Working in Layers, Quarantine Day #35

It’s handy building up a drawing in layers! I did the first layers of this sketch over a week ago, then this morning picked it up again to add more. Can you guess what big shape I started with? No, not the wall opening in front of me, but the entire wall itself…the Shape of this Space is defined by the shape of that entire back wall. VP is directly in front of me, as I’m sitting looking straight ahead. Had I started with that square opening, I would have had to “grow” the sketch, and capturing proportions and size would have been much more difficult. Color comes in the next layer, starting with a underpainting layer of the spaces through the wall openings so that those areas recede in space.

At some point I realized that I had started the sketch too low on my paper, but what the heck, I was already committed. So to make lemonade from a lemon, I decided to add notes to the empty space at the top of the page. I thought maybe some day, the notes that identify a bit of what’s what would be helpful to our kids…

I hope some of you caught the interview with Brenda Murray of Studio 56 on Saturday. I’ll write up a post about it soon. Thanks to all who tuned in! It was recorded and will be posted to the Studio 56 YouTube page.

I’ll also be showing sketches this Sunday, April 26 at 9am Seattle time as part of the Urban Sketchers series, USk Talks. Soooooo honored to get to participate! Hope to see you this Sunday on the Urban Sketcher’s Instagram live stories for a round the world trip from your couch!

I love this part!!

Well, How Did I Get Here? …this Saturday, April 18.

I’m combing through piles of sketches and old sketchbooks to pick the milestone moments along this sketching path of mine. How DID I get here indeed!!

Please join me this Saturday, April 18 for a free online talk about my walk through this sketching life. From first sketches back in architecture school in the Middle Ages (when I sketched in pen!), to teaching myself watercolor, to sharing my recent and favorite work from Dubrovnik last September. It’s interesting to see how everything has evolved, not to mention what happened during my 25 year break from sketching! My hope is that this talk will inspire everyone to push through the hard times and keep sketching!!

Here is the info about how to watch this talk from moderator, Brenda Murray, who is hosting a series of online interviews. It’s easy to watch. You just need Zoom installed and then click on the link below.

From Brenda: This is your invitation to attend a live-streaming interview with Seattle-based urban sketching instructor and architectural illustrator, Stephanie Bower as she talks about her sketching journey. The interview will start at 1:00EDT Saturday, April 18 and will run about an hour. Feel free to invite your USk chapter members and friends.

1) If you have not already installed the free Zoom app, go to to install the app. The meeting will start at the appointed time so please download the app BEFORE the start of the meeting.
2) Just before 1:00pm EDT (that’s 10am in Seattle), click this meeting link: ttps://
3) Your Audio and your Video and Chat will be disabled. However, we would really like to make this as interactive as possible so please send your questions via Facebook Messenger to We will try very hard to answer everyone’s questions.

***Note: for best results use the device with the largest screen (laptop is better than phone) so that you can see the artist’s art when they hold it up.

9. Suzzallo Reading Room in one..two…three…

I recently abandoned my old blog to start this one, and I thought I’d share what may be the most viewed post from the former blog…the one, two, three steps to sketching an interior space, in this case, the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library Reading Room. Most people think this sketch was done in merry old England, but no, it’s just a few miles from my home in Seattle!
I love to teach perspective because it’s something so many people fear, ignore, or fake, but it’s really not hard if you know what to look for. This space looks complex and overwhelming, but it’s not, and you’ll see that to start this sketch, I use the three simple steps I use in all my sketches!

Step ONE: Looking at the view ahead of me, I ignore all that amazing gothic detail and simplify what I see to a very basic shape, starting with a rectangle, then adding a sort of triangle on top of it. This is basically what I call the “shape of the space”, as if you were to slice the room like a loaf of bread, this is the shape you would see. It’s the shape of the end wall. I measure the height and width with my pencil, then I transfer that shape to my paper. I place this shape very low on my page, as I want to be able to draw a lot of the ceiling.

