10 Essential Freehand Drawing Exercises for Architects

Courtesy of DOM Publishers

The following excerpt was originally published in Natascha Meuser's Construction and Design Manual: Architecture Drawings (DOM Publishers). With our industry's technological advances, "the designing architect is not simultaneously the drawing architect." Meuser's manual aims to help architects develop and hone their technical drawing skills as the "practical basis and form of communication for architects, artists, and engineers." Read on for ten freehand drawing exercises that tackle issues ranging from proportion and order to perspective and space.

What is beauty? A few years ago, a group of international researchers sought to unravel the mysteries of human beauty. They used state-of-the-art, totally impartial computer technology and a huge dataset to establish once and for all why particular faces are perceived as beautiful, and whether beauty exists independently of ethnic, social and cultural background; in other words, whether it can be calculated mathematically. The scientists input countless photos of faces from all over the world, each described by survey respondents as particularly beautiful, into a powerful computer. The resulting information, they believed, could be used to generate a face that would be recognized by any human being as possessing absolute beauty. But what the computer eventually spat out was a picture of an ordinary face, neither beautiful nor ugly, devoid of both life and character. It left most viewers cold. The accumulated data had created not superhuman beauty, but a statistically correct average.

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But that is precisely what you would expect of a computer. Here, I want to examine the relevance of this anecdote to architectural beauty, and discuss whether drawing by hand, a skill fast disappearing from everyday practice, is one worth preserving. It would appear to be a relic of the past – but does that mean that computer-generated images are the future? Thanks to modern design and display software, the intention of this book may seem quaintly anachronistic. Would any architect today think of presenting a client with a building detail drawn in Indian ink, or a perspective in pencil?

Clients often expect designers to produce pixel-perfect images right from the beginning of the design process, looking not unlike photographs at first glance. And even before the ground is broken, a virtual idea has already acquired the authority of a tangible reality that serves as the benchmark during the construction process. Often, the client is disappointed because a detail bears no resemblance to the initial plan. Sometimes, poor-quality rendering ends up provoking a protracted legal dispute: was the balcony supposed to be made of reinforced concrete, or just brightly painted steel? Like it or not, the computer is a handy desktop tool, a creativity machine that translates the most outlandish fantasies into physically realizable, fully costed designs that can be altered at a click of a mouse. The resulting photorealistic printout gives form to an idea that has not really even taken shape in the architect’s own mind.

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It is easy to forget that, for all its apparent creative talents, the computer is just a machine. The image that emerges from the printer is like that of the perfect face in the experiment, shaped by complex, soulless programs. Paradoxically, the tool we use in an attempt to make it look less soulless is also the computer. After all, animation means adding life and soul to an otherwise lifeless object, creating a realistic, perhaps even moving image using infallible, invisible and incomprehensible computer code. The spaces inhabited by avatars in computer games are not greatly different to the standard CAD output used by architects to persuade developers, contractors, clients, and competition juries.

Precision is the death of thought

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Anyone looking for soul in a building or interior design will not find it in these colorful animated digital images. Their impressive perfection is artificial and deceptive, their precision a challenge to the viewer’s imagination. To put it bluntly, architects who rely solely on the design skills of their computers are neglecting what was once one of their profession’s core skills since time immemorial: the connection of eye, head, and hand to create sketches, drawings, designs and plans.

In the old days, prospective architects had to start by learning to use a pen, analyzing structure, proportion, cubature, light and shade to break down the world into its component parts and reassemble them on the paper. To do this, their eyes and hands had to be trained. This can be an enjoyable and intuitive process: as my drawing teacher Heinrich Pittner once said, ‘What counts is not knowledge, but inspiration.’ His methods were based on clear principles, and he was not only a teacher but also a poetic artist with a philosophical turn of mind, who used simple exercises to teach the complexity of architecture. He made his students feel that they were both artists and architects. The next person I encountered who displayed this passion for architectural education was Alfred Caldwell, a legendary lecturer at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. His personality alone made his lectures worth the metaphorical price of admission, and he used to say: ‘The individuality of architecture is always based on personal experience.’ The following chapter is devoted to Pittner’s methods, which teach the basic principles of freehand architectural drawing in nine steps. The exercises can be carried out in any order, and are anything but comprehensive, but their aim is to introduce trainee architects and other interested readers to one of the most creative areas of architecture. Even experienced draftspeople should find the exercises an enjoyable reminder of their own training. This is also a reminder that the drawing marks the architect’s emergence as creator, giving visible expression to a unique idea without the help of computer programs. While many would say it is an outmoded pictorial technique, drawing transforms the idea into the intangible basis of the entire design process. In this context, and at this stage in the project, the image is not a mirror of reality, but it gives the idea credibility.

