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!