Do you remember the day that sketching “clicked” for you? I do, and this is it. The year is 19xx something, I’m 21 and in my third year architecture student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Before we could advance to our 4th of 5 years in the architecture program, a portfolio of our work was reviewed by three professors. Two of the three wrote “weak graphic skills”. Yep, that was me. Weak graphic skills. I was quite depressed at first and considered changing majors (right, just as all my friends were entering their final year of university), but after a few days, that diagnosis seemed to light a fire under me. Frankly, they were right. My style of depicting my projects was simple and cartoony, I cringe when I look at those images now.
That same semester, I took a drawing class that would change my life. It was the final time George Villalva, a local architect, would teach his location sketching class, and I lucked out just to get in. A strict former Marine, you had to be in your seat by 8am as the bells on the campus tower chimed (the earliest class in the curriculum) or he glared at you. But it was such a great class that lots of students took it for no credit and multiple times. He had such a clear way of teaching perspective sketching, methods I have expanded upon and now teach to my students. The drawing classes at UT at that time were great, and they trained a whole generation of architects who can draw.
These sketches reflect George’s approach to learning sketching. They are from the final assignment for the entire course. While I had flickers of moments that showed promised during the semester, something happened this day that made my drawing skills click. ..my brain, hand, and eye worked as one. Perhaps it was all the work that lead up to this moment, or perhaps it was the fact that I tried again and again until I got a drawing I more or less liked. But as I sat on the curb (I had to keep moving my legs for the bus that came by) on a quiet Sunday morning (see, it all comes back!) looking down Congress Avenue toward the Texas State Capitol, some kind of magic happened and my drawing abilities made a quantum leap.
A little about George’s technique. He taught us about linework, perspective, drawing cars, ink techniques, and much more. We started every view with a quick postcard sketch. These were only 30 second to 1 or 2 minute drawings, and it taught us to see the essence of the space and quickly capture the essentials. He timed us with his watch.
Next was a longer line drawing, but still quick. We worked in markers on a 12″x18″ newsprint pad (big so you move your whole arm, and cheap not-intimidating paper so you got over your fear of putting pen to paper). Drawing quickly was best…no time to overthink things, and the line quality had the energy that only speed can bring.
Next came tone…we pulled out a few gray markers and did a tone drawing, so valuable in putting meat to the bones of the linework and for seeing light and shadow.
Finally, the last drawing, and this one was full color. It got muddy as I was probably tired. George always said that first you master line, then tone, then color, as color added so many levels of complexity, it was exponentially many times more complex than a line drawing.
For this series, my final project in his class, he awarded me with a 98 out of 100, the highest grade he ever gave. He almost never gave A’s in this class, so when my classmates heard I got an A for the semester, I’m sure it raised some eyebrows.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that class changed everything for me. It gave me confidence to continue in Architecture, helped me find a love for sketching as a way to learn about the architecture I see, and gave me a remarkable foundation of knowledge to pass on through my own teaching. Profound thank you to all my teachers including Jorge Luis Diviñó, and especially to Señor George Villalva, wherever you are. You are the first Urban Sketcher in my life.
When things click, magic happens. So the message to my fellow sketchers is to keep up the good work, work a lot…and you will see something click too…
You can see more about this in my talk this past Saturday with Brenda Murray at Studio 56, My Sketching Journey.