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A decision that only the architect can take

Architectural drawing is like photography: it is no good having a high-end, feature-packed camera if you lack the ability to compose images and to capture the essence of the subject. Having the technology to generate preliminary architectural and design ideas does not necessarily mean that the final result will be convincing. The choice of medium, be it 6B pencil, drawing pen or watercolor brush, is no guarantee of good architecture, which demands a basic understanding of proportion, perspective, form, and color. The ability to connect the eyes, mind, and hand when designing details, buildings and cities also requires familiarity with a wide variety of architectural cultures, periods, and styles. It entails knowing, based on practical experience, that ideas build on one another, and -being able to absorb and develop traditions and use one’s own outlook and ideas to create distinctive buildings for clients that can be highly valued.

Such is the nature of architecture: it is very rarely created in a vacuum and is usually part of a context of variety and difference. Take away the sharp edges of architectural space, and you are left with nothing. The architect’s penstroke brings it together and gives it form, which assumes an ability to imagine the space and give it proportion, structure, and beauty. Only the architect can take these decisions. Like all talents, architectural imagination and creativity are God-given, but also born of practice and experience. People who have seen, understood and adapted other people’s ideas are more easily able to come up with ideas of their own, drawing on a rich menu of visual and spatial ingredients. A person who uses drawing to explore the built environment sees its variety in a different light, and perhaps with greater respect, than someone who can imagine nonexistent space only by donning 3D spectacles. Architecture and the art of drawing are inseparable – and people who are good at drawing usually make good architects.

Exercise 1:
Point and Line

Points, lines and planes are the architect’s means of expression and are combined to create the three-dimensional spaces of architecture. This exercise uses only points and lines to build, first, basic geometric shapes, and then landscapes and places. Compression and changes of direction are used to create the identifying outlines of forms and spaces, define distances and clarify spatial depth. Our approach to architectural space begins with an excursion into art, with a quotation from the painter and Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee: ‘I begin wherever the pictorial form itself begins: with the point that moves.’

Exercise 2:
Proportion and Order

Every building project begins with a simple exercise: draw, measure, think. Finding harmonious relationships between the parts of a building, and between the parts and the whole, helps to order the elements of the design. The basic principles of proportion are dependent on finding relationships between measurements and have remained almost unchanged since the ancient Greeks and Romans. The golden section, Renaissance theories and Le Corbusier’s Modulor are all based on the proportions of the human body and describe a line divided into sections, the shorter of which stands in the same ratio to the larger as the larger section to the whole. These laws and relationships allow architects to create meaningful, harmonious connections and are a key moment of creative inspiration. This drawing exercise trains the eye by analyzing the dimensional relationships between geometric solids, and also provides a basic introduction to architecture with relation to elements, construction, and composition.

Exercise 3:
Geometry and Space

All variety of form depends on identifying measured relationships. This exercise, too, is based on simple geometric forms: the triangle, square, circle, pyramid, cube and sphere, cutting them up and reassembling them in new ways. Architecture derives its endless variety from combinations of two- and three-dimensional shapes, and from projecting two-dimensional surfaces into the third dimension. In the words of Heinrich Pittner, ‘If you want to achieve an outcome, you must see abstraction and reality as a unity. We are architects, not artists, but abstraction is the basis of our designs.’

Exercise 4:
Perspective and Space

Freehand drawing can be used to learn and practice the right way of seeing, but also requires a basic knowledge of perspective construction methods and their history. In the Middle Ages, space was still seen as a plane, but the Renaissance discovery of vanishing-point perspective brought major changes in the visual arts. This form of perspective remains an important medium of communication for today’s architects, whether they draw by hand or use a computer. The purpose of this exercise is to learn the principles of freehand perspective and spatial construction. Each point has a measurable position in the space, and the exercise involves drawing two or more simple objects turned or shifted in relation to each other. It takes only a small number of lines to create a three-dimensional representation. The exercise teaches the artistic and technical aspects of drawing, using an enjoyable artistic approach to such simple principles of construction as horizon, viewpoint and vanishing point. It also entails identifying, absorbing and analyzing dimensions and proportions, because drawing is ultimately about not just knowledge, but the inspiration born of individual perception.

