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What is an Architectural Illustrator?

Why 'I draw buildings' doesn't quite cover it.

Architectural artist drawing on site

My job is not one that I knew existed until one of the final lectures of my Master’s in Building History at Cambridge University.

Allan T Adams, former illustrator to Historic England, was flicking through slide after slide of intricately hand-drawn buildings. From jettied medieval hall-houses to Georgian terraces and nineteenth-century factories, each was filled with miniscule contemporary furniture and tiny figures. These were going about their daily business in accordance with practices of the time: stoking fires, feeding small children, loading barrels onto barges. The fabric of the building was cut away. Trusses, floor construction and masonry details were all historically accurate, and the room uses were immediately legible, giving the viewer a sense of peering into these people’s lives, like a doll’s house.

These glimpses into the past are reconstruction drawings. They form a branch of architectural illustration that is sometimes forgotten in favour of their more commercially used counterparts: visualisations and renderings of prospective developments. Both require research, understanding of the materials and context of the building, as well as a vivid imagination, allowing the artist to place themselves in the correct context.

Illustrating the future

Visualisations were a vital part of my undergraduate degree in architecture, alongside hand-made models and accurate measured drawings. Most of us used Photoshop to build up an image of what our building would look like, later adding context such as furniture and people (extra points for sneaking photos of our friends in). Those more technologically literate than me – i.e. almost everyone – eventually moved on to 3D computer modelling and laser-cut physical models to convey their ideas. My most effective visualisation tool remained a pen and paper, with maybe a watercolour wash to convey a particularly lovely beam of light into a chosen corner. These skills continue to prove useful in architectural practices, particularly where the aesthetics of historically sensitive streetscapes are concerned: for example, subtle alterations to the boundary at St Alfege Church, Greenwich, designed by Richard Griffiths Architects to improve accessibility (below).

Hand drawn perspective, pen drawing with digital rendering

A hand-drawn perspective, created to illustrate proposed changes to a Grade I-listed Hawksmoor church by Richard Griffiths Architects. The line drawing was rendered using Photoshop.

Unearthing past lives

By contrast, studying Building History allowed me to look to the past. Lectures on the historical context of each period, alongside studies into specific building types, construction methods, materials, and a lot of building visits, gave us all a practical understanding of how to read the clues held in the layers of a historic building. Combined with documentary research, the job of a Building Historian becomes similar to that of a detective - albeit with less immediate danger. For example: say a John Smith was known to occupy a house with 5 hearths in 1670. We know that he was associated with this address, where we find remaining evidence of stonework, carved lintels and reinforced floor construction. How can we use this information to create a picture of what this house might have looked like during the Stuart period? This is where an architectural illustrator can bring this information to life, providing a valuable insight into the appearance, layout and functions of the building.

Preparatory sketches for a hand-drawn map of Shilstone Gardens, with now-demolished or concealed historical features reconstructed using archaeological data and descriptions.

What about the present?

Buildings naturally change throughout time, helped along by human developments – both sensitive and detrimental – weather events, arson (see the tragic recent destruction of the Crooked Inn), and countless other factors. The job of preserving records of these is therefore vital, allowing future researchers to understand what out built fabric looked like. Marcus Binney’s work on the destruction of the country house is a stark reminder of the fact that even though these buildings may have stood for hundreds of years, they remain vulnerable.

What can a drawing do that a photo cannot?

Photos, LiDAR mapping and 3D computer modelling are enormous assets to the practice of recording and studying historic buildings. Hand drawings are another equally valuable tool, with different strengths and weaknesses. While a hand-measured survey, using tape measures and sketch plans, may take many hours, the building investigator conducting this survey will gain a deep understanding of every quirk and foible of the building’s fabric during this time. These become starting points for future investigations – documentary or archaeological – and questions surrounding the changes to the building throughout its life span. Similarly, the practice of looking at a building for many (in my case hundreds of) hours allows the artist to not only ask these questions, but to convey their own understanding of the building’s character through use of tone, linework and shading. Each drawing contains a carefully orchestrated hierarchy of detail. This means that two artists could draw exactly the same building, but show very different images. It is this irreproducible character that I think makes hand-drawn depictions of buildings so special.

Commissioned pencil drawing of Millennium Mills, London

Millennium Mills has been due for redevelopment since the early 1990s. This commissioned drawing records its current state of dilapidation, which for many, adds to its fascination and poignancy.

An architectural illustrator may specialise any of the above: they may be particularly fluent in computer rendering techniques, or they may create loose, expressive and colourful washes. They may visualise the future outcome of architectural projects. They may delve into archives to understand and depict the lives of Victorian mill workers, or a Georgian housewife. They may record the rich fabric of our existing built fabric for future generations. In any case, the skill, creativity and sensitivity demanded by the practice of hand drawing are qualities that I hope we will continue to value; no matter how realistic a Revit model may be.

Please feel free to share your thoughts below. To find out more about commissioning a drawing, please use the contact form in the menu bar above.

All drawings are my own, with permission from clients and copyright holders.

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