Drawing Composition

Once we have decided on the subject matter for a sketch and established a particular point of view, we turn our attention to framing and composing the view on the page. A useful guide about which I had posted five years ago is the rule of thirds. Many photographers are familiar with this strategy of divided the image field into nine equal parts with two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines, and placing points of interest at any of the points of intersection or laying out important compositional elements along any of the horizontal or vertical lines.

Overlaying this grid of thirds onto the above drawing shows how the plane of the porta is placed at the upper left intersection and is balanced by the element on the right.

Here are two drawings, both of which use a horizontal line as the basis for the composition. One is along the lower third to emphasize the view upward while the other is on the upper third to show the foreground and convey a greater distance between the viewer and what is viewed.

In this drawing, both a horizontal and a vertical grid line serve to organize the urban scene.

Of course, the rule of thirds is not a precise method for placing compositional elements. Rather, the general idea is to place important points of interest off-center to create greater visual tension and more dynamic compositions.

And sometimes, the scene requires accommodating multiple centers of interest that draw the eye into and around a drawing.

Points of View

Once we have decided on the subject for a sketch—a scene, a building, or a fragment of a building—the next step is an important one in which we search for a vantage point from which to view and capture the subject. In so doing, we are in effect organizing the visual elements and focus of the drawing composition. Moving one way or another alters our viewpoint and thus the way the compositional elements relate to each other on the page.

And so, deciding where to stand or sit should be more than a matter of convenience or comfort. Rather, it should be determined by the composition a particular viewpoint offers. To illustrate, here are three different views of the main reading room of Suzzallo Library on the University of Washington campus, a beautiful example of Collegiate Gothic architecture.

“Art does not reproduce the visible; it renders visible.” Paul Klee

Occasionally, I will be reposting items from my Facebook page, which I had used to illustrate my drawing activities from January 2010 to February 2012. This one is from June 2010.

The above quote brings to mind the distinction between the vast richness of our visual perception as we survey a scene and our limited ability to capture that richness in a drawing. So in sketching, rather than attempt to reproduce every detail exactly the way we see it, we should simply try to make what we perceive visible to others. We do this by remembering that all drawing is abstraction, editing what we choose to include in our drawing, and relying upon suggestion rather than replication.

For example, here are a few enlargements of a sketch I did of the Sannenzaka slope in Kyoto. The lines and shapes are barely recognizable as being representative of anything. But in the context of the whole drawing, it is convincing enough to suggest to the mind’s eye a scene that we recognize. The whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.

Bengaluru

Many thanks to Anand Krishnamurthy and his colleagues of MASA (Alumni Association of the Malnad Architecture School) for giving me the opportunity to visit Bengaluru and address an audience of architects and students. Also had the opportunity to tour the city, visiting temples and markets. Above is a view of the city from my hotel balcony and below is a sketch of the flower market, where the activity became more important than the architecture.

Harbor Steps

Harbor Steps is a grand urban staircase at the foot of University Street that connects 1st Avenue with Western Avenue. This view looks down toward Western Avenue with the soon-to-come-down Viaduct and West Seattle in the distance. What is difficult here, as with any view looking down a stairway, is that we often can’t see the stair treads themselves. So all we can do is indicate the different levels connected by the stairway.

Wallingford Center 2

Here is another aspect of Wallingford Center, from the side opposite the view in my last post, showing the main entrance to the former Interlake Public School. Once I had completed the drawing, I noticed that the column-supported porch does not appear to be quite centered on the gabled projection. So if I were to draw this view again, I would make sure as I blocked the structure out to describe this alignment correctly—before filling in the details.

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.