Architectural Sketching or How to Sketch like Me

Architectural sketching is becoming a thing of the past – at least that’s how it seems to me most days. I graduated eons ago back in 1992, back in the days that pre-date computers in the studio. This doesn’t mean that everyone who graduated in my era could sketch – far from it. What it means is that we learned how to think and communicate our ideas slightly different from the product of today’s architecture programs. Now that I’ve been at this “architect” thing for a little while, I can look back at my sketches, all the way back to my time in school, and see how my sketch technique has evolved and how that technique has shaped my architectural solutions.

It’s kinda freaky to be honest. I’m not sure I would have made this observation had I not started writing this blog and posting my sketches for others to view. While I don’t think I am particularly gifted at sketching beautiful drawings, I do think that I have a style that has become recognizable as my own – and that is pretty freaking awesome to discover. Over the last four years, I have published a handful of articles where I share my thoughts and observations on the process and value that I believe sketching offers an architect. Through these posts, I get a considerable amount of feedback from people who are kind enough to let me know that they like the way I sketch. I’ve even mailed off a few sketches to people who have requested them – a mind-boggling idea quite honestly – the people in my office get my sketches all the time and they end up in the recycle bin 100% of the time.

Since I didn’t have anything else to write am such a generous person, I thought I would pull the curtain back today and share with everyone a handful of the techniques I use when sketching. While this might burst the illusion for some of you that I can actually sketch well, I think you’ll see that these tips are easy to incorporate into your own sketches and before you know it, you’ll be fooling people just like me!

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Before we get to the actual tips, let’s talk some tools of the trade real quick:

Architectural Sketching Supplies

Almost 100% of my sketches are created using two pens. I use the Sharpie Permanent Marker – ‘Ultra Fine Point‘ for my thin lines and the ‘Fine Point‘ for my profile (heavy) lines. I use a 12? wide x 50 yard long roll of trace paper, and an architectural scale (which is used to measure out dimensions as I sketch and I use the edge to tear the trace paper off the roll). On occasion, I will use a an Alvin 10? Parallel Glider but normally only when I am sketching out dimensioned floor plan concepts.

architect's trace paper trick

It drives me slightly crazy to have a roll of trace paper constantly rolling away when I am trying to sketch. A tip I learned from my current partner, some 20+ years ago, was to smash the roll slightly so that the tube gets crushed. Instead of the roll being round, it’s now oval-shaped and won’t roll away. It also helps me know which rolls of trace paper in the office are mine. Just some food for thought …

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So let’s get to it – here are 5 Tips and Techniques that should improve your architectural sketches
[all the images I’ve used in this post were collected off the Life of an Architect site and Instagram feed from the last 4 years. It shows that I’ve been consistent in using these techniques.]

Architectural Sketching Tip 01

TIP #01: “The Hit-Go-Hit”
I learned this technique from my friend Jon Kathol 18 years ago. The ‘Hit-Go-Hit’ tip is a way for you to pick up and set your pen back down on the page as you’re drawing in a purposeful manner. Why would you need to do something like that you ask? Well, tip #02 will elaborate a bit more (come to think of it, Tip #02 should really be the first tip in terms of importance but I’m not going to remake the graphic) but whenever you are drawing a straight line, you’ll frequently find that you need to reposition your arm, or the paper, to continue drawing. Make that reset look intentional and add some graphic flair with this technique.

Architectural Sketch partial site plan line weight

Architectural Sketch detail line weight

If you use this ‘Hit-Go-Hit’ technique, you’ll find that your straight lines will actually become a lot straighter. It’s kind of amazing to see the difference a sketch with straight lines looks over one that’s all squidgy and wonky. (yes, those are real architectural words in case you’re wondering …)

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Architectural Sketching Tip 02

TIP #02: “Don’t Move your Pen/Pencil by Bending Your Wrist or Elbow”
I should also point out that you shouldn’t “push” your pen across the page, you should always “pull” it. Lock your wrist and elbow into a comfortable angle and only move your entire arm when sketching. As you get more skilled, this tip can be relaxed and you can first bend your elbow and ultimately your wrist. In the beginning, by limiting your movement to the entire arm, you’ll end up with straighter lines. And since you can only move your arm so far, that’s when the hit-go-hit technique comes in. Now all of a sudden you realize that you need to reset your pen on the page more often than you did previously.

Architectural Sketch wall section line weight

Architectural Sketch drawing straight lines

Using the technique where I only move my entire arm, my sketches have straight lines in them – which really does make a big difference.