Step TWO: I use my pencil to extend the lines that are receding away from me to find the point where they intersect, my Vanishing Point. I mark that mentally in my view and physically on my paper. Because I’m sitting, look how LOW the VP is relative to that first big shape!! The VP also directly in front of me as I sit squarely facing the end wall.

Step THREE: Because the Vanishing Point lives on my Eye Level Line, I draw my ELL in the sketch, a horizontal line all the way across my paper. Look how low it is! I mostly do this because it is a really useful reference for many things, and it helps to stabilize the drawing.

And with these three simple steps, I have everything I need to do this drawing accurately in perspective!!! These are the basic foundational lines of the sketch, and they are the road map I will follow to draw in everything else. I can use the vanishing point to start drawing in more big shapes and prominent lines, the major architectural elements of the space.  For this, I use a small plastic triangle, as it speeds things up to be able to snap accurate lines QUICKLY. Remember, once your VP is on your paper, USE IT to draw all those receding lines!

Step FOUR: You can see I’m putting more of the bones in…the verticals represent the columns, or each structural bay of the space.  I start to angle the lines closest to me to exaggerate the sense of height.

Step FIVE– I start working on putting in the ceiling…big shapes get broken down into smaller shapes, then I break those shapes into even smaller shapes…that is how structure works!  I also start to put in the chandeliers, as they cover up a good bit of the ceiling. Each one relates to a structural bay in the ceiling, and the lamps on the left relate to the lamps on the right.

Here is a photo of the complete line drawing.  I tried to build up the focal point with detail and linework at the back, allowing the lines closest to me at the edges of the paper to fade out.  I also added the book shelves, as that builds up the sense of activity at the pedestrian level and helps to ground the sketch.  Notice how FLAT the tables are because they are so close to my eye level. Notice how details are just suggested, I don’t take the time to actually draw in every detail.

Step SIX–Color…I started by putting an underpainting layer of yellow ochre on all the areas I want to be warm, usually the surfaces that advance spatially or are in the sunlight (what little there was!)  Blue goes in at the very back to help that area recede. Then I layer in more colors…mostly grays, as nearly everything in this space was gray to beige…I also built up the contrast carefully at the end of the space, the focal point of the perspective and the sketch.

And here is a scan of the final image, complete with signature and reminder of where I was!

So there it is, beginning to end. It took about 1 hour and 15 minutes, sketched and painted on location with Urban Sketchers Seattle. Paper is a Fluid watercolor block 8″ x 16″ (sadly, no longer available), Winsor & Newton watercolors, and my favorite Escoda Reserva size 10 travel brush. Also my 1″ angled synthetic brush for broad strokes in big areas at the beginning. Similar to drawing from big shapes to detail, I paint from big shapes to detail too!
I hope you found this helpful!

8. Perspective in one…two…three…

I always say that perspective is easy…when you know what to look for! Now you know to start with big shapes, how to find your ever-important eye level line, and that how you sit and view your subject is responsible for whether or not your sketch will be a one or two-point perspective! Next step, let’s construct a simple one-point perspective in 3 easy steps!

Starting with your view,

  1. Edit what you see to simple shapes. Find one big shape to use to start your sketch, and measure the proportions to find the ratio of height to width. This door frame is about 1 pencil unit wide to 2.5 pencil units tall, a ration of 1:2.5
  2. Find your vanishing point. Use your pencil to extend the receding lines to find the point where they converge in the distance (orange). Mark that point mentally to something in your view– here it’s close to the corner of the window in the distance. Notice where this point is relative to the big shape you just drew–here, it’s about half way up the door frame and very close to the center of the width of the door frame.
  3. Draw in your Eye Level Line. It’s the height of your eyes above the floor. The Vanishing Point is directly in front of you when you are sitting square to your subject.

