Back in 1963, an art history course at the University of Notre Dame required me to copy a number of art works. The idea was to supplement the reading about and viewing of art with the act of reproducing art. Here are three examples from my course notebook that I happened upon recently.
Dordogne Cave fresco of a bison
Veronese’s Head of St. Mennas (detail)
Frans Hals’ Young Flute Player
It had long been a tradition in the studio arts to copy masterworks as a way to gain proficiency, the thinking being that one could learn by imitating the compositional strategies, the strokes and blending of colors, and other techniques used by artists more skilled than ourselves. There are art teachers, however, who consider this type of copying to be a crutch and an obstacle to developing one’s own creative mind. Whether the practice of copying is good or bad depends ultimately on the reasons for doing so. The motivation for copying should not be merely the reproduction of a work. Rather, it should be seen as an attempt to explore the process of the original artist and just a single step in the learning process.
I should point out that drawing on location neatly sidesteps the question of copying. But note that even here, we are in a sense copying what our visual system takes in and interprets.
While in Rio de Janeiro a month ago, we had the opportunity to visit Casa das Canoas, the first residence designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1952. It is a true gem, nestled in a beautiful hillside setting and displaying the characteristic flowing lines of Niemeyer’s architecture. Thanks to Caique Niemeyer, Oscar’s grandson, for allowing us the privilege of touring this fine example of modern architecture.
After doing a few sketches of the exterior and interior of the deceptively simple structure, I attempted to draw a plan to try to understand the two-dimensional origin of what I saw in three dimensions.
To verify my plan, I perused several books on the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer but none contained a plan of this house. Upon returning to Seattle, I did an internet search and found this plan drawn by Jeff Hottinger, which is included next to the plan I drew.
In this age of digital 3D modeling where much design thinking and decision-making is made from a perspective viewpoint, it is still a useful mental exercise to try to imagine the orthographic relationships that plans and sections reveal and which perspective views do not. As designers, we should be able to think two-dimensionally as well as three-dimensionally.
This measured drawing of the facades of the Oratorio dei Filippini (Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri) and the Chiesa Nuova (Santa Maria in Vallicella) in Rome was beautifully crafted by hand by Professor Emanuela Chiavoni of the Università Sapienza di Roma, who I met at the UID conference in Matera last year. Designed by Francesco Borromini and erected between 1637 and 1650, the Oratorio achieves a measure of strength and elegance not through decorative features but rather by careful proportioning and the use of opposing geometries, particularly of the interplay between the convex and the concave.
Professor Chiavoni executed this drawing as part of her Ph.D thesis and graciously presented it to me as a gift. The drawing shows the use of orthographic projection to objectively describe the formal and proportional relationships between the parts and the whole of a design.
Below is my drawing of the same facades that I had done while Professor Chiavoni accompanied me for an afternoon of sketching in Rome. These two drawings show the difference between the objective and perceptual descriptions of the same subject.
Sometimes, we do our best work when we are the least concerned with the outcome.
By showing you these images, I do not mean to imply they are examples of my best work but there is a fresh quality to my drawings either when I don’t have the time to overthink a drawing or when I am demonstrating an idea or approach as I am teaching.
Whenever I view one of my own drawings or see someone else’s work, my immediate, instinctive reaction is to ask: How could the drawing have been improved? Sometimes, the answer is better composition; at other times, it’s more context. But the more common response for me is increased contrast.
I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating that contrast is a critical part of both seeing and drawing. Without seeing contrast, we are not able to differentiate one thing from another. And without drawing contrast, we diminish the hierarchy that creates interest and focus in a sketch.
There are several kinds of contrast that we can use in a drawing. Perhaps the most obvious is distinguishing between heavy and light line work to enhance spatial depth—what is near versus what is further away.
Another is contrasting areas of greater detail with spaces of lesser detail, or areas of precision with those of ambiguity.
And in the case of watercolor sketches, it is definitely necessary to differentiate not hues but rather zones of tonal values.
Much of my attention recently has been attuned to preparing the fourth edition of Architecture: Form, Space & Order. Working on this revision is giving me the opportunity to explore and attempt to understand the spate of irregular forms and compositions that dominate our consciousness.
