Friday, January 4, 2013

Composition part 1 - Architectural Illustration

I had planned to write a few posts on composition, and this is perhaps a good place to introduce the program.  

Composition in painting and illustration is simply the act of arraigning visual elements to make an image.  The abstract artist can throw paint on a canvas until the effect pleases; a nice straightforward matter of trial and error.  

The realist artist is limited by the subject matter he is depicting, but can rearrange objects or people to create a more pleasing design.  A generic cityscape can be rearranged in all sorts of ways and still be a recognizable cityscape.

However, an architectural illustrator is a realist artist who is constrained by subject, context and client needs.  The building cannot move about the countryside, or into a nicer urban neighborhood.  The context cannot be revised to the point of being unrecognizable, and the client usually wants a detailed and realistic rendition of his investment.  In addition, the viewpoint is often chosen before the illustrator is brought in.

With all these constraints you might think architectural illustration is, well, constraining, but there are surprising ways to vary the composition.  The obvious approach, especially with CAD rendering, is sun angle or time of day.  Computer models are typically made and rendered with no particular thought to composition.  The computer’s speed and ease of use makes it tempting to “just do it”, re-jigger the lighting later.  However, an hour messing with the general arraignment of values can make a good rendering great.  This can be done by hand (on paper or computer tablet), or in the rendering program, (although I have found reiterated renders in search of a composition to be slower than imagining a conceptual goal by hand sketching).

Having said that, a straight sun-angle computer rendering is a good place to start.  The design as seen from the chosen viewpoint might have an unexpected appeal, but even if you think you have a winner it pays to go further and explore some other possibilities.

A sketch breaking up the building silhouette is another angle worth pursuing, as is the counterintuitive trick of making the sky darker than the building.  If you have a vertical shape such as any urban tower, you might try to make it part of the surrounding context and add its reflection in the street.

Or, on the other hand, put the building in partial shadow, and manipulate the sky so as to suggest a horizontal or diagonal shape opposed to the centered vertical.  This was a regular ploy of illustrators 100 years ago, and, although over used then, can still be useful.  

Finally, you might experiment with unusual (for computer rendering) light schemes such as that found at dusk or night.  This is where the speed of hand sketching beats computer rendering easily, since the sketch can be roughed out in a few minutes without any calculation.  You only want the general effect; the details can be worked out later (in fact details at this stage can be stifling).

If a shadow looks awkward just adjust it to help the composition; it is surprising how far reality can be stretched when it comes to shadows and reflections.  You are trying to reproduce a real life time and place, but if it looks right it is right.  And if it looks good, you have a visual goal to work toward.

Once you have a direction to go, you can finalize a more detailed sketch (The color sketch above added space around the board for elevations and plans drawn in white line).  The final can then be rendered by hand or in a rendering program.  In the computer you will have to set up the lighting so as to create the same effect as the sketch.  I’ve worked in and out of the computer for both composition sketches and final renderings.  Each situation is different and calls for a flexible process that takes advantage of the tools at hand.

The unique aspect of architectural illustration is that you have a regular physical object that must be approached like a Jazz musician improvising on a theme.  You have to stay within the parameters of your art, but by developing a pleasing composition you will make the selling of your design easier.

Note:  Later posts on composition will focus on the various rules, patterns and techniques used by traditional artists.  Proportional systems such as the golden section, and patterns like Hogarth’s line of beauty will be discussed.  Traditional techniques such as thumbnail sketches and value studies will also be reviewed.  I also plan on publishing a post on the story of the Worth Square Building rendering which was used as the example in this post.

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