And that’s it! This gives you the foundational lines and a road map to completing your sketch! Here is the sketch sequence:

After using my pencil to measure the proportions, I transfer that ratio of 1:2.5 lengths to my paper
to draw a rectangle in loose, light lines. This is the big shape! Add the VP and ELL.
Add more information, by blocking out more big shapes in light, loose lines.
Use the Vanishing Point for all the receding lines.
On this third pass, I darken the lines that are important. Because I’m right-handed, I start on the left and work my way to the right to avoid smearing.
Next I underpainted with yellow ochre and a light gray to establish
lights and darks and to unify the painting.
Add more color. Basically, I was trying to do a light-dark-light sequence through the spaces.

OK, it’s not a masterpiece, but given the limitations of subject matter in my house where I am stuck at the moment, at least it explains the concepts!! What I often hear from folks in my workshops is that they finally have a structure, a recipe, a road map, basic tools for how to start a sketch in perspective. Nearly all the sketches I do are one point perspectives, and I start ALL of them with these same 3 simple steps! Try sketching a doorway in your home, post it, and tag me on Facebook or Instagram @stephanieabower.

7. How you sit (or stand) changes everything.

We’ve talked about starting your sketch by reducing what you see to big shapes, then drawing those shapes onto your paper. Now we’ll learn that this shape will change depending on how you sit (or stand) and view your subject!

Let’s review the concept of vanishing points, key to any perspective drawing. Remember Rule #1, lines that are parallel to each other in reality, appear to converge to a single point in the distance, and that point is at the height of your eye level, or on your Eye Level Line.

And this is the tip in the book:

Here is a simple example inside my house. I’ve chosen the opening of the door as my big shape, but notice how that big shape changes…

One-point Perspective (left) …………………………………………………. Two-point Perspective (right)

On the left: ONE-POINT PERSPECTIVE. I am sitting so that my body is looking straight ahead, my line of sight is perpendicular to the wall or door opening in front of me, like in the diagram on the left in the book. In this view, there are lines in only one direction that recede away from me (as seen in the hallway walls). All other lines appear as true horizontals (as seen at the top and bottom of the door frame). Sitting this way creates a true rectangle (also called an ELEVATION view in architecture-speak) that I can use as my big shape. Because there is only one vanishing point, this yields a one-point perspective view.

On the right: TWO-POINT PERSPECTIVE. I am sitting in the exact same spot, but now I’ve turned my body ever so slightly to the left. As soon as I do this, I no longer have a true rectangle as my big shape. In this view, there are lines receding away from me in two directions: what before were flat horizontal lines are now lines that are angling down or up to a point way off to the left — this is one vanishing point for all the lines that are parallel to each other. The other vanishing point is the same as before, directly in front of my at my eye level. Because I now have two sets of lines that are receding away from me to two different points, this is a two-point perspective view. Key to know is that BOTH vanishing points are on my Eye Level Line!

So the big lesson in this post is that how you sit or stand to face your subject is key to determining the shapes in your view, and how you sit also determines whether or not you will generate a one-point or a two-point perspective sketch! It’s as simple as that. Look carefully at my work and you’ll see that nearly all my sketches are simple one-point perspective views, as they are way easier to sketch! More on this as I develop a sketch of this exciting view inside my house for tomorrow’s post 🙂

6. Kitchen Greens.

I confess, I was holding off on my pandemic sketching. I don’t know why, maybe it’s lack of ability to focus, or maybe feeling overwhelmed by life these days, even though things are radically simplified by staying at home. I’ve never felt more grateful for a roof over my head and food in the fridge.

Yesterday, however, I finally jumped in to the Urban Sketchers group on Instagram at #uskathome this with this sketch. I had to capture those orange flowers in the bright light, as their tropical colors cheer me up every day as they over-winter in the only sunny window in our house.

And since we’ve been talking about starting with big shapes, can you figure out which shapes I drew first to set up the sketch?

