Sunday Mailbag

January 2nd, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you find architecture grueling to draw? Is there any trick to it or do you really have to draw each and every stinking brick and tile?

A: Drawing buildings and architecture can be very tiresome, but you have to know when it’s appropriate to draw every brick and tile and when you are better off “suggesting” the features of something like a building. Every illustration has a focus, and adding too much detail to an element that is only a supporting player in an image will distract from the focus and make the illustration too busy. If a building facade is close to the focal point of the illustration, I will add a fair amount of detail, but if it’s a background element, then I will just suggest detail.

The human eye and the brain are limited as to the level of detail they register because of two factors: the physical limits of the eyes themselves and the narrow focus the brain applies to the eyes as they look at a single object.

When I teach artists to draw live caricatures, I talk a lot about “distance specific” drawing with respect to detail. Intellectually we know that skin has pores and imperfections in it, that eyelashes are made up of tiny little individual hairs and the iris’s of the eyes are filled with cilia, the fibrous membranes that radiate out from the pupil to the edges of the iris and give the eye it’s color. From a typical distance that two people might stand speaking to each other, those details are not really seen because the eye cannot see that minutia from anywhere but extremely close up. From a comfortable distance, the skin appears somewhat textured but basically pore-less. The eyelashes are indistinct clumps of dark values without visible individual hairs. The iris becomes a gradation of color and the cilia are not visible. Despite this, many artists insists on drawing those pores, individual eyelash hairs and the cilia in the eye. This creates an odd look that detracts from the natural look of the face. Similarly when you draw a building in the background, you might know it’s facade is a brick pattern, but your eye only sees a vague suggestion of the pattern. Other details melt into the overall when the observer is removed from them by distance. Drawing these details like you were close up destroys the illusion of depth and distance in the illustration.

The brain can really only focus on a small area of the eye’s entire field of vision, and things like movement can enhance that effect. Say you watch a person walking along a wall littered with posters. Look away… do you remember what any of those posters depicted? No, because even though they were right in front of you your focus was on the person. Likewise the focus of your illustration needs the greatest amount of detail while the rest of the image the detail should be downplayed to draw the eye more to what is important. Generally I add detail to the elements of an illustration that is within the same plane of focus of the main elements of the image, and as you go away from that main element the detail begins to dissolve.

Getting back to the original question- buildings. The really important thing about buildings and architecture is not so much the surface details but drawing a convincing structure in the first place. Buildings aren’t just boxes with a roof… they have a lot of interesting planes and structural nuances that need to be drawn or suggested to make them successful. Things like soffits and fascias on the eves of a roof, mouldings around windows and doors, multiple layers of the sides of a skyscraper… these elements are visible even at a quick glance although we tend not to dwell or notice them. We’d notice if they were MISSING, however. Especially important is to add or suggest things that are part of the contour/silhouette of a building. Buildings would look spartan and block-like without the simple structural basics that make them look “real”. Buildings have personalities… no one would look at a 1980’s steel and glass office tower and mistake it for an early 1900’s New York commercial structure, even though they might have the same function.

Tricks to suggesting detail without drawing it all are doing partial patterns of bricks or windows, using color or values to indicate planes or shadows without drawing every edge and not continuing lines for elements like roof lines or mouldings but allowing the lines to fade as they get into the inner part of the building.

I have a fair amount of reference of different kinds of buildings, and sometimes pull them out if I want to make sure I give a building the right look to match the type of environment I am illustrating. Here are some examples of some different treatments for buildings:

Suburban street scene- I did some higher detail on the corner of the house in the foreground and “suggested” the siding and shingles on the house in the background. Note the addition of the roof vents and pipes as well as the multiple-level roof line… it’s those kinds of additions that, while simple, give the building a solid and convincing presence.

This New Orleans scene obviously needed some specific architecture to pull off. The balconies, wrought iron railings and curved eves are typical of New Orleans’ buildings. Note I did NOT draw the brick facades but only suggested them in the building peeking up above the main one, and the modern skyscraper in the far background is very much abstracted with only a suggestion of a pattern of windows. My using a gray/purple color further distances that background element.

This is a Times Square-like scene. Note the father you go back the less distinct and detailed the buildings get. Color and especially a gradual reduction in value contrast adds “atmospheric perspective”. Lots of suggestion of brick patterns here using color.

Scene looking down on city rooftops. The details like the arched upper floor windows, inset floors, vertical facade columns and rooftop elements like vents, pipes and mechanical units add an air of authenticity to the scene, even though the scale of the figures don’t match.

This Chicago skyline is abstracted and obviously bent for the sake of design. It uses recognizable Chicago buildings and again the structural individuality of each is suggested in the basic drawings without going crazy rendering every window or detail.

Thanks to Dave for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!


  1. Arun says:

    thanks for the tips,Tom. wish you a great year ahead. eagerly awaiting your book’s release.

    regd this post: more often than not such illustrations have people at the forefront, so while drawing and coloring the background, buildings etc do you draw them completely and then add the people over it and delete the BG space covered by the people or do they co exist together even at the stage of the pencils and subsequent stages? more often than not I find it hard sometimes to have the 2 coexist simultaneously as I lose track of my guidelines so I tend to separate the foreground and background as different layers and merge them as the last step.

    and wrt using references for background do you stick to the exact imagery (is this fair use?) or do you alter it moderately/radically? also in this regard how important is live sketching wrt outdoor ilustration? can one hope to carry on just by using reference pics alone?

    thanks for your time.


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