Studies of a Japanese Folk House

Another example of drawing from the imagination while on location. In this case, I was intrigued by the tectonic qualities of this Gassho-zukuri style house in the Hida Folk Village (Kida-no-Sato) just outside of Takayama. While walking through the interior spaces and visualizing a section cut through the structure, I drew the timber framing for the floors and the steep thatched roof and noted the way members were tied and braced. In this way, I was able to better understand and remember how material, structure, and construction came together to shape the architectural qualities of the spaces.

On the same page you can also see studies of the scale of the space created by the overhanging thatched roof along the eaves as well as sketches of types of traditional Japanese storehouses that I had observed.

These are all examples of how drawing from observation (on location) can serve as a springboard for drawing from the imagination (in design).

Drawing Conceptual Views

On a visit to the New Territories, we stopped at this walled Tang village, featuring a hierarchical grid layout, as well as examples of traditional ancestral halls, which have similar grid layouts organized by masonry and timber structural systems—seemingly simple yet capable of such spatial richness.

When drawing from observation, we can capture not only what the eye perceives but also what the mind conceives. We can use the drawing process to think about, visualize, and explore in imagined and imaginary ways the conceptual basis for the environments we see and experience. In this case, simple plan diagrams of the structural and spatial layout along with side views of the gable-roofed portions help us first to understand, then remember, and finallly convey the three-dimensional attributes of the ancestral halls.

My Ancestral Village

In 1993, accompanied by Dr. Ho Puay Peng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I took a ferry to Zhongsan Harbor and then a taxi to Nam Bin, my ancestral village near Sun Yat-Sen’s home village of Cuiheng in Guangzhou prefecture. There I met Ching Yoon In—our grandfathers were brothers who both emigrated to Hawaii. Being the older of the two, his grandfather had to return to China to take care of our common great grandfather while mine remained in Hawaii. Yoon is about the same age as me and when he told me this story, I immediately thought that if our grandfathers’ birth order were reversed, I could have been standing in his shoes and he in mine. To help me make sense of how Yoon and I were related, I drew this diagram. You can also see other small sketches of our ancestral gravesite, Yoon’s sister’s house, and a tower-house, a typical defensive structure built with overseas money in the 1920s.

Sketches from China

After Japan, the next travel opportunity I had was at the invitation of Tunney Lee, chair of the newly founded School of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Before arriving in Hong Kong in 1993, however, I made brief stops in Beijing and Nanjing. In the journal I kept for these visits, I wrote more of my day-to-day experiences, something I regretfully did not do in Japan. You can see a portion of my writing to the left of these small sketches I did as we flew into Beijing and drove into the city.

While in Beijing, one has to, of course, visit the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven, all monuments of impressive scope and scale.

While thirteen of the Ming Tombs are near Beijing, one is outside Nanjing—Mingxiaoling Tomb (tomb of the founder of the Ming Dynasty). I used this small, pictorial diagram to remember the configuration of the path and the Spirit Way (Shen Dao) leading to the tomb.

In contrast to this small diagram, the expansive view often tempts us. In Hong Kong, this would be the Hong Kong Central skyline as seen from Kowloon.


Before I began using a computer in the early 1990’s to design and layout my books—before Aldus Pagemaker, QuarkXPress, and Adobe InDesign—I produced camera-ready pages by hand using white bond paper, a Scripto pencil with 1.1 mm leads, and a couple of drafting triangles. Later, I switched to Clearprint paper and 0.3 and 0.5 mm lead pencils but the hand-lettering and hand-drawing process remained essentially the same.

For me, the way a book is laid out and organized is an essential part of the message and so I often storyboarded my ideas before developing the final pages. Here is a sample storyboard for Drawing: A Creative Process. Even though the content and layout often changed as ideas were refined with lots of yellow trace overlays, storyboarding was an essential step in the book design process.

The beginning phase is always the most exciting time for a book project, involving floating a lot of ideas and experiencing false starts as well as a lot of trials and numerous errors, but once the basic structure of a book’s organization is established in outline form, the real and time-consuming work of production begins. And for that, I am happy to be able to use Adobe InDesign and the Tekton font.

Sensoji Temple

Another drawing from my Japan sketchbook, this time of the Hozomon, a two-story gate leading to the courtyard of Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. Next to it I’ve placed a photo of Ando Hiroshige’s woodblock print, Kinryusan Temple at Asakusa, from his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856). Different media but similar points of view, executed a hundred and thirty-six years apart. Hiroshige’s print is particularly interesting for his use of one-point perspective.