Standing in the courtyard of San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum Hill sits this almost ideal example of Italian Renaissance architecture by Donato Bramante. What makes classical architecture such as this beautifully harmonious work so difficult to draw is that any slight deviation from the intended proportions becomes very noticeable. I’ve attempted to draw the Tempietto several times and I still haven’t got it quite right, although this one comes close. It’s just a little too tall for its base.
I’ve always admired this building for its presence in the neighborhood as I walk by it daily, especially the tower portion that rises on its south end with its exposed fire escapes. Piece of Mind fronts North 36th Street while off the alley level in the back is an arcade and beer joint. Just to the east of the building in the adjacent parking lot stands the Flair Taco truck. Word is that a development is planned for this location but I don’t know if the plans include this structure.
In the left foreground is the edge of Free Range Cycles. Beyond, across the alley from 315 North 36th Street, you can see just the corner of the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, started more than 30 years ago by artist Pete Bevis. This is where the Lenin statue was assembled and the Jimi Hendrix statue crafted. He sold it last year and is currently undergoing remodeling for a restaurant and retail complex.
Stepping away from drawing from location for a while, I want to mention design drawings—drawings designers use to initiate and develop ideas and make them visible so that they can be acted upon. Whether we start with orthographic views, such as plans, elevations, and sections, before moving on to 3-dimensional views, or we begin the design process with paraline and perspective drawings, we should move back and forth from 2D to 3D and have the confidence that our visualizations are dependable predictors of future outcomes.
In an actual project nearing completion, it is interesting to compare a design study created in SketchUp with a photo of the constructed space. While not exactly identical, these two images are similar except for nuances of color and material. This shows the usefulness of preliminary studies to reliably foresee the result of our design decisions. Of course, these studies include not only graphic representations but also study models and prototyping. But for efficiency of time and fluency of thought, it is difficult to beat the graphic tools at our disposal.
Some sketchers start by drawing a border and then filling in the frame. I prefer not to restrict my images to fit within a predetermined frame; my only size constraint is the page or two-page spread on which I’m drawing. And even then, I try to leave myself room for the drawing to develop and grow if necessary. For this reason, I tend to draw vignettes, images that fade into the background without a definite border.
You can see here how I typically start a drawing by roughly outlining the basic forms and establishing a skeletal structure upon which I can elaborate. Then, depending on how much time I have, I select what I want to focus on and develop those details, textures, and values. This approach allows me to leave parts of a drawing unfinished if pressed for time, especially when drawing on location.
Here is another example of how I’ve left portions of a drawing unfinished, allowing the viewer to fill in or sense the missing parts without those parts being actually drawn. Unfinished drawings, in fact, can often engage viewers by exercising their visual imagination.
Back in January, I posted a piece on maintaining a delicate balance between a static state and one of dynamic disarray when composing a scene and laying it out on a page. Thinking about this subject again brought to mind the rule-of-thirds, a principle of composition that has been used for centuries by painters, photographers, and other artists.
We can visualize this principle by dividing our canvas or page into nine equal parts with two horizontal and two vertical lines spaced equally apart.
The rule-of-thirds postulates that we should place points of interest at any of the four points of intersection or lay out important compositional elements along these lines. Applying the rule-of-thirds in these ways is supposed to create visual tension and an image that is more dynamic than one with the subject matter simply centered on the page.
Consider how moving the horizon line in these three compositions can affect how we perceive the same subject matter in subtle ways.
Of course, rules are alway subject to being broken but experimenting with the rule-of-thirds is a good first step before deciding to disregard it. Even when applying the rule-of-thirds, we should remember that it is not an exact rule to be applied in a precise manner. It merely serves as a guide.
The first decision we have to make is whether a composition is to be balanced in a symmetrical or asymmetrical manner. If the latter, then the rule-of-thirds can serve us well.
I’m sure not everyone would share my love for geometry but an appreciation of the subject has served me well in my years as an architect. Understanding geometry, especially spatial relationships in three dimensions, makes it easier to draw these correspondences in real life.
Take this interior view of St. James Cathedral. Because of the ornamentation, textures and color, it is easy to get confused when confronted by the richness of the scene. But underlying all of the lavish decorative features is a clear geometric scheme.
Imagine looking from above at the square crossing where the nave of the church intersects the transepts. From each side of the square crossing rises semicircular arches. From the apex of each arch, we can extend lines until they intersect at the center of the dome’s oculus. The diagonal groin lines that mark the intersection of the two vaults rise from each corner to intersect at the same center.
If we understand these geometric relationships and, just as important, we can see them as we sit in one of the pews looking upward at the dome, we can draw the square crossing and estimate the placement of the oculus without guessing. We can place it at the peak of the dome, at the intersection of the crossing groin ribs, directly above the center of the crossing.
The page proportions of our sketchbook influence the composition of our drawings. Tall or narrow pages suggest the drawing of vertical compositions or horizontal panoramas, while rectangular or square formatted pages provide more flexibility in layout. Even so, we should not allow the proportions of a page to cripple our imagined views in unintended ways. The page should not constrain the limits of a drawing nor restrict its composition.
Where do we start a drawing…? Personally, I try to locate a vertical edge—or preferably a vertical plane—in the scene or view and use its size to mentally anchor the composition on the page. This vertical element can be a building facade, an interior wall, or even a row of trees or lamp posts…
Or it can be the imagined space between two building elements, as in a street scene or the nave of a church.
Using a vertical element in this manner requires projecting the imagined view onto the page and locating and sizing the vertical element relative to the overall composition to ensure that the entire scene will fit on the page. Providing breathing space around the intended image is a good strategy. Starting too large or misplacing the vertical element can force us to either cut off part of our intended view or alter the proportions of the scene.
Once we have placed the selected vertical element, we can use it to gauge the relative sizes of all of the other elements in the composition.
Once we have decided on the subject matter for a sketch and established a particular point of view, we should pay attention to the proportions of the conceived image. Some images may lend themselves to a square or nearly square format, others a vertical composition, and still others a horizontal layout.
At times, the nature of the image we are trying to capture can be odds with the proportions of the pages in our sketchbook. We shouldn’t allow this conflict to alter our intentions. In my next post, I will try to address the question of how to compose the image on the page.
A question that is often asked is: How do I start a drawing? Where do I start? The very first step, before even touching pen to paper, is selecting the subject matter and mentally composing the image—deciding what will be included and what excluded from the scene before us. Will we zoom in on a part of a building, capture one of its interior spaces, or focus on one of its details? Do we see the building merely as an object? Will we try to place a building in its context? Or will we try to capture the life of a street or square with the architecture serving as a container or backdrop?
• Interior space
• Building as object
• Buildings in context
• The life of an urban space
As we decide how we are going to compose a scene and lay it out on a page, we are juggling drawing elements to maintain a delicate balance between a static state and one of dynamic disarray. The elements that we balance are points of interest that draw the eye—an area of contrasting tone or increased line weights, a level of enhanced detail, even a field of emptiness. Here are a few examples of different ways of maintaining a delicate balance in a drawing composition.
When we want to emphasize the stability or serenity of the subject matter, we can use a symmetrical layout and still introduce visual tension through contrast.
For more dynamic compositions, we can offset one or more points of interest in an asymmetrical composition that leads the eye. We can emphasize height by raising the composition on the page or lead the eye by placing the central point of interest to the left or the right.
In the end, what we should strive for is a delicate balance that engages the eye and never lets it stray off the page.