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Architectural Sketching Tip 03

TIP #03: “Incorporate the Use of Pen Weight”
This technique is a biggie … you have to use line weight to help convey depth to your sketch. More gifted sketchers and take care of depth using hatches and shading techniques so eventually that’s something you can take on. In the meantime, use two pens and get some profile lines into your sketches. Don’t know what profile lines are? You need to know and I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of ‘Architectural Graphics‘ by Francis D.K. Ching. I’ve had my copy since 1986 and still look at it from time to time. Ching’s book (along with my studio professors) taught me how to show profile lines – their use defines the look of my sketches as well as a generation of other architects.

Architectural Sketch detail line weight

Architectural Sketch plan line weight

Architectural Sketch wall section line weight

Another benefit to using a heavy pen is that it can help show you what you should be looking at – what the point of the sketch might be. Multiple pen weights help the viewer understand the order of things within the drawing, and through proper technique, they can also show to the viewer what’s not important in the sketch.

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Architectural Sketching Tip 04

TIP #04: “Intersect Your Lines at the Corners”
This is pure style and allows the inexact nature of a sketch to come across as what it is – a delineated representation of a thought or concept. Sounds a bit like architectural mumbo-jumbo but it really isn’t.  The inexact nature of the sketch – when attempted to be exact – looks sloppy and, well … inexact. By allowing your lines to cross at the corners, you can still convey the thought (or shape) you are going after, without having to focus on making the shape perfect. There is a “in-the-moment” that sketches imply and if you look at the two rectangles illustrated above, I think the one on the left looks far better despite the fact that it is far less precise or exact than the rectangle on the right.

Architectural Sketch floor plan line weight

Architectural Sketch site plan line weight

I think this crossing of lines at the corners is a carryover from when I used to hand-draft with a pencil. The beginning and end of a line had slightly darker marks than the middle of the line and they accentuated the edges very crisply. Just about every line I have ever drawn by hand in the last 20 years crosses at the corner – take that for it’s worth.

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Architectural Sketching Tip 05

TIP #05: “Trace Paper isn’t Precious … Draw in Layers” 
Design is an additive process so why shouldn’t your sketch be as well? Since most of my sketches happen on trace paper and not in a sketch book, I am able to lay sketch upon sketch on top of one another to build up and refine my sketches. I may start with a clean piece of trace paper for every sketch, but it’s only that first sketch that doesn’t have the benefit of something prior to work from.

Architectural Sketch plan conversation

Architectural Sketch drawing in layers

Architectural Sketch site plan drawing in layers

A lot of the sketches I draw are the result of several iterations of tracing … one idea superimposed over the other. Tracing allows me to take advantage of my previous work while experimenting with new ideas and concepts.

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Those are the 5 main sketch techniques that I use that create the “look” of my drawings … nothing magical about them.

I have also assembled the 5 best sketching posts that I’ve written to date on Life of an Architect. While none of the other posts talked about the technique behind the sketches, they cover a wide range of other perspectives as they relate to why an architect should sketch and its value. I’ve include the links to these posts for you, along with the short introduction to each article. I think they are all worth reading and commenting on, they are some of the most visited posts on this site.

Architectural Sketches
Architects sketch as part of the process when doing their job … at least I do. There are many different styles and techniques that architects use when graphically working through problems. [this post discusses why I created certain sketches]

Drawing Like an Architect
You don’t have to draw well to be an architect!! Sure it doesn’t hurt but let’s pull the curtain back and be honest here for a minute. Architects communicate through drawing – we aren’t making art. [This post is for people concerned that bad at sketching = can’t be an architect]

Your Sketches Speak for Themselves
I recently had a conversation about the importance of sketching and my job. With the prevalence of computer 3D software, fewer and fewer graduates from the design profession are entering the “real” world with the ability to hold a pen, pencil, paintbrush – whatever – and work through their ideas, explore concepts, or sit across from a client and communicate through drawings. [This post discusses that sketching reveals how you think and we look at sketches from my sketchbook that are almost 19 years old. What’s your guess … Have my sketches gotten any better?]

Architectural Sketching
Architects should sketch. You may not think you are very good at sketching but if it helps you work through your thoughts, I would argue that you are in fact, very good at sketching. [This post compares my sketches to those of my partner Michael Malone who is far more gifted at sketching than I am – and discusses why both types are important and have value.]

Sketching Out a Design Solution
I received an email asking if I would share details from some of my projects. While I bristle at the risk I might be exposing myself to, I remembered that I enjoy looking at details quite a bit, so I thought I would try to come up with something. [This post shows how the design was created through the actual process of sketching. It includes construction details that were created as the major design elements of the project.] 

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I hope this post inspires you to pull out your pens and paper and start sketching. I’ve come to believe that if you can sketch well enough to convey your ideas, our clients are the real winners.

Happy sketchingBob AIA signaturevia www.lifeofanarchitect.com

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