My approach to sketching architecture

November 18, 2019 | 11 Comments

As I’m gearing up to do a Group Run-through of my SketchingNow Buildings course in Jan 2020 (yes! big exciting news), I thought it would be fun to give you a bit of background about my approach to sketching architecture and share a few old sketches.

Note: This opening sketch is from this year (Stornoway Town Hall on the Isle of Lewis) and is a good example of the type of sketches I do when I’m having fun sketching and chatting to a friend at the same time. It also gives a glimpse into the way I approach sketching grand buildings.


My architectural Background

Most of you know that I’m an architect by profession and therefore I have a very good knowledge of buildings and how they are put together. I was part of the last generation of architecture students to learn manual drafting and also learnt how to set-up technical perspective drawings. Not all architects (especially these days) know how to draw or understand perspective, but I’m so thankful that I learnt both.

Aside: I left my full-time architecture career in December 2012 and no longer do any work as an architect.


Despite the digital age in which we live, I always did a lot of hand-drawn drawings as an architect – tracing over computer setups to create sketches of buildings to present to clients and authorities and doing free-hand construction details for the builders who needed more details on site ASAP.


But the most important drawings were the ones which I did when I was designing. These ‘design drawings’ involved the rapid exploration of ideas, constantly drawing ideas from different angles in order to come up with a design solution. I was focused on the exploration of an idea and not on my drawing, and as a result I experienced an incredible flow with my sketching.


And then personally I’ve always been very interested in architectural history and theory (not at all common amongst my peers or fellow work colleagues) and starting in 2000 I spent a lot of my own time reading and researching various periods in the history of western architecture. My particular interest was (and still is) the Renaissance and Baroque architecture in Italy and England and in particular the work of Palladio, Borromini, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor.


Sketching on location needs different skills

My 20 years or so of training and working as an architect gave me an incredible foundation for urban sketching, but when I started drawing on location, I realised that I needed to learn a lot of new skills! I knew how to draw ‘imagined’ buildings using architectural design drawing techniques (elevations, isometric, axonometric etc) but I didn’t know how to draw what was in front of me. So like everyone else who learns to draw, I needed to learn to see.


When it came to sketching buildings, although I understood what I saw, I had to learn measuring, proportions and how to simplify.

I also had to work out how to convert my rather rusty knowledge of technical perspective into something more practical for my sketching.


But most of all I wanted to sketch buildings with the flow and excitement I had when doing my architectural design drawings. I didn’t want my sketches to be the accurate architect’s drawings I did in the office, I wanted them to be free and spontaneous. I wanted them to capture the thrill of discovery I had when I was designing.


Developing techniques

So I started working really hard to develop some techniques which would enable me to sketch buildings in a fun and loose way but with enough accuracy to keep the architect in me happy.


And these techniques are still at the core of my work, even though my sketching is getting looser all the time.

They include:

  • seeing buildings in terms of edges and seeing each edge in terms of  its length, angle and relationship to other edges
  • seeing buildings as shapes and particularly looking for shadow shapes (mapping light and dark)
  • seeing the underlying volumes and sketching these first in order to establish the building as a whole before adding the details
  • building on these basic volumes by adding and subtracting elements
  • drawing these elements so that they have thicknesses and depths
  • looking for ‘leading edges’ as a way of defining added and subtracted elements
  • looking for the underlying structure/layout of a building
  • working in a ‘structural way’ from volumes, to structure, to openings, to details
  • understanding how details fit into the building as a whole
  • developing a personal way of simplifying the details so that it is quicker to draw complex buildings
  • understanding the principles of perspective and focusing on a few important angles rather than trying to draw every line from a vanishing point
  • positioning the eye height line and taking care when drawing the base of buildings
  • looking for story – the parts of the building that interest you the most and start your sketch there
  • having fun switching between edges, shapes and volumes.


All of these make sketching buildings so much easier and can be used for many different styles – whether you work carefully and slowly in ink and wash, or just draw in ink (or pencil), or work in direct watercolour.


Many people find architecture hard, tedious and boring to sketch and even with my love of buildings I have experienced those feelings on occasions as well. But thanks to these techniques I am able to sketch any building in a free way and have fun exploring line and colour, structure and detail.


I shared a heap of tips using these techniques in my book: 5 Minute Sketching Architecture (more about that here). Due to the format of the book I wasn’t able to go into the core concepts in details but in SketchingNow Buildings I do. So all of the techniques/concepts mentioned above (with the exception of perspective which I will mention shortly) are explained in depth in my Buildings course.


