Stairs and Stairways


Drawing stairs and stairways in perspective can be daunting because they involve sets of parallel lines that rise or fall as they move away from us and therefore do not converge on the horizon line. Also, their multiple treads and risers make them seem more complex than they are. Here are a few stairways, both exterior and interior, that I have drawn.

One key to drawing stairs and stairways is to first establish the levels or landings that the stairs connect and then treat the stairways first as ramps, before subdividing the ramps into risers and treads. I should note here that reproducing the actual number of risers and treads may not matter as much as capturing their proper scale.

The photo above is overlaid with a diagram that shows how the vanishing point for a rising set of parallel lines is aligned vertically with the vanishing point for a horizontal set of lines that lie in parallel vertical planes.

To Notice

During drawing workshops, I often find myself pointing at things in scenes that students are drawing. What I’m doing is drawing attention to how things are related to each other—certain relationships of size, scale, proportion, and placement—in what we see before us. Paying close attention—not merely learning techniques—is one of the keys to drawing on location.

In his book Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson attributes many of Leonardo’s accomplishments to his acute powers of observation, which were not innate but honed with practice. And Isaacson believes that “to notice” is something we can all do if we make the attempt.

And so it is important to really focus on what one is seeing, not merely glance at the subject matter, before drawing. As I have often said during my workshops: “Look more and draw less.”

A Creative Process


Like sketching, composing each page of a journal or sketchbook is an extemporaneous act. We may have a plan for how to organize the drawings and notes on a page before we begin, but we should also be open to altering the plan as each element is executed.

For example, we may find that having executed a drawing, its size, shape and proportions may differ, as so often happens, from what we originally intended. By carefully considering the visual shape and weight of the drawing, we can re-balance the page or give it a more dynamic quality with the placement of the next graphic element, whether that element is graphic or verbal in nature. With the addition of further graphic elements, we continue to encounter this opportunity to re-compose the page.

Using Adobe Illustrator

I’m working again with Steve Winkel of the Preview Group, preparing the sixth edition of Building Codes Illustrated: A Guide to Understanding the 2018 International Building Code. When I first began working with Steve in 2000 on the first edition of BCI, I had decided to use Adobe Illustrator to prepare all of the illustrations since I knew that the International Building Code was going to be updated every three years and that many of the graphics would have to be revised on a regular basis.

As I originally posted back in 2013: “I use Illustrator basically as a drafting tool to create the visual ideas I have in mind. The many benefits of vector graphics include: using the Save As capability to try out different options; having precise control over line weights and tonal values; being able to resize drawings easily to fit a page layout; and reusing elements that I had already drawn. Most importantly, when working on a revision, instead of having to completely redo a hand drawing, I can open an existing drawing file and make the necessary changes to create the updated version.”

Here are a few examples.

Multiview Drawing

I had been mulling the building of a wood storage shelter for a while. At first, I would occasionally visualize the basic structure in my head and imagine how it could be assembled and what types of connections were needed. Thinking in this way, I could picture the structure both as a whole as well as up close to look at details and revise it over time.

As the time to actually build approached, it was time to put the ideas down on paper to verify my preliminary thoughts. Thinking on a sheet of grid paper with a simple pencil, I resorted to a convention that is now somewhat outmoded but still useful to work out spatial relationships in three dimensions—multiview drawings. I moved back and forth between related plan, section, and elevation views to resolve and lay out the sizes, lengths, and spacings of the wood members.

The intent of these simple sketches was not to produce a finished set of working drawings but rather to figure out the basic set of relationships that could guide construction and also to produce a basic bill of materials.

Matters of Scale

This post is not about drawing. Rather, it concerns the issue of scale—the relative sizes of things and how we perceive this comparison—which is relevant to both drawing and design.

The historic core of the Médina of Fès, Fes el Bali, was founded in the late 9th century as the capital of the Idrisid Dynasty. The médina is full of souks and artisans working in leather, copper, brass, wood, textiles, and ceramics, and is home to historic mosques, mausoleums, and madrasas, as well as Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 and considered to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Markets line its car-free streets and sell all manner of herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the Médina of Fès remains to this day a medieval town in layout and scale, with a dense, low-rise building fabric, and narrow streets.

Returning home to Seattle from Fès, I find it difficult to convey the differences in scale and density of the two urban environments. Above, I overlaid (I hope accurately) the plan of the Médina of Fès atop a map of a portion of Seattle to indicate their relative sizes. What cannot be seen, however, are the relative population densities of the two urban areas. That of Seattle is around 6,800/square mile while that of the Médina is roughy 70,000/square mile. Even if my calculations are off by a little, that is a significant difference in scale that is difficult to understand without actually experiencing it.

Have You Ever…?

Whenever we do a drawing or sketch, we typically intend to do our very best, even if the results do not always match our expectations. Like a conversation, the drawing process can sometimes lead in a direction we could not foresee when we started. As it evolves on paper, a sketch can take on a life of its own and we should be open to the possibilities the emerging image suggests. This is part of the thrill of drawing—to work with the image on a journey of discovery.

So a strange thought came to mind—is it possible, in a conscious, deliberate manner, to do a “bad” drawing? Have you ever considered doing a “bad” drawing from the outset? I personally think this would be a very difficult thing to do.

The Essential Emptiness

“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
and it is on these spaces where there is nothing
that the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is,
we should recognize the utility of what is not.”

Tao Te Ching
6th century BC

A related Japanese aesthetic concept is MA, the essential emptiness that surrounds all things. Think of the spaces necessary to form words from a sequence of letters, or the silences that make the music from a sequence of notes.

Drawing as Speculation

Taking a break from drawing on location, I am sharing two pages from Drawing: A Creative Process, a book I wrote and illustrated in 1990. I am referencing here drawing as a means of making thoughts and ideas visible, which is pertinent to the use of hand drawing in the design process. The discussion is not so much about technique as it is about the attitude with which one draws.


A quote from the Irish Literary Times: “Punctuation creates sense, clarity, and stress in sentences. It structures and organizes your writing.” I wonder if there is an equivalent element or principle in drawing that would also serve to create “sense, clarity, and stress” and organize the composition of a drawing.

Sense = Meaning; Clarity = Sharpness; Stress = Focus