A Shanty Town, Indonesia, watercolour and ink on paper
Not all buildings possess architectural brilliance, but even the most modest structures often hold something captivating. Sometimes, a building that may not warrant a second look can provide enough material for a successful drawing. Adding color can also inject drama and a sense of place.
Getting Started with Drawing Buildings
Before diving into your sketching session, take some time to observe and discover an interesting viewpoint. The most captivating angle is rarely the one seen from a nearby bench. A towering building may be best viewed from a close distance, allowing you to exaggerate its height in a portrait format as it soars into the sky. On the other hand, a row of terraced houses naturally calls for an elongated, landscape layout.
Spontaneously produced on-site drawings often possess an immediacy that is challenging to replicate in a studio. Due to time constraints, these sketches may contain minimal detail. There are various approaches to these drawings. If the intention is reproduction, publication, or framing, you may begin the drawing on-site and later add color in the studio, or use it as the foundation for a larger, more ambitious artwork. This allows for more thoughtful decisions regarding composition, scale, and color.
Drawing buildings and streets can be a pleasure in itself, often done in a sketchbook. An A4-sized sketchbook proves to be the most convenient, neither too large nor too small. Opt for sturdy, hardback books with quality cartridge or watercolor paper.
Newbury Town Hall, watercolor and ink on paper
Changing Your Perspective
When sketching buildings on-site, it’s easy to solely focus on capturing exactly what you see. However, exciting results can be achieved by distorting or even abandoning the perspective. For instance, the topography of the land on which a building resides can be cleverly suggested by its positioning on the page.
Consider houses perched atop a hill – you can draw them high up in the composition without including any detailed representations of the hill itself. Conversely, a row of terraced houses placed at the bottom of a drawing, with a tall tree towering above them in the foreground, establishes a clear sense of scale at ground level through contrasting sizes.
When sketching subjects with intricate details, it’s often more effective to suggest them rather than include every single element. Introduce contrast by juxtaposing sections with detailed areas against those with minimal details. This allows viewers to mentally fill in the missing pieces. Working on a smaller scale eliminates excessive details but amplifies the drama when scaling up your image.
When faced with older buildings adorned with ornate details, it’s best to first identify their underlying structure by seeking out repeated dominant elements. Rather than painstakingly drawing every brick and stone, you can develop a shorthand technique using squiggles or repeated shapes to instantly convey the building’s architectural era.
While drawing every intricacy showcases technical skill, there are more captivating and creative alternatives. Experiment with different techniques instead of adopting a singular style for all your artwork.
Coverack, Cornwall, fineliners and markers on bleedproof paper
Tools for Urban Sketching
The choice of drawing materials ultimately boils down to personal preference. Some artists prefer pencil and watercolor, while others opt for pen and wash. There is an abundance of tools available, but when it comes to speed, markers are hard to beat. Alcohol-based and water-based markers are both options. Alcohol-based markers excel on special bleed-proof marker paper, while the latter can be used on high-quality cartridge paper, Bristol board, or watercolor paper.
The advantage of alcohol-based markers is their instant drying time. However, they can dissolve graphite pencil drawings, so it’s necessary to replace graphite with a fineliner pen that won’t smudge. Many excellent drawings have been ruined by using a pen that bleeds when layered with watercolor or markers. Indian ink and acrylic ink are two inks that reliably hold their ground.
When making sketches intended for future studio work, I use markers to record color notes. While I have a good memory for colors, it can be challenging to recall specific details after several weeks. Adding the correct colors in markers or watercolor is just as quick as writing a description.
Ye Olde Bell and Steelyard, watercolor and pencil on paper
Unfamiliar places, especially foreign countries, offer fascinating vernacular architecture to draw. Buildings that have always been part of their surroundings may not catch the attention of local residents, but to a creative eye, warehouses, shacks, stations, kiosks, cafes, and bars are goldmines brimming with potential drawing material.
Even in our own homes, the exaggerated prevalence of suburban houses adorned with electric gates and CCTV cameras, along with grand entrance pillars featuring golden eagles, can serve as subjects for appealing, albeit tongue-in-cheek, drawings. Drawing a house clad in imitation Cotswold stone amidst a row of terraced houses can make a statement about how we view certain architectural choices. Sometimes, juxtaposing such drawings next to timeless classical architecture is enough to convey a message. Finding a purpose for your drawings is an important way to connect with the subject matter and produce subtly superior results.
Varying Your Approach
Drawing different buildings often calls for diverse approaches. For instance, a dilapidated collection of buildings may call for loose, scratchy lines, while an ultra-modern house requires a cleaner, crisper treatment.
Although it’s natural to draw anything that catches your interest, I perceive architecture as just another theme that offers potential visual material. I approach it in the same way as any other subject for drawing and painting: the possibilities are limitless.
Office Block, London, fineliner, sign pens and markers on paper
- How to Draw a Building Using Shapes
- Travel Sketching: Anne Desmet Answers Your Questions
- 5 Top Tips for Sketching Your Travels
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