I had to redraw these shapes a second time to get them the right size and location on my paper. Those first boxes determine everything! If you are sketching indoors during this pandemic, please consider posting your sketches to Instagram at #uskathome. More blog posts to come, how to find the vanishing point is coming up…stay tuned!

5. A measured view from a window in Brooklyn

Yesterday’s post talked about using your pencil to analyze your view. Your pencil or pen is great both for measuring the proportions of shapes as well as spotting the location of things you see.

Here is a quick sketch that I did last year from our hotel room window in Brooklyn, NY. I loved the wide view that went all the way from the old Brooklyn City Hall to a peekaboo view of the Brooklyn Bridge on the far right, and I wanted to capture it all in my sketch!

How to do that? I used my pencil to measure. The first thing I drew was my eye level line (aka horizon line–you can really see the consistent, flat horizon in the distance between the buildings), as that line functions as a sort of datum line throughout the sketch (plus, all the vanishing points for the buildings will be somewhere on that line!) The ELL is so important! I had to think carefully about how high it should be on the page, and decided if I wanted to get the tops and bottoms of most of the buildings, it would need to be slightly over halfway up the page.

Next I used my pencil to spot locate the edges of major buildings in my view. I figured out that I could divide the view into 4 fairly equal segments that aligned with the edges of some of the prominent buildings. Next I transferred that information to my paper by making tick marks along my eye level line, dividing it into four equal segments for where each of these building edges would appear. (I must have started over 10 times to make sure everything would fit on my page. It’s no big deal to erase these light lines at the beginning of a sketch.) Once the tick marks were in my sketch, I could start to draw in the shapes of the buildings.

Then the big shapes were broken into smaller shapes as I drew floor lines in perspective and refined the “stacked boxes” of the buildings. Detail was added at the end using dark pencil or paint. Note that I didn’t draw in every window, I only suggest the windows in places (near the tops of buildings or the ground), and let them fade out to suggest they continue.

And voilá, a wide angle sketch of my wide angle view!

4. Getting in Shape

Now you know to edit your view to simple and basic shapes, and you have some idea how to find those shapes. Let’s talk about how to measure those shapes in order to get them right, that is with correct PROPORTIONS.

1– Just what are “proportions” anyway? The answer is simple: proportions are basically the relationship of the height to the width of something. That’s it. Simple, but important, as proportions are key to how we see the world accurately and in particular, how we perceive beauty. Imagine the Taj Mahal looking squat or the elegant and timeless proportions of the Parthenon being off. So how do we capture accurate proportions when sketching in the field, and how do we apply that to our sketches?

One of the comments most often posted to my Craftsy/Bluprint classes is that people are so happy to finally understand how to measure a scene with their pencil. Apparently, lots of artists have been told in colleges and universities around the world to fully extend their arm and pencil, lock their arm in place, then use the pencil to measure things in their view… so it was a joyous ah-ha moment for many folks to realize instead that they should, 1) close one eye to flatten out the view, 2) align your pencil with a prominent vertical (or sometimes horizontal) edge, 3) THEN lock your arm and 4) use that pencil length to measure. Here it is in the recent book:

2– For lack of a better term, I call this vertical edge my “Measuring Line”. It is a line that I use to measure and reference many things in my view. For example, in the photo above, I can see that the 2nd floor balcony in the distance is just about half way up my Measuring Line/pencil, information that helps me locate the height of the 2nd floor in my sketch. And the top of that arch in the distance just about lines up with the top of my Measuring Line, also useful to know. I can also use my pencil to locate other buildings in my view, see this example from Rome below.

In this view, I align my pencil with a prominent edge of the building (which I used as my Measuring Line ;), then I lock my arm and drop the pencil horizontally to measure the distance to Trajan’s column and then the corner of the Wedding Cake building. Analyzing the scene with my pencil before I start sketching helps me locate things accurately in my sketch.

