I have drawn the interior of Civita’s Chiesa San Donato a few times times, as for the past 7 years, each workshop group comes here on the last day for the most challenging sketch of all. It’s a space I find both simple and ornate at the same time, and it’s a wonderful, cool and quiet place to sketch on a hot day.
This first image below was done in 2013. It was the first year I taught in Civita–a workshop of one person– so the two of us basically just sketched together. My son, Nicholas came with me too. His plan was to help me haul groceries up the bridge, then hightail it back to Rome to do the youth hostel thing. But he, too, walked through that Porta Santa Maria and entered a different world…he climbed the steps to our apartment, entered, turned and looked out the window, saw the breathtaking view, pulled up a chair, found a book, and stayed in that spot reading and drinking wine (age doesn’t matter in Italia) for at least a week. So much for Rome! Then, he went back to his sophomore year at UW and started studying, you guessed it… ITALIAN! He ended up graduating with a minor in Italian, and he is more or less fluent. Thus is the power of Civita!!
So 2013 was my first year in Civita, my first workshop here, and my first wide angle view sketch!!! This image is loaded with emotion for me.
In 2014, I was in Civita with a 2-month fellowship through The Civita Institute, a non-profit based in Seattle that used to have associations with the University of Washington architecture program. My project was to research the town’s history and draw an illustrated walking guide. What resulted was a sketch of the interior was WAY over the top… I tried to show every little detail that I wanted to call out in the guide. Overworked, it’s like a cake that is too sweet…
Next is 2017. Cleaner, with more control over the drawing (I was probably remembering my overworked 2014 image). Here are some photos taken during the process too. You can see in the “good bones” how I lay out the big shapes and use full ellipses to get the arches.
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.
HOW TO JOIN THE NEXT MEETING 1) If you have not already installed the free Zoom app, go to https://zoom.us/ 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://us04web.zoom.us/j/593769331 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 https://www.facebook.com/messages/t/brenda.murray.7. 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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
It’s much easier to capture true proportions using this method. No more buildings that are too tall or squat.
Starting with simple shapes makes a really complicated view easier to draw and less overwhelming.
It doesn’t require the remarkable ability to visualize that Paul Heaston has!
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:
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!