Love it or hate it, sketching is an essential skill for an architect. In this article, we’ll give you 15 great tips to get the basics of architectural sketching down, as well as 15 ideas on how to take your artwork to the next level.
Architectural sketching tips
For our complete guide to architectural sketching, you might like to read our to “Understanding Architectural Sketching” here. But for some ‘cut-out-and-keep’ tips, read on…
1. Keep your wrist and elbow still
First, a note about your body. Beginners often move their wrists and/or elbows when they draw, but this tends to result in wobbly lines. To get straighter lines, lock your wrist and elbow in position and move your whole arm across the paper. And resist the temptation to use a ruler, unless you’re making a technical drawing; lines that are too perfect will look odd when combined with other, freehand shapes.
2. ‘Hit Go Hit’
This tip comes from Bob Borson, author of the Life of an Architect blog. He suggests constantly resetting the position of your arm using the ‘hit go hit’ technique – i.e. drawing a single, short line (“hit”); taking the pen away from the paper entirely, and adjusting the position of your arm so you’re ready to draw the next line (“go”); then drawing another single, short line (“hit”). The result will be an authentic sketch that reveals exactly how it was made: piece by piece, with care and concentration.
3. Take control of your pencil
Just because the pencil is in your hand, it doesn’t mean you’re controlling it. As with chopsticks, holding your pencil closer to the business end gives you far more control than holding it at the opposite end. So for detailed work slide your fingers toward the nib, and for shading, move them away again. And remember: never push your pencil away from you. Always pull, to avoid putting pressure on the paper and crinkling it.
4. Vary the weight of your lines
In general, holding your pen or pencil closer to the nib will give a stronger line, while holding the other end gives a weaker one. This is a technique that can be used to your advantage, as line weight variation is the key to interesting sketches. You can also achieve variation by changing the kind of pencil you use (H pencils give thin, neat, faint lines; B pencil strokes are thicker, rougher and darker), or simply by applying more and less pressure.
5. Avoid smudging
Nothing makes a drawing look unprofessional more quickly than smudges – but (especially with softer B pencils) they can be hard to avoid. A common workaround is to place a piece of paper between your work and your hand, perhaps fixing it with masking tape. Tracing paper is great for this as you can still see the image beneath. If you’re smudging drawings after you’ve finished them, you could consider spraying them with a fixative when you’re done. However, smudging isn’t always bad, as the following tip explains.
6. Include texture
When shading, to add interest, vary the length, thickness and direction of the lines you produce; see below for a few ideas, or google techniques such as cross-hatching and stippling. You can also embrace deliberate smudging (perhaps with the extra graphite dust you create while drawing) as a way of covering larger areas with soft, blended grey.
7. Master two-point perspective
Architectural drawings are usually made in two-point perspective, which means there are two vanishing points on the horizon (most people, when they start to draw, learn three-point perspective, which gives a photorealistic effect). You might like to mark these two vanishing points with the end of a pin, or tiny crosses, so you keep them in mind at all times. It also pays to keep your horizon low in the picture plane, as this accentuates the impression of looking up at a building as we do in the real world.
8. Differentiate between near and far
When we move through the real world, we also perceive objects differently according to their distance from us. Those things which are close to use appear better defined, with harder edges and brighter colours. Faraway things have the opposite qualities, so in your drawings it is sometimes enough to give only vague impressions of them.
9. Consider the component parts of a building
Buildings are collections are three-dimensional forms. It can sometimes help to think about them in this way as we draw – combining cubes, spheres and so on. On paper, buildings also exist as collections of two-dimensional shapes (squares, circles, etc) or, with a bit of imagination, as collections of lines (the edges of walls and window, the top of the roof, etc). Try squinting at a building to see what you see when the details are removed. Use this mental impression as a starting point for your drawing.
10. Create a visual hierarchy
What’s the most important part of your sketch? You can draw attention to it using a number of techniques, for example heavier lines, higher levels of detail, a splash of colour on an otherwise black-and-white page, and so on. For concept sketches, an abstract background – as long as it isn’t distracting – can also make your work stand out from the crowd.
11. Consider composition
You might like to spend some time reading about the golden ratio, which has been used by artists and designers for centuries – or, on a much simpler level, divide your page into 70:30 proportions in your head before you start. Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor’ scale, based on the human body, is also worth investigating. Symmetrical drawings have their place, but in many cases they appear flat and turn viewers off.
12. Work in layers
This might seem obvious when you’re working electronically, but it’s just as useful a practice when working by hand. Using tracing paper allows you to build up your drawing in stages, correcting and combining until you’re happy with the whole.
13. Intersect your lines
This is a matter of taste, but many architects recommend intersecting lines wherever they meet (i.e. extending them slightly beyond their meeting point, creating equal-sided L-shapes at the corners of squares and rectangles). As with the second tip, this gives a kind of authenticity to your architectural sketch which says: I’m a work in progress, and I’m not meant to be perfect.