3– It’s critical to note that you are not transferring the actual height of your pencil to your paper (it probably wouldn’t fit anyway), you are really just transferring the RATIOS you have measured with your pencil. Is a wall 1 pencil high to 1 pencil wide (a square), or maybe a tall rectangle, or a wide rectangle like in the sketch from the Met above? Seeing this gets easier with practice. And once you start looking, you will see 1:1 SQUARES everywhere!!!!

4– And last, I want to add that the Measuring line is the first thing I sketch on my paper, and its size determines the size of everything in my sketch. Its location on my page determines what I will be able to include in my sketch. Remember, the Measuring Line should probably be lower than you think!! By starting with the Measuring Line the right size and low on my paper, I have room to include the ceiling! See the quick thumbnail below.

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!

2. It’s all about your eye level…

When I wrote my book on perspective in 2015, I came up with several unique ways of describing perspective terms and processes — things that I have seen no where else but are a product of my 25+ years of teaching perspective sketching and the crazy ways I explain things 😉

Here’s an example. Instead of using the concept of “Horizon Line” used in every other book or class I’ve ever seen on perspective, I use the concept of “Eye Level Line” or “Eye Line”. This is literally a horizontal line that represents the height of your eyes above the ground (shown in blue in the photo below.) Why use ELL instead of HL? Unless you are sketching at the beach or West Texas or from the second floor of Basilica San Marco in Venice and can see the horizon (where the ocean or land meets the sky), the concept of your Eye Level Line is more relevant to urban sketching.

Your EYE LEVEL = Horizon Line, but ELL is better!!

From The Urban Sketching Handbook: 101 Sketching Tips. You can see that my eye level aligns
with the actual horizon in the distance. You can also see that the vanishing point for the building
on the right is ON the horizontal line at my eye level, my ELL!

Now let’s apply it to sketching interiors. From lesson 1, you know how to use converging lines to find your Vanishing Point. Next thing to learn is that nearly all the vanishing points will live somewhere on your Eye Level Line!! This line is so important for so many things, I draw it into every sketch I make.

How do I find my Eye Level Line in my view? Here are a few methods:

  1. Hold your pencil or pen at your eye level in front of your eyes, and compare this horizontal line to your view. Where does this line hit something in the scene that you can use as reference?
  2. If you are sitting, find a door handle. You’ll notice my eye level is just about the height of the handle on the door to the left.
  3. Find where parallel lines that are receding away from you converge to one point, that Vanishing Point will be on your Eye Level Line.
  4. Horizon = Your Eye Level, so if you can see the horizon, use it! Keep in mind that your Eye Level Line is different if you are sitting (about the height of a door handle), standing (about 5′ from the ground), on top of a building or in a plane, just remember that the vanishing points will be on this line!
  5. Use the concept of Foreshortening. Vanishing lines ABOVE your eye level will angle down, receding lines below your eye level will angle up, and receding lines that appear dead flat are ON your eye level line! The example below shows the floor lines of an office building, but you can also see this when looking at shelves in your home. Where the lines of the shelves flatten out to a true horizontal line, that is your eye level!
  6. Reference other people in your view. If you are sitting, other people in the view who are also sitting will align with your eye level. Same if you are standing and the ground is more or less flat– the eyes of other people standing will be just about the same as your eye level!
From The Urban Sketching Handbook: Understanding Perspective.
From The Urban Sketching Handbook: 101 Sketching Tips.

The New Burke Museum, Seattle. Notice how when I’m standing, most everyone else who is standing has the same eye level as I do, provided the floor is pretty flat and they are roughly as tall as I am. This is true no matter where people are in your view. Knowing this can help me find my ELL and VP, and helps me to accurately add people to my sketches! In an eye level perspective view, heads will align!

Try taking some photos around your house of things like bookcases, drawers, horizontal wood siding, etc. to see if you can find where these lines flatten out to a horizontal–that will be your eye level line! Watch this line change as you sit or stand and how this change impacts other lines.

It’s really important to understand where your Eye Level Line is in your view and in your sketch… much more on that coming up!