Beginning a project is always enjoyable; thinking about all of the possible directions a work can take can be liberating. But beginnings can also be difficult when innumerable false starts interrupt the work flow and inhibit a sense of progress. I have come to realize, however, that these friction points are a necessary part of the creative process for they compel us to slow down, to pause, and to think ahead rather than simply charge forward into uncharted territory. One way I occupy these uncertain spaces is by roughing out ideas with a pen on paper and teasing out possibilities with a certain tactile rhythm. Here are a few examples.
Designed by Francesco Borromin, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is an iconic masterpiece of Baroque architecture, built in the 17th century as part of a complex of monastic buildings on the Quirinal Hill, at the southwest corner of the intersection of of Via XX Septembre and Via delle Quattro Fontane. Four fountains (Quattro Fontane) mark the corners of the now narrow and busy intersection. It’s difficult to capture the complex nature of the undulating facade as it weaves its way across the two-story, three-bay structure, with smaller columns framing niches, windows, and sculptures.
These are a few quick sketch studies of the interior. While initially appearing to be complex, the spatial geometry can be understood with just a little bit of analysis.
Just down the street from San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, another important work of Baroque architecture, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and the third Jesuit church built in Rome, after the Church of the Gesú and Sant’Ignazio. The reason for the grayed out area is that I had decided to draw this view over two pages already filled with notes I had taken of student design projects.
Getting settled in Rome and into the rhythm of field walks, drawing sessions, and studio classes. But before posting views of Rome, I want to share a couple of snippets from our visit to Lago di Como and Milano.
The first view on the left is from the open deck of a ferry my wife and I took from Varenna to Como, which merged with a later, more expansive view of the cathedral in Como. This is an example of how we often compose the pages of our journals in an improvisational manner, thinking not only of the composition of a view but also how it might be placed on a page or across two pages to interact with previously placed writings or drawings. Sometimes, the result is purely accidental and happily so.
The second view is a very quick sketch to capture not just the Duomo in Milan or the Galleria but rather the relationship between the two—a church of faith and a church of commerce.
The process of handlettering and drawing camera-ready pages for my books continued throughout the 1980s. But in the early 1990s, armed with an Apple Macintosh SE, a laser printer, and digital typography, I made my first foray into using digital technology as I prepared A Visual Dictionary of Architecture.
After assembling and organizing the terms and definitions into sets, I laid the material out on oversized sheets in Aldus Pagemaker. It was fortuitous that Adobe had just recently scanned my handlettering and created the digital font, Tekton, which I used for the dictionary terms and definitions. After printing the pages out, I laid tracing paper over each page and roughed out the size and position of each illustration to fit. I would then work back and forth, adjusting the placement of text in Pagemaker as necessary to accommodate the illustrations before doing the final drawings by hand on Clearprint vellum. After having the drawings scanned, I placed the .tiff files into the Pagemaker files.
In 2000, I began working with Steve Winkel on the first edition of Building Codes Illustrated. Knowing that the International Building Code, on which the text was based, was going to be updated every three years, I decided to do all of the drawings in Adobe Illustrator, learning the program on the fly.
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.
Because I am using digital tools more and more in my bookmaking, I cherish even more the opportunities to draw by hand when out on location. Even as I experiment with drawing on my iPad, the connection between eye, mind, and hand when I draw with a fountain pen in a sketchbook remains a pleasure.
Following up on a previous post about the making of Green Building Illustrated, here is a brief history of my publications.
My first book, Architectural Graphics, was published 38 years ago, in 1975. Due to the efforts of Forrest Wilson, Van Nostrand Reinhold offered me a contract based on of over 400 pages of notes I had prepared for the very first class I taught at Ohio University. I still remember condensing those notes and handlettering and drawing the final camera-ready pages with a Scripto lead pencil, a triangle, and a scale. I completed all 128 pages in a little over three weeks. Here is a sample page.
Building Construction Illustrated soon followed, using the same tools and process. But this time I worked on tabloid-size paper instead of letter-size bond paper. Interestingly, after a few years of complaints from bookstores, the pages were reduced to letter-size.
Wanting to use more subtle hatching and shades of gray, I used a 0.3 mm lead pencil to handletter and draw the images on Clearprint vellum for the camera-ready pages of my third book—Architecture: Form, Space and Order. Here are a couple of screen shots for a visual comparison.
My next post will describe the first time I used digital technology in my bookmaking.