Understanding Architectural Sketching

For many architects, sketching is a habit and a joy. But for others, especially students and those early in their careers, it can feel like the bane of their lives…

For many architects, sketching is a habit and a joy. But for others, especially students and those early in their careers, it can feel like the bane of their lives. Why can’t I draw a straight line? Why are my buildings so flat? Why does that window look like it’s floating? How come everyone else can do this, and I can’t?!

Drawing is an important skill, but architects are not artists. This is not to say, of course, that designing buildings is not an art, but that we tend to draw as a means to an end. First and foremost, we use our sketches to communicate ideas; only rarely do they need to be technically perfect, or dazzlingly creative. 

This article will explain what really matters about architectural sketching. It will introduce some common types of architectural sketch and offer a wealth of tips on how to improve. The great thing about drawing is that nearly everyone gets better with practice – and remember, sketching is only one skill of many that an architect requires. 

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What is architectural sketching?

In simple terms, architectural sketching just means drawing buildings, or elements of buildings, or landscapes with buildings in them. This could be on paper, computer or even via a lightbox. In reality, of course, there is quite a lot more to it than that! Architectural sketches are different from, say, artist’s sketches in that they include things like scales and keys for cross-referencing information; they often show their subjects from unusual angles (for example in a floor plan, which places the architect above a building, or in a section, which imagines a building cut in half); and when hand-drawn, they tend to be made on a particular size and type of paper.

What is the purpose of architectural sketching?

The main purpose of architectural sketching is always to communicate ideas – whether to a colleague, client, contractor, or members of the public. Architecture cannot really be discussed with words alone; we need a visual ‘language’ to talk about it. 

However, there are many other reasons why architects make sketches. Sometimes, we want to create a record of a building that already exists, either to better understand it or for later reference (this applies especially to hand drawings made on trips we are unlikely to make again). We often use sketches to develop our thoughts, in the same way that some writers claim to think by writing. And of course, we produce drawings as guidelines for others, such as engineers and builders, who work alongside us on a project. 

Why is architectural sketching important?

Architecture is often described as a profession that combines creativity and practicality. The same might be said for architectural sketches. They allow us to communicate and develop our ideas, sometimes in highly abstract form, and at the same time allow us to show how things will work in real terms. Sketches help us to foresee problems and come up with solutions long before bricks are laid. And the immediacy of paper drawings – think of initial concept sketches, which can be drawn and redrawn in minutes! – gives us a good deal of flexibility before sitting down at a computer.

In practical terms, it’s also worth remembering that the architectural field is more globalized than ever. In a room of people with different language backgrounds, a good sketch can say far more than a hesitant verbal description. 

What are the benefits of architectural sketching?

Some obvious benefits of architectural sketching are:

It makes you slow down…

While concept sketches can be dashed off at speed, most architectural drawings require more consideration. By setting down your ideas on a page, you engage both sides of your brain – creative and practical – and are better able to tease out knots in your thinking.

…yet paper sketching actually saves you time in the long run

For most people, drawing on a computer takes longer than drawing on paper. If you sit down at your laptop without having first sketched by hand, you’ll waste a lot of time correcting mistakes; paper sketches allow you to catch problems early on.

It’s the most efficient way to brainstorm ideas

Think how long it would take you to explain a building in words – especially to someone who speaks a different language from you. To sketch, all you really need is a pen, paper, and reasonable drawing skills (remember, architectural sketches don’t have to be works of art). Sketching by hand is also naturally collaborative, since a sheet of paper can be passed between people and modified as ideas develop.

It’s like learning another language

As your sketching skills improve, you develop an additional, visual language that you can use to communicate. Studies have shown that drawing is great exercise for your brain, just as learning Spanish or Chinese is, and you’ll be a much more competent architect to boot.

You can probably think of lots of other great reasons to sketch, too – not least because drawing is a pleasurable, even meditative activity in itself.

Understanding Architectural Sketching.jpg

Do architects really still draw by hand?

Yes, they really still draw by hand! With the development of computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modelling (BIM) it’s easy to assume that paper sketches are a thing of the past. But no serious architect can do their job without them, for all of the reasons given above. In particular, many architects talk about the value of quick concept sketches and bubble drawings – diagrams made early in the design process that help to organise space – in testing and refining their ideas. That said, later in the design process there is now invariably a switch from paper to computer.

Do architects need to be good at drawing?

The answer is both yes and no. There’s no getting away from the fact that sketching is a fundamental skill for architects: it’s how we communicate with others, especially in the initial stages of the design process, because a building is far too complex to be discussed with words. However, sketching is a skill that can be developed through practice. You don’t have to be a naturally talented artist, but you do need to put in the hours to make sure your paper drawings can say what you want them to. 

