Planes of Focus

Looking out at a scene, whether it be an interior space or a public square, we can usually discern three zones of depth—what is near to us in the foreground, what is in the middle ground, and what lies beyond, in the background. As we scan what lies before us, both at what is near and what is farther away, our eyes are capable of focusing and refocusing extremely fast, making it seem that everything is in focus all of the time.

But to convey a sense of space and depth—spatial depth—on the page, an effective graphic means is to treat each zone of depth differently. So we might, as in the first example above, treat the background with more emphasis and merely outline or suggest what lies in the foreground and middle ground, which we use to frame the view.

Or we can focus on what is in the foreground and blur or merely hint at what lies beyond, as in the view of Asakusa Temple in Tokyo above.

Or we can emphasize the middle ground and outline the foreground and fade out the background, as in the above view of New York City.

Beginning a Drawing

A question often asked is how to begin a drawing on location. Once we have selected a point of view and mentally composed the picture, one way to begin is to select a vertical plane in the scene, which can be the facade of a building or a wall of an interior space, and drawing this plane before delineating the horizon line—our eye level—relative to that plane.

It is important to properly size and locate this vertical plane relative to the page or sheet of paper to ensure that the entirety of the intended image will fit. If the initial plane is drawn too large, we may have to crop some of the intended image or worse, we might be tempted to alter the proportions of the scene to fit the page. Also, if the vertical plane is placed too far to the left or right, or too high or low on the page, the resulting composition may be distorted.

The initial vertical plane need not be a physical one. It can also be a virtual one, such as the cross section of a church nave or the width of a street.

More to come…

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.

“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.

International Left Handers Day

To mark International Left Handers Day, which celebrates the “uniqueness and differences” of left handers in a predominantly right-handed world, here is a sequence of six drawings showing how I constructed the interior view of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral I posted a couple of weeks ago. I first established a corner where two adjoining planes meet, and transformed these planes into a volume with the addition of four columns. Then, over this 3D framework, I developed the details on the columns, pews, windows, ceiling patterns, light fixtures, and sanctuary.


Historic Firehouse No. 18

When drawing in an urban setting, there is often a degree of tension between including the context for a building in a wide-angle view and capturing the character of a building up close. Here are two drawings of Seattle’s Firehouse No. 18 that illustrate these two points of view.

Designed by Bebb & Mendel for housing horse-drawn fire engines and built in 1911, Firehouse No. 18 was in continuous use for 63 years. After it was declared surplus property by the City of Seattle, it was acquired by Historic Seattle, which holds a preservation easement on the property. A designated Seattle Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the old firehouse is now home to the Hi-Life Restaurant.

A Charcoal Study

When I entered the architecture program at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1961, my first freehand drawing course began with charcoal studies of plaster casts. Being young and naive, I didn’t fully appreciate the pedagogy behind these tasks, but in hindsight, I can see now that these studies helped promote looking closely at geometric forms, noticing how light illuminated and reflected off of their surfaces, and appreciating the resulting subtle gradations of value. And then the challenge was trying to capture these visual qualities with a charcoal stick, a paper stump for smoothing and blending, and a kneaded eraser for lightening and creating highlights.

A Peek-a-Boo View


On our daily afternoon dog walk around the Fremont neighborhood, I’ve often noticed and admired this deeply layered scene. It offers a peek-a-boo view of Mt. Rainier and downtown Seattle through the openings of the concrete supports at the north end of the Aurora Bridge in Fremont.

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.”