Exercise 5:
Composition and Space

Architectural drawing always involves composition and the abstraction of the depicted space. To draw spatially is to see spatially. The purpose of this exercise is to build up a composition step by step, creating tensions using hierarchies of detail and whole, center and periphery, front and back, top and bottom, dark and light. This brings out complex spatial relationships and makes visible the forces that form space. In the exercise, simple forms and gradual abstraction are built up and composed on the picture surface. "Architecture is an artifice, an appearance of inner movement. It goes far beyond issues of construction. The purpose of construction is to create durability, and the -purpose of architecture is to stir our inner selves. As soon as specific relationships are created, we grasp the work."
Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture (1923)

Exercise 6:
Man and Space

The theory of proportion dates back to Vitruvius and thus the early days of architectural theory. Up and into the time of the Renaissance, theories of art focused on the notion of human scale and determined the continuity of a harmonious design and proportioning. Vitruvius also factored the proportions of the human body into the tectonic system of a building and placed these in a proportional context. In particular, studies on the human body can be gleaned from Leonardo da Vinci, who was a pioneer in the understanding of human anatomy. Alberti had already demonstrated that each regular shape can be constructed from circles and squares. Le Corbusier, in turn, discovered a harmonious design of the human figure according to the golden ratio. He named the human figure Modulor which he based on the height of a man with his arm raised and integrated into his spaces for emphasis. This art figure is still today synonymous with a style of architecture adapted to suit the human environment. The relationship between man and space will form the content of this exercise. In the process, the aim is not only to analyze the proportions of the human body but also its proportionality in space. Here it is less significant honing drawing techniques but developing a feeling for a composition of man and space that matters.

Exercise 7:
Light and Colour

Light and color are closely related, and play a mutually reinforcing role within the design process. The purpose of this second exercise is to discover the basic elements of color theory, and learn the main color mixes. The primary colors red, blue and yellow can be used to create any other color except black – mix all three, and the result is brown. Colour theory is also the theory of harmony, which deals with the interaction of colors and tones. The purpose of the exercise is to understand the phenomenon of color as a whole, based on the theories of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Exercise 8:
Nature and Design

This exercise, in which nature provides the inspiration for the design process, involves drawing an open flower at the final stage of growth and then using its geometry as the basis for various floor plans. The purpose of the exercise is to design architectural structures using natural forms, so nature herself is the inspiration. It highlights the origins and theory of design: in the words of Albrecht Dürer, ‘Art is hidden in nature. If you can tear it out, you have it.’ Albrecht Dürer

Exercise 9:
Two-minute Sketches

Learning to draw means learning to see, as the eye seeks, observes and understands. This exercise aims to encourage- spontaneity by imposing a time limit; the act of producing a rapid initial sketch forces us to decide how much visual information we want to convey. The sketches are a way of experimenting without needing to produce a complete or perfect result. The aim is to develop a strong sense of expressiveness by being confident from the first penstroke. ‘When I went to see Matisse one morning, he was still in bed, but he had his drawing board in front of him and was drawing the same head with great concentration and rapid strokes. Each time he finished one, he threw the piece of paper onto the floor beside the bed and began another, so he was surrounded by a pile of paper. Seeing my surprise, he laughed and said: “I’m like a dancer or a skater. I practice every morning so that when the moment- arrives, I’m completely in control of my jumps and pirouettes.”’
Werner Haftmann, Documenta III (1964)

Exercise 10:
Freehand Drawing

A good plein-air drawing is not simply a depiction of nature under a cloudless sky. It leaves space for inspiration, using the model and natural objects and forms, to practice line and composition. In this exercise, a single motif is depicted using a variety of techniques, with the choice of drawing medium and color playing an important role. The intention is to encourage visual thinking, design variations, and drawing as a process. If freehand drawing is what we learn from seeing, sketching is an aid to thinking like a designer. Architects use sketches to test out, change and add to their ideas. Many students do not realize how much creative wealth lies hidden inside them, and freehand drawing reveals the secret of design.

To purchase this title and other in the Construction and Design Manual series, visit Dom Publishers. "Practice-related information, exemplary buildings and inspiration in an attractive design and a handy format: with its didactic, user-oriented concept, the Construction and Design Manual series offers everything architects need for construction project solutions."

Drawing for Architects: Construction and Design Manual

Courtesy of DOM Publishers
Courtesy of DOM Publishers
Courtesy of DOM Publishers
Courtesy of DOM Publishers
Courtesy of DOM Publishers
Courtesy of DOM Publishers
Courtesy of DOM Publishers
About this author
Cite: Natascha Meuser. "10 Essential Freehand Drawing Exercises for Architects" 22 Mar 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/801871/10-essential-freehand-drawing-exercises-for-architects> ISSN 0719-8884

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