Why Is It Important for Architects to Sketch?

It might be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway – Drawing is one of the most important skills of the architect. Today we’ll talk about why.

In a previous post, I answered a Twitter question about whether or not you need to be good at drawing to survive in architecture school. I said that while you don’t need to be excellent to survive, practicing your sketching skills is still an great idea that will bring you a lot of utility in the long run.

Discussed below are some things you may or may not know about drawing, and a couple of personal tips I’ve found to be very helpful.

1. Drawing is a complex, intimate process between your mind and your hand.

You don’t just blank out like a zombie, move your hand and presto – produce a masterpiece! Drawing puts your mind and body to work in a very specialized (and sometimes draining) manner. It’s a three phase process that starts with your brain sending out a signal, ends with your hand producing a visual work, and has a “filtering” phase in between – aka, the electrical impulses and processes that play around with your thoughts and muscle memory to try and reconcile the two.

Because there is this “filtering” phase, what you think doesn’t always come out accurately on what you draw on paper. Is there any way to bridge the gap between brain and hand, so you can calibrate them to see eye to eye? Yes. Practice, practice, practice.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

2. Drawing is the quickest way to flesh out an idea and capture its essence.

Say you’re commuting on the train, 5 minutes away from your stop, and suddenly a wave of inspiration hits you. You can finally see what form your design should embody. The passion is so strong and you need an outlet so you don’t lose the idea. What do you do?

Will you whip out your laptop, turn it on, open your favorite 3D software and start punching commands? Draw rectangle, offset 200mm, extrude 9000mm, chamfer, set chamfer radius 5m, pick corner one, pick corner two, uhhmm, what do I do to smoothen this out again? – OH MAN, I MISSED MY TRAIN STOP!

Chances are, you won’t be doing that. It’s too much of a hassle. Instead you’d probably whip out a napkin, trusty notebook, or perhaps your tablet & stylus, and do a quick sketch. After around a minute, you’ll have an instant anchor to remember your idea, and the integrity of your initial thought will be preserved.

3. Your sketches are your thumb mark – they express your identity.

We all have our inspirations when it comes to sketching quality, and to a certain extent we try to reflect them. But unless you’ve spent 15 years training to replicate an artisan’s drawing style to the last hairline, there will still be distinct nuances in your sketches that will proclaim, this is me. It’s a beautiful thing. Your drawings, the weight of your lines, how you blob out your trees and people, the directionality of your shading – it all speaks of you. It’s your own unique artistic expression, which is very sentimental and valuable indeed.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

4. Sketching is a valuable tool in front of a client, on-site, and even in capturing personal memories.

Drawing well impresses people and makes you more credible. If your client can’t imagine the roof you’re describing for their home, quickly draw it for them on a napkin, facing them (which means upside down for you) – my professors do this – and watch their faces light up in amazement.

When you’re on site in a rural locale and the contractor asks for clarity on a wall connection detail, are you going to go back to your hotel, grab your laptop, and trudge back to the site just to show him the CAD plan? Nope, whip out your sign pen and draw the connection detail on a bag of cement.

If you’re visiting a beautiful town in a small country, and you have an afternoon to mill about, sit on benches and capture the spirit of the locale, sketching is a great way to capture what you find beautiful or interesting. Sure, taking photos are nice and convenient, but there are more personal ways to preserve key nuances of a memory. What if you liked the play of shadows of an arcade? Sketch it out and really shade the shadowcasting with a vigor to stress this. Were you in awe of the landmark that was the clocktower? Draw out the cityscape in loose lines, and detail only the clocktower, to make it the focus of the drawing. 5 years from then, when you look back at your little sketchbook, you’ll be reminded vividly of the richness of these little nuances that help you captive at the time.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

5. Sketching improves your visualization skills, and helps you design more carefully considered spaces.

Drawing – and specifically drawing while designing architecture – is a very complex brain process, because it involves you visualizing volumes in your head and rotating them in space. As you draw your spaces, your mind constantly checks and balances with the 3D model in your head to remind you “Whoops, you forgot to put how low this part of the ceiling is“, or “There’s a change in elevation here, so you’ll need a light ramp, or “What’s under this space again? This room might leak a lot of noise down there“.

Visualizing your work first and then drawing them out makes you consider your design intent more fully than just playing around with a computer generated form and then being surprised at how it looks like. Some schools of thought in architecture have no problem with the latter, but I believe that an architect should visualize his intent by himself, and then use the computer to refine it. If you’re making the computer do the thinking, how much of your beautiful space is made out of sheer luck and not of careful craftsmanship?

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

6. You’re not limited by computer software when you sketch.

It seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? With the convenience of 3D visualization programs, we can make all these sensual curves or angular edges that look mighty impressive – so how can computer software be considered a limiting factor?

Because you are limited by your proficiency in maneuvering through the program. What if you’re only proficient in making regular shapes in a 3D program like SketchUp, but everything about your current design brief says that it should be an organic form? Will you compromise the integrity of your design process because you aren’t skilled enough to realize it in a computer monitor? Make a real sketch model to help you visualize and design your building, and then ask help later on from someone more SketchUp savvy. Don’t be limited by how good you are at stitching planes together with your mouse.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

7. You don’t need to be brilliant renderer – being an accurate communicator is more important.

What if the quality of your lines isn’t as sultry or sleek as you’d like – If your intended audience is able to get exactly what you mean from your less than perfect sketch, then you’re doing absolutely fine. The accuracy of your proportions and scale is more important than the exquisite gradient of your shading.

I’m personally not a sketcher at the level that will blow you away, but I’ve got decades to progress to that level. At the moment, I’m perfectly happy that my level of drawing proficiency is clear and pleasant, and more often than not – my intended audience gets what i’m trying to communicate in my sketches.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

8. Sketch first, computer later.

My most important piece of personal advice that you can take home from this post? Design on paper, produce on computer. If you really want to develop the skills of crafting spaces with human intent, don’t leave it up to the computer. You’re supposed to be the prime thinker, mover, and influence on your design.

Flesh out the broad strokes, prime intents, and spatial visualizations through your guiding hand, and then use CAD software to fine tune the dimensions and programming. You can hardly go wrong with this approach. Let your  mind completely own your design. 

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo
(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

… It’s a very rewarding feeling, after all to – to see how a final project progresses from just a few simple blocks and diagrams on old scratch paper.

So keep visualizing, keep calibrating, keep sketching, keep thinking.




Let’s further the discussion! 🙂 

Please, feel free to comment below or send me an email if you’ve got something on your mind that you’d like to share. Cheers!

Did you like what you just read? There’s more where that came from! Click the image below to check out all the posts in the category of FORMATION!


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