While traveling to distant cities or simply visiting familiar buildings, there is usually limited time to sit, ponder and sketch. What is required is an ability to grasp and convey as much as possible of the essence of a place – from an overall urban situation to a door handle – within a limited time. In a greater sense, however, line or time budgets can help develop editing skills. Essential for design, film, writing and other creative endeavors, editing is removing, reorganizing or even adding to seemingly complete pieces or processes. Iterative in nature, editing is learned primarily through the editing process as we compare subtractions and additions. As a refined discernment, editing involves understanding, ability and, sometimes, courage to decide what, when, where and how much remains or goes away. In design especially, there is often immeasurable information that must be synthesized into a unified and complex whole. Resolving site forces, materials, program needs, budget allocations and social traditions into a unified whole is more than balance and often involves difficult editing decisions. Discernment is knowing when something cannot be accomplished through a particular medium or process. Quick, accurate and succinct observation and encapsulation is a skill that can be nurtured through varied exercises. Two exercises that are helpful are “Line Budget” and “Timed Sketching”.
Exercise 1: Line Budget
Use a line budget or a limited number of lines to help discern and convey the essence of the place, façade, space, plan or section. The lines, usually few in number and chosen arbitrarily (you can use one of the 12 months in a year or seven days in a week), are single strokes. Variations might be single strokes that change direction only once or lines of only a limited length. To begin, you may want to start with a larger number (say, 12) and then slowly decrease that number to the point where it may be impossible to convey the building. Can you convey a place using only one line?
Exercise 2: Timed Sketching
With the help of a friend or a portable alarm, repeatedly sketch the same subject within a series of timed intervals. Before you begin, prepare your drawing equipment so that you can focus on the sketching rather than sharpening the pencil or opening a new page. Once set, begin sketching the subject in 30 minutes and then draw four subsequent sketches for ten minutes, two minutes, 30 seconds and, finally, five seconds. The timed intervals can vary but should decrease substantially over the course of the exercise. When finished, think about how the intervals required different drawing techniques and discernment. These exercises are simply that: exercises. They are brief workouts that help nurture thinking and drawing processes that may or may not have a direct link to more extended sketching methods or design processes. Like playing scales on a keyboard, practicing fire drills or kicking a ball among teammates, sketch exercises are not an end but a means to developing tacit physical and thinking skills.
When approaching a site, frequent and valid questions include “What do I draw?”, “How do I convey so much in a sketch?” or “Where do I begin?”. Some answers to these questions begin with the admission that there is no single thing to draw and that things will be overlooked. Specific exercises, diagrams, lenses or topics help suggest a direction, but there will always be other things to draw or to be saved for another visit. Another way to help answer these questions is to simply “start drawing”. Drawing itself develops focus and an ability to discern what might be important to sketch and what might be better suited for a photograph or another time. To help develop site drawing there are several site habits that might be summed up as Succinctly-Precisely-Quickly-Rigorously, with the acronym developed in the Rome study abroad program: SPQR.
Tell the story of a site with optimum lines, tones and textures by using the appropriate number of lines. “Appropriate” may be 5,000 lines or one brush stroke. Knowing the difference and having the ability to reduce that number or raise it according to the intention or place is a key skill. Rather than reductive, it is to understand that if needed, something can be succinct by omitting the superfluous.
The drawing should be well-proportioned, clear and accurate so that it corresponds with the subject. Rather than focusing on verisimilitude, capture the arrangement and structure in which there is a clear and accurate relationship among scale, parts-to-whole and dimension. Develop an ability to sketch ideas and designs for a client or craftsperson so as to manifest a drawing’s intention. There is a place for imprecision – it is inherent in the medium – but a goal is the dexterity to toggle from imprecision to precision.
Often it is impossible to sketch a place without time limits. Buildings close, the sun goes down, trains depart or companions want to eat. A key issue is knowing what can be done at the site and what can be done elsewhere. For example, toning or additional line weights might be noted at the site but completed elsewhere.
Lastly, there is a need to develop and maintain rigorous drawing skills. Those who play the piano, kick a ball or balance on a skateboard and make it look effortless and adjust or improvise in unpredictable situations practice their craft for hours a day. Like playing a musical instrument or sport, drawing is a craft nurtured through practice.