During a brief visit to Dallas recently, I woke up early one morning and sketched this view of the city’s Main Street. To capture the feeling of a city in transition, this panorama takes in the high-rises of a typical downtown, including the Bank One Center by Philip Johnson and John Burgee (now the Comerica Bank Tower) on the right; one of the many older structures being torn down to make way for new projects in the middle; and the Laumeier Sculpture Park featuring the Eye, a 38-foot diameter sculpture by Tony Tasset. What surprised me was how roughly the sketch developed until I realized that the ink in my pen was not flowing as freely as it normally does because of the 43° weather.
In the community of urban sketchers, architects are sometimes viewed as practiced in drawing buildings but not as adept at drawing people. While my focus is usually on capturing architecture and spatial environments, the drawing of people is often required to give scale to spaces and animate the places I try to capture in my work. And when drawing portraits, sometimes I am lucky enough to capture the personality of an individual with just a few well-placed strokes. At other times, I struggle and make people look younger or older than they really are.
The human face and body are difficult to draw, much more difficult than drawing architecture. Except for the cartoonists who are able to distort salient characteristics to emphasize the personality being caricatured, most of us can easily fall prey to mistakes in proportion and unintentionally distort our subjects. Still, drawing people is often necessary and always a challenge to draw. Good practice subjects are classical sculptures because they don’t move around as you try to draw them.
Last Sunday, I attended a book signing by Gabi Campanario at Elliott Bay Books in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. In addition to The Art of Urban Sketching, the event featured two more of Gabi’s recent publications. The first is Seattle Sketcher, based on Gabi’s exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry highlighting his five years of work documenting the people, places, and events in the Pacific Northwest for the Seattle Times. The second is the first in a series of more focused urban sketching handbooks, Architecture and Cityscapes: Tips and Techniques for Drawing on Location. Both are highly recommended.
During the cool, gray days of Seattle’s fall season, we have to find interesting indoor places to draw. Yesterday afternoon, I chose Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden. The combination of an informal atmosphere and a large variety of artisanal brews makes this a great place to spend some time on a rainy day. And when the sun’s out, especially in the summertime, the space spills outward with long tables and communal seating. Fremont Brewing will soon be moving to a larger brewing facility closer to Ballard but will retain this space as a lab and experimental brewery.
This is a view of the converted industrial space that I drew while enjoying a pint of FB’s Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop pale ale. I first sketched in a rough outline of the major forms and elements and then overlaid the people before filling in some of the details. I’m realizing more and more that my views are tending to be panoramic in nature just as my taste in camera lenses leans toward the wide angle rather than the telephoto.
In the 1950s, the psychologist J.J. Gibson outlined a number of cues to depth perception. A few rely on our binocular vision and therefore do not apply to 2-dimensional drawings and paintings. Others, however, are psychological rather than physiological in nature. As such, these depth cues are pictorial in nature and are applicable to drawing and painting on a 2-dimensional surface. In the following, I try to use simple terms and snippets of my own drawings and photographs to illustrate each of the depth cues that I consider to be relevant to drawing on location.
Convergence of parallels: This is a key characteristic of linear perspective in which parallel lines appear to converge as they recede into the distance. Despite the usefulness of the other depth cues, linear perspective remains the structural scaffolding upon which to build a sense of spatial depth on the page.
Overlap: Near objects overlap or partially block the view of objects farther away. Locating effective overlaps can be useful in selecting a viewpoint and composing a drawing.
Position relative to the horizon: Objects below our eye level rise toward the horizon as they recede; objects above our eye level descend toward the horizon as they recede.
Relative size: Objects known or assumed to be of similar size appear to shrink in size with distance from the observer.
Texture gradient: Surface texture appears to get finer and smoother with distance from the observer.
Shading and shadows: Contrasts in light and dark can convey the shape, form and depth of objects.
Aerial perspective: Particles in the atmosphere affects the color and visual acuity of objects at varying distances from the observer; distant objects appear grayer or bluer and less distinct than nearer objects.
As we can see, scenes more often than not comprise a number of these depth cues operating simultaneously. Seeing how these depth cues occur in our real-life perception can aid our understanding of why things appear as they do, counter to what we know of the things we draw, which are often in conflict.
A few weeks back, I had posted this view of the Fremont Public Library. While it shows the architectural appearance of the structure, it says little about where it is—its context. The structure could be in many different places. There is nothing in the drawing to suggest where it is located.
During a break in the rainy weather on Friday, I stopped to draw this view. While it doesn’t capture the frontal appearance of the library, it does show a bit more of how the it is situated in the city of Seattle. In the background, you can see the Aurora Bridge. To the right foreground is the A.B. Ernst Park, and on the righthand edge is the profile of the building to the north. The bottom line is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, for any single drawing to tell the story of a place.
Yesterday at the monthly meeting of the Seattle Urban Sketchers group, I drew this view while sitting in the corner park at East Pine and Broadway in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, looking toward the Broadway Performance Hall and Seattle Central Community College. This scene attracted me because of the way the trees in the park filtered the view of the buildings beyond. I began by first drawing the building forms and then worked from back to front, adding elements such as the fencing, the ground terracing, and the sculpture by Charles Smith. I then drew the tree trunks and foliage. Finally, I went back to fill in the details and texture that I could see through the trees.
I think that it’s okay in a sketch like this to draw over previously drawn elements and even be a little messy as long as the lines are lightly drawn. It’s when we add details and darken certain lines that we should pay attention to which elements overlap others. I believe the resulting transparency of the drawing helps convey the depth of the space.
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.
Here are a few sketches I did when attending another stimulating Design Communication Association conference held at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. The first are views from Marietta town square; the second is of SPSU’s architecture building; and the third was done during a tour of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, showing Richard Meier’s building but not Renzo Piano’s addition that creates a piazza beyond.
The Seattle Urban Sketchers met last Sunday at the Olympic Sculpture Park. Since I had already sketched there a number of times, I was looking for a new vantage point and found one at the southern end overlooking the waterfront. The panorama begins with downtown Seattle on the left, moves north along the waterfront, and ends with a view of Magnolia on the right. To the right of center stands the newest addition to the park, Echo, a 46-foot tall sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.
The first sketch is a quick study of the overall composition I did before attempting the final drawing. Because there was too much visual information for the small two-page spread, I had to abstract quite a bit of what I saw.