Sketching Architecture: Where to start?

August 30, 2016 | 10 Comments

When it comes to sketching buildings, is knowing where to start one of your biggest challenges ?

How do you simplify complex architecture so that it is fun to sketch? So that you don’t get lost and overwhelmed?

How can you speed up your architecture sketches and become looser without sacrificing accuracy altogether?

Well, I think the answer is in the way you look at buildings, and the way that you understand them. It’s not just a matter of drawing what you see, because what you see IS complex. The secret is in seeing the underlying volumes that will help you simplify what you see and help you prioritise the edges.

I always start an architecture sketch by thinking about volumes.

I might start with a shape, or I might start with line, but I always think volumes first. Every building is a unique case and my mood changes (will it be pen or paint first? or pencil?) but the approach I have developed over the years helps me every time. It’s directional but also flexible so it suits any situation.

Starting with volumes is just the first step. I then look for added and subtracted elements, thicknesses and depths, leading edges, and (normally) work in a structured way.

I’m super excited to be able to share this with you in detail in my upcoming online course SketchingNow Buildings. I am especially looking forward to seeing how people apply my approach to a huge range of buildings all over the world. I know that reviewing their sketches and putting together my weekly feedback post is going to be so much fun and full of practical tips.

In this sketch of the magnificent Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, I started with a few lines of the main volumes and then applied some loose shapes before picking up my pen.

The hard work was then done – the rest of the sketch was easy after doing these first two steps… well easy-ish!

Here are a few step-by-step photos that I took at the time. I like to drink my coffee hot so these photos record how quickly I was working.

LizSteel-Kelvingrove-Step-by-step3 LizSteel-Kelvingrove-Step-by-stepFInal
This is as far as I got with the sketch as I was rushing to meet up with a friend, the amazing artist Bridget Hunter, who was waiting for me inside the museum. Read more about my day here.

I will be explaining this and much more in SketchingNow Buildings. Only just over a week to go – I can’t wait. Enrol here!

I am putting the final touches on the lesson content, so I’m still interested to hear from you:

What are your major challenges when sketching buildings?




  • Rae Ecklund - August 30, 2016 reply

    The building. Seriously, you answered my question. Knowing where and how to start and I just need a quick refresher course in perspective as I don't use it that often. Thank you, Liz.

    • Liz Steel - August 30, 2016 reply

      Hi Rae! Yes knowing where to start is key.

  • Marylin Smith - August 30, 2016 reply

    Getting the angles right is a huge challenge for me - but I am a real beginner at buildings...I recently drew a house in which the side verandah looked like a ramp!

    • Liz Steel - August 30, 2016 reply

      Hi Marylin - working on something about that right now!

  • Paul Savoie - August 31, 2016 reply

    Finding the balance between too much detail and capturing enough information to convey the essence of the structure and its' volume. How much of it to draw vs. paint to make the sketch look "realistic" without overworking it, part of knowing when to stop?

  • Meredith Davies - August 31, 2016 reply

    Knowing where to start and when to stop - especially with paint. I tend to overpaint with too many colours and lose the spontaneity of the sketch.

  • LauraLupe Caudill - September 1, 2016 reply

    I never have enough room in my sketchbook to fit the overall shape of the building in. I'd like to know how to do that. I'm so excited for the class to begin. Really looking forward to it.

  • Patsy Wallace - September 3, 2016 reply

    I recently did a drawing of a lovely Breton Church and started by lining up my verticals with the seam of the sketch book as I used both sides. I notice that in your brilliant sketch here, the verticals lean toward the seam. And of course your drawing has a wonderful liveliness. but still looks correct whereas mine looks heavy.

  • Kellie Stapleton - January 18, 2017 reply

    What do you mean by volume? The major shapes, like rectangles and cylinders, etc that make of the major segment of the building?

    • Liz Steel - January 19, 2017 reply

      Hi Kellie - yes, the major 3D forms (boxes) that make up a building. Note rectangles, squares, triangles are shapes. Prisms, cubes, cylinders are 3D volumes. It is important that you understand the 3 dimensionality of this elements.

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