14. Conquer your fear of axonometric drawing…
Axonometric drawings show objects in three dimensions but without perspective, which is to say they do not appear to recede as they do in real life. For example isometric drawings, which are perhaps the most common type, use 30-degree angles and the same scale for each axis. This means there is no distortion and more space for details to be shown. Though isometric drawings are usually created on a computer, they also look great when made by hand.
15. …and of technical drawing
Technical drawings are notoriously hard, and require different skills to sketching, but are worth mastering. Work on a large surface (A2 or larger). Use dotted lines to differentiate the edges at the back of your shapes from those at the front. And to reduce the chance of smudging, use an HB pencil and kneaded eraser, and frequently clean your ruler and triangles of graphite. You can also use masking tape to protect small areas of your drawing.
How can I improve my architectural sketching?
Once you’ve got the basics covered, you need to make architectural sketching a regular part of your life. The following tips should give you some ideas on how to do it!
1. Draw little and often
Your brain struggles to pay attention for long periods of time, so don’t expect to emerge from a single eight-hour sketching session with dramatically improved skills! Half an hour (or even a few minutes) every day is more likely to give you the results you want.
2. Set yourself daily challenges
In a similar vein, keep your brain interested in sketching by setting yourself a new challenge each day, week or month. For example, you could give yourself strict time limits, or draw a series of objects related by form or use, or make especially small or large sketches, or use an unusual medium, or…
3. Shake it up
A lot of artists find themselves stuck in a groove, with their drawings looking very similar each time. While it’s great to develop a signature style, if you’re stuck in more of a rut than a groove, try introducing unfamiliar elements – for example, if you tend towards charcoal, sketch in brightly-coloured felt-tips.
4. Be prepared!
What’s good advice for Boy Scouts is good advice for architecture students: keep a sketchbook and a pen or pencil with you at all times. You might come across an appealing building in an unexpected place, or find yourself with a spare 20 minutes on a train station platform. If you have materials in your bag, you can make the best of these situations.
5. Draw from different sources
This article has mostly considered drawing from life, but that’s not the only way to hone your skills. You could also draw from architectural models, photos, other people’s drawings – or even from your imagination.
6. Use a drawing grid
If you’re drawing from another 2D image, you might find it useful to use a drawing grid. In short, they allow you to copy drawings more accurately by breaking up the original image and your own canvas into smaller, more manageable squares.
7. Take drawing classes…
If someone mentions drawing classes, you probably picture a handful of people gathered around a nude model. What use is this, if you’re trying to improve your architectural sketching skills? The truth is that drawing gets better with more drawing, no matter the subject, and in any case life drawing classes are just the tip of the iceberg. Research what’s available at your university, your local adult education college, or online.
8. …or start a drawing group
Formal classes not for you? Why not get a group of your friends together and meet once a week with the sole intention of drawing, and perhaps providing constructive feedback on each other’s sketches?
9. Get inspired
If you don’t feel like drawing, look at work you love – in books, on the internet, or by going to an exhibition. Different people get inspired by different places and activities, so find out what fires your imagination and schedule ‘inspiration dates’ with yourself!
10. Sketch randomly
While you’re a student, there’s a lot of pressure to make better architectural sketches. And this is fine as an end goal, but you don’t always have to draw architecture. Doodle at will, and make other kinds of art if the fancy takes you. What seems like play is still sharpening your skills.
11. Upgrade your equipment
While new pens won’t improve the work of a student too lazy to practice, they can certainly encourage one who is! Quality tools do make a difference the overall appearance of your drawings. If you’re strapped for cash, see what you can borrow and experiment with, or pledge to give up a small luxury (e.g. takeaway coffees) until you’ve saved enough.
12. Look at the back…
A good way to check the proportions of your buildings is to draw on tracing paper and then flip the paper over. When you view the sketch back to front, the problem areas are usually much more apparent.
13. …or look upside-down…
Another way to focus on proportions is to sketch from an upside-down photograph. This way, your brain can’t rely on memory and draw what it thinks should be there, but is forced to really see the relationships between shapes and lines.
14. …or don’t look at all
Try ‘blind sketching’ to create an unusual effect, or to warm yourself up before starting an important piece of work. Keep your eyes on an object as you sketch it, resisting the temptation to look down at the paper. To make it even harder, don’t release your nib from the surface of the paper either.
Architectural sketching isn’t easy, but it’s a wonderful skill to have. We all have days when everything we draw looks wrong, or we feel like we’ll never be as good as our classmates. But practice really does make perfect – or at least, it takes you a few steps closer!
There’s no magic formula that will take you from argh! to ahhh, but the surest way to get better at anything is to do it often and consciously. Draw daily if you can, and always push yourself to try new things. Your sketches may never have the grace of Daniel Libeskind’s or Zaha Hadid’s, but with practice you’ll develop a confident and even unique style.