I created SketchingNow Buildings in 2016 and since then I’ve refined some of the concepts and come up with some new techniques, so it’s time for a Group Run-through of the course which will give me a chance to add some bonus material for these new ideas. I will explain more about the Group Run-through in the coming weeks, but this is the first notice! We will use December to go through the Intro Lessons in a leisurely way and then start the course on 15 January 2020. Find out more about the course here.

Note: If you have enrolled in Buildings at anytime, you will have free access to this Group Run-through and any new material I create. Look out for an email from me later this week.



Finally, in regard to perspective… It’s an important part of sketching buildings but not the only skill that is needed. I believe that the other concepts listed above are more critical to creating convincing sketches of architecture. Technical perspective does not always create lively work! I’m much more interested in sketches of buildings which have personality and tell a story.


However perspective is still incredibly useful to understand and I am planning a separate course on it which I will start working on in 2020. However, in the meantime, I have some articles here on the blog which I will be updating shortly. So stay tuned for some basic explanations.

Well, this has turned out to be a long article! And it’s only the introduction to what I want to share with you over the next few months.


I want to hear from you

In order to help me prepare content that addresses the most important issues, I would love to know…

Q: What do you struggle with the most when it comes to sketching architecture?

Please let me know in the comment section below.


11 Comments

  • Thank you for this very insightful article, Liz. For me, it’s grounding the building on the earth but also in its context. Either I do a very precise sketch with lots of details and then I get bored or lost half way through, or I start really loose but then I run out of space (I generally start with the skyline, so a lot of my sketches don’t have a ground/floor. Also, it’s fitting the building in its context. By the time I’m done with the building, I’m ready to go home, so the building looks all alone without the other buildings, trees, people.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Marie-Helene, this is one of the topics that I plan to address in the the bonus material which I will add to the course.

  • Maria Rechard says:

    Hello, I have actually followed a year long perspective drawing class with an architect and came out completely lost, there were vanishing points for every element of the building! My sheet of paper was a complete mess with lines going everywhere, the most chalenging being rows of arches with pilastres and columns. I would like to be able to choose the most portant elements to position, and not get lost in so many lines which lead to an unintelligible lifeless mess!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Maria,
      Oh ah! doesn’t sound fun. I have a ‘vanishing point’less approach to perspective. And yes rows of arches and columns are hard but my leading edge technique comes in handy.

  • Corinne McNamara says:

    Fitting the building to the page! If I work on drawing the building, I lose sight of the story or focus (i.e., whatever initially captured my attention). If I start with the focus, there’s not enough space for anything else!

  • Susanna B says:

    I’d never sketched buildings until the Watercolor on Location course (what a tremendous course!!) and during the course, I discovered a love for sketching buildings and a new eye for noticing buildings and elements.
    But almost every sketch presented the challenge of size on the page! I just could NOT figure out how sketch my starting lines and angles so that the final sketch was more or less the size I’d planned on! It either ended up way too big (usually) or small on the page or spread. Looking forward to joining this run-through.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Susanna, Great to hear that you are enjoying sketching buildings.
      Fitting on the page is a common struggle – measuring is so important and having a ‘structural way’ of working. I devote a whole lesson to this in the course.

  • Nola Parsons says:

    Hi Liz
    Thank you for your overview and lead in to the re run of the Buildings Course. I got so much out of that course and look forward to revision in January 2020. I would like to be able to draw arches in perspective. They are often too wide or too tall! Also a problem I have is my horizontal lines often veer slightly downwards unconsciously as I draw on location sitting on a stool. I usually draw directly with pen so can’t correct it. The same thing can happen with verticals they veer off sometimes. This does not happen copying a photo when drawing inside!
    There is probably nothing that can be done other than being aware!!
    Nola Parsons

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks for sharing Nola. In regard to the slanting lines, maybe try really being intentional with the first few lines and making sure that they are straight.

  • Judy Coleman says:

    For me the struggle always is with the combination of proportions and relating one bit to another. I get caught up in the detail of one bit and then realise I haven’t left room to fit in some other bits, or it’s all out of proportion. It’s not so much fitting it all on the page, as finding that I have to leave out a whole floor because the lower part and top part met too soon! Or the detailed doorway, that should line up with the top of the ground floor windows, now nearly touches the eaves! Part of the trouble is that I like detail. Though with no background as such, I think I might have been a draughtsman in another life! I like everything to be where it is in real life, and while I know it’s ok if it isn’t – and I am learning slowly to accept this – it niggles if I CAN’T produce an accurate picture, even if I might sometimes CHOOSE not to. I suspect this is all about really seeing, taking it slow (oh but I am so so slow already), and measuring in various ways. This is a really interesting useful post Liz, thank you.

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