quick architectural sketch

Palace of Fine Arts

I was hankering for some sketching of “grand” architecture, like what one finds in Europe or other places in the world where a historic building is older than 100 years (ah, Italy!) A visit to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco last week was a great way to satisfy that longing and only 1 1/4 hour drive from my house.

As I recall, when I started taking watercolor painting lessons after my second son was born, I started with a day-long workshop where we camped out on the lawn opposite the Palace and I struggled with drawing, perspective, design, color, and watercolor technique all at once. What was I thinking?! Twenty three years later it’s still a formidable task, but oh what fun my sketch buddy and I had!

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The Palace was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition but has been rebuilt and retrofited and landscaped in more recent years, so it can hardly claim antiquity. But who cares, since it is hard to imagine a lovelier place to spend a summer day (and get away from the heat of north county!) especially if you like tourists.

We knew better than to launch in on a sketch of the whole palace with infinite colonnades, the lake with swans and reflections, etc. Even a small portion of a colonnade has a fair amount of detail. I mainly wanted to get the graceful forms of the Greco-Roman Amazons that seems to be holding things up. Since I’m so much more accustomed to sketching people, if helps me to put a human form in a sketch before I tackle the more knotty angles of the architecture. (many people would say the opposite)

We soon learned that we were considered one of the tourist attractions. Especially the Asian tourists, of whom there were many, became the audience and photographers of our event. But then there were the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were set up nearby. They were so interested in our sketches and in getting our cards that they forgot to offer us their literature.

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I’m going to skip over my second sketch which was enough of a disaster that it will not be allowed on this blog! We watched many romantic bride-and-groom pairs posing for pictures before the Palace backdrop. It is June after all and the solstice at that!

The wind picked up quite a bit in the afternoon, but we found a bit of respite from it in the sun and next to the water where the ducks and gulls were bathing and wildly flapping their wings. And here at least (I suppose I shouldn’t be on this side of this cord) I couldn’t see the tourists watching and photographing my artistic efforts.

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The question of the day seemed to be, “how did you learn to do that?” referring to sketching, and with the conviction that I know how to do it. The way I heard the question was, “gee it looks like fun, how might I do that?” And the answer to that is . . .still learning (even though I’ve been teaching for many years now).

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Carole still sketching, at the end of our day, with the fog rolling into the Bay. . .

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At home later I analyzed the scene I’d screwed up. Still feeling a bit flummoxed but at least the scale and perspective is a bit closer. I’ll keep at it. It’s a learning chore I enjoy, always have. Carole said, “Let’s go back and do it again.” I guess that’s how it works, over and over until it’s a bit more second nature.

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Buildings

Before I started hanging out with Urban Sketchers I avoided sketching buildings. All that linear stuff was too boring, I thought. Then I started wanting to be one of those cool urban sketch artists who can capture a busy city scene quickly and expressively. I should be able to pull that off, I thought.  After all, I’ve been an artist for 23 years, or longer if you count excursions into drawing since I was a child.

But it wasn’t that easy. I realized that I never really looked at buildings in the way one must to convincingly tell their stories. So it has been humbling, but also exciting, to forge new territory. It also helps with my motivation that one of my sons has chosen a career in architecture and opened my eyes to the beauty and mystery of structural design.

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Garber St. in Berkeley, fountain pen and w/c in 8 X 8″ hand.book sketchbook

You have to really be interested in building design to be willing to sit on a sidewalk and waggle your head up and down  and try to make sense of what you see. Since I got back from Manchester, England where the Urban Sketchers annual symposium took place, I have been looking at buildings in a new way. I live in the countryside, so it takes a bit of planning to find structures complex enough to offer some interest. This street of beautiful homes in the Berkeley hills was a good find.

I also signed up for Liz Steel’s online course, “SketchNow Buildings”. Liz approaches her sketches with the benefit of having practiced architecture for 20 years, and she has learned how to communicate the essentials of architectural sketching to non-architects for quick sketching in public spaces. She has a new book that just came out: Architecture: Super Quick Techniques for Amazing Drawings

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This is one of my class exercises, sketched from the parking lot of Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa. To follow the lesson I focused first on following edges with a continuous line, thinking in terms of shapes (sky shape, shadow shape, etc.), and 3-D volumes, moving back and forth through these as I proceeded with the sketch.

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Here’s a little house in town where I stopped to do my assignment, which started with analysing the volumes. I made the mistake of not taking time to measure properly, but I found it useful to critique the sketch and spell out the steps I could take to improve. Here’s some of my self critique:

-focus on volumes and thicknesses

-made the house too narrow

-needed to measure first

-steps are difficult

-need to go back with crucial lines left out

-difficulty of not seeing the ground line to get perspective cues

–sketching behind steering wheel in car is too restricting!

-color confusion: test to use more consistent shadow colors

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A Methodist church I pass every time I go to town.  More practice understanding the volumes and working out the watercolor mixtures for shadow shapes and more. Doing little side sketches to work out the details of areas like window insets and doors and porticos is so helpful. Also paying attention to leading edges on buildings and drawing all the thicknesses improves a drawing dramatically.

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Working from a photo to understand some issues with the structural components of some classical architecture.

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And then, how fun! I found this house in Santa Rosa which took lots of measuring and redrawing to even begin to understand how the columns related to the entablature (some things I’ve learned in past 4 weeks!)

Well I’m not ready to give up drawing people, but I must say that buildings hold a new kind of interest. Thanks to Liz Steel and Urban Sketchers, at least I won’t be so intimidated when I visit the city again and try to get all those lines to make sense!