If this is off-putting, keep in mind that today, as in the past, there are drafts(wo)men whose job is specifically to create finished drawings based on architects’ specifications. It is unlikely you will be given sole responsibility for creating final sketches, unless you choose to specialise in this, and rare is the architect whose drawings go on display to the public. In architecture, nine times out of ten drawing is really just a tool. 

Types of architectural drawing

The following are the main types of architectural drawing, some of which are produced by hand and others on a computer. 

Working drawings

Working drawings are those which communicate, to scale, essential information to be used during the construction of a building. They include things like floor plans, site plans, elevations and cross-sections made by architects, as well as assembly drawings typically made by engineers and component drawings made by specialists such as lighting designers.

Modern working drawings look a little different from their twentieth-century counterparts. Whereas, in the past, a lot of information would be contained on one sheet of paper, today there are likely to be multiple sheets relating to different parts of a building, accompanied by separate pages of written specifications. 

Detail drawings

Detail drawings may be included in a set of working drawings. They show one part of a building at an expanded scale, allowing a viewer to see complex relationships between elements and small surface decoration close-up. Detail drawings are generally made at a scale of 1:10 or 1:5. 

Survey drawings

Survey drawings are produced by land surveyors in advance of architects’ working drawings. They show the measurements of existing land and buildings, so that architects know exactly where and how they can build.  

Presentation drawings

Presentation drawings are shown to a clients with the aim of selling them your ideas. They are usually realistic and show buildings within their wider contexts, including things like cars and pedestrians. Unlike working drawings, they may make use of colour and include rendering and hatching (to show shadow and texture). Architectural firms may employ a specialist artist or designer to create their presentation drawings.

Record drawings

Record drawings are made by architects when they are inspired by, and wish to learn from, a particular building. If you’ve ever been abroad and sat down to draw a skyscraper or church that caught your eye, you’ve made a record drawing. These days, it’s possible to take a virtual walk around some of the world’s best-known architecture and understand how it was put together, but anyone with a taste for the vernacular will likely still have a sketchbook stuffed with record drawings!

They are also made at the end of a project to show a building as it actually looks, rather than how it was expected to look from the working drawings.

Learning and developing key techniques for architectural sketching

One of the main skills required for architectural drawing is perspective – using line to approximate in a 2D image how the eye perceives 3D space. Artists who want to create a realistic impression of a scene generally use three-point perspective, which means there are three ‘vanishing points’ (where lines converge) on the page. Architects, on the other hand, tend to use two-point perspective, with two vanishing points. The diagram below shows how different types of perspective affect the appearance of an image:

Before attempting to draw something as complex as a building, it’s a good idea to practise perspective drawing on simple household objects. Do a little and often, and it should soon become intuitive.

Some other tips to improve your architectural sketching include:

Start with the volumes

Think of the building as a collection of three-dimensional shapes: cuboids, cylinders, cones, pyramids and so on. Draw these lightly, then make modifications to arrive at more realistic and complex forms.

Start with the shapes

You could also think of a building as a patchwork of two-dimensional shapes: squares, circles, triangles, diamonds and so on. Get these down on the page, then join up the flat surfaces to create volume.

Start with the edges

Taking it down one more level, aim to see the building as a series of edges or lines. Mark them out softly, keeping in mind their relative lengths and distances from each other, then start to fill in more details.

Start with what interests you

If one aspect of a building particularly interests you, draw it first and then branch out as far as you feel you need to. The parts of the building that are further away may only need suggesting with a few quick marks.

Set time limits

If you’ve ever been to a life drawing class, you’ll be familiar with this technique. Draw the same building or scene on location, but within different time frames – for example two minutes, 10 minutes, and finally half an hour or an hour.

Move your whole arm

A physical tip: when you draw, try not to move your wrist or elbow. Using your whole arm will allow you to create straight lines with relative ease.

Vary the weight of your lines

Drawings with no variation in line weight struggle to come alive. You can vary your line weights this with pens (e.g. a fine and an ultra-fine marker), with pencils (e.g. H pencils for thin lines and B pencils for thicker ones), or perhaps – when you’re more comfortable with sketching – by applying different amounts of pressure with the same tool.

Experiment with colour

Introducing colour calls your attention to how light falls on a building – and can get you out of your monochrome comfort zone!

Think harmony, not symmetry

Balanced images are not always symmetrical (and neither are many buildings!). In fact, symmetrical drawings and photos can appear somewhat flat. Think about other ways to bring harmony to your composition, such as using the rule of thirds

Tracing paper is your friend

Drawing on tracing paper allows you to build up unlimited iterations of your drawing, or overlay different parts of a building (it’s the old-fashioned version of CAD layers). When you’re happy, and if you need to, you can transfer the sketch to better quality paper.

