architects, as I’ve seen many a figure drawing that starts with the big shapes instead of those eye lashes. That’s a great story and a useful lesson!
      Thanks for writing,
      S

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  19. Hi Stefanie, I’ve been enjoying your blog posts. They’re so informative and I appreciated your generosity sharing this knowledge with us. I have both your books and bought both of your Bluprint classes. Every time I see one of your posts they become a reminder of what I’ve learned with you so far. Dying to go on one of your workshops in Italy, Croatia or Seville. Keep the posts coming.

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    1. Hi Mayela, Thank you so much for the kind message! It is much appreciated! And fingers crossed I’ll see you in a workshop in the future… for all of us, I hope it’s sooner rather than later! 🙂
      S

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  20. Perfect length, info and detail… I Hope to make one of your classes when they start up again. Thank you so much for writing your blog.

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  21. nice colour on toe nails. Oh how i miss hearing your voice explaining the rules.. I have been enjoying reading your tips in last few days. I love being reminded again the simple yet crucial points when sketching. I have never had anyone explained perspective to me so effectively and simple to understand! sending loves and hugs stay safe and maybe see you at croatia next year..! love Rooi, Toto and Lulu

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    1. Dear Rooi, how I miss you and the girls, and how I miss seeing your beautiful sketches from around Oz! Thank you for this comment, although you have it all down… I’m lighting candles and crossing fingers and toes for Croatia next year. It will be a dream come true!!!
      Stay well, much love,
      S

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  22. Hi Stephanie
    I just randomly read this post, as I’ve been too busy working to follow along in order. But as a newbie to all forms of art, your series is exactly what I need to help me “see” where to start a sketch before getting bogged down in details. Anything that shows the layers being built up is helpful, more so than just finished sketches.

    Thank you for doing these. Once this craziness dies down I want to work through your examples in detail. (I work in Public Health in Canada and have a corner of this pandemic to try to manage. We train for this our entire careers, but hoped we never had to put it in practice).

    Stay healthy,
    Sandy

    Sandy,
    Sent from my iPad

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  23. Hi Sandy, I’m so happy you stumbled upon this post! Sketching is a great antidote to the stress of these challenging days. And my gosh, thank you to you for all you are doing to help us all during this pandemic! Stay well, and I hope to see you in a workshop on the other side of this health challenge…
    S

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