Where to find examples and inspiration

If you’re in a rut with your sketching, the internet is the easiest place to find inspiration (for example 100 Architectural Sketches on archdaily.com, or the extensive but no longer updated Tumblr blog Drawing Architecture). Pinterest also has a huge range of architectural drawings to browse.

Exhibitions are another great way to get your creative juices flowing – whether they specifically show architectural drawings (as those at RIBA often do; the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London also hosts the annual Architecture Drawing Prize) or the work of other kinds of artists. Ideas for drawing don’t only come from other drawings but from photography, sculpture, textiles, graphic design…

And why limit yourself to a gallery? Watch a movie with strong architectural aesthetics (think 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Blade Runner films, or Grand Budapest Hotel). Take a trip to a place you’ve never been, or just a walk around your neighbourhood with a determination to see it differently. Get out into nature, which has after all been inspiring humans for thousands of years. Inspiration is everywhere!

Essential sketching equipment

A good architectural sketch comes from a person, not a piece of equipment. Nevertheless, you will need to invest in a few choice items, such as:

Fine line pens

As the name suggests, these pens deliver a fine line which is perfect for detailed architectural sketching. Many architects swear by Sakura’s Pigma Micron pens, which come in a range of nib sizes and whose ink famously never bleeds.

Markers

Marker pens provide thicker strokes and can be used in combination with fine liners – remember, it’s good to vary your line weights! You might like to splash out on refillable Copic markers (which give manga illustrations their unique look) but good old Sharpies are a firm favourite of architects the world over.

Pencils

Of course, sometimes you need to make a less permanent mark. Some architects favour mechanical pencils for their precision, durability and consistency of line, but compared to wooden pencils they leave a rather cold and impersonal finish. You may prefer to keep both to hand – the former for technical drawing, and the latter for more intuitive work.

Sketchbook

Whether it’s a classic Moleskin or another brand that just works for you, a sketchbook is essential. Make sure the paper isn’t too flimsy: 75gsm is the minimum for pencil drawings and 100gsm for ink. In terms of both portability and cost it can be tempting to go small, but make sure you have a large enough canvas to work on comfortably.

Tracing paper

As mentioned above, a roll of tracing paper is a lifesaver because you can copy and correct earlier drawings. Handy hint: if rolls of paper annoy you by curling up as you draw, slightly flatten the cardboard tube.

Architect’s scale (aka drafter’s rule)

Architects use slightly different rulers from everyone else! All of them tend to be made of metal (which lasts a lifetime if properly looked after), while the specialist architect’s scale has three sides, each featuring two scales. They can take a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of them they can save you a lot of time.

Tablet, stylus and the apps of your choice 

Realistically, you’re going to do a lot of your sketching with the help of technology. Apple’s iPad is still considered the golden standard in tablets, though there are plenty of decent, cheaper alternatives (we have a whole article comparing drawing tablets to iPad’s here). You’ll also need a drawing stylus and a selection of apps that suit your needs (see our previous post, The Best Apps for Architects, for a few ideas).

Books to help you learn architectural sketching

The best way to improve your drawing is by drawing as often as possible, but why not get some advice from the experts, too? The following books are all suitable for architecture students, and Liz Steel’s is a pleasure for anyone with even a casual interest in sketching the built environment.

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Where to find online courses and tuition

With the global uncertainty brought about by Covid-19, a lot of students are turning to online courses to hone their skills. If you want to join them, you could start in the following places:

  • on teachable.com, David Drazil – author of Sketch like an Architect above – offers a self-paced, $99 (approx £77) course of the same name that includes video lessons, worksheets and a 60-page book;
  • skillshare.com has a selection of courses including AutoCAD crash course for architects (which contains 20 videos, lasts just over three hours, and is free for students) and Watercolour Travel Sketchbook (which is also free, under 30 minutes and most suitable for intermediate-level students);
  • udemy.com has a range of courses priced between $20 and $40, most of which focus on computer-based drawing skills; and finally
  • edex.org and openculture.com publish lists of free MOOCs, including dozens relating to architecture, with real universities around the world.

Summary

While sketching doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and can even be a source of some frustration, you will almost certainly get better if you practice often – and even find pleasure in it! 

One of the main advantages of sketching, compared to other skills that architects learn, is that it can be done anywhere and with a minimum of tools. So challenge yourself to draw every day, and with different aims in mind. Read, watch online tutorials, and be open to inspiration. Above all, remember it’s not necessary to be a brilliant drafter – only to be able to communicate your brilliant ideas with a sketch!

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