Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rendering Rules

I was at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens recently, and saw a painting that jogged my memory: I’d been meaning to write a post on my personal “rules” for architectural rendering. Some rules are obvious, like “Always finish before the deadline” (I say “before” because there are always last-minute adjustments to be made). Another obvious rule is “Don’t overpromise, but always fulfill any promise.”
Anyway, the painting that got me going was Shipwreck by Charles Hoguet (1859). The reason it caught my eye was that it fulfilled one of my rules; that being, “Make the image compelling at all scales.” What I mean is that an illustration should look enticing from across the room as well as when the viewer is within easy viewing distance, and also when its details are viewed up close. 

Seen from across the room, the dynamically balanced composition leads the viewer forward to have a closer look at the painting. As you can see, the dark part of the painting covers the bottom third of the canvas plus a curious shape just to the right of center. The light part of the painting includes some interesting shapes on the left.

Once you are close enough that the painting nearly fills your view (eight or 10 feet in this case) the dark areas start to resolve into separate shapes and recognizable objects. The water and sand suggest a seascape, but the sails, which are now clear, look rather awkward. There is much detail in the center foreground, but at this distance it is a jumble of horses, men and unknown objects. Mystery and emotion were added to the original compositional interest. All of this was enough to make me want to spend more time scrutinizing the thing.

Now that the viewer is focusing on various spots on the painting, a story begins to be told. The ship is obviously run aground, and people are removing various stores and hardware, either as a salvage operation or in an attempt to lighten the ship and refloat it at high tide. Four horses are counted within the tumble of shapes. A wagon with three men loading was almost a silhouette before, but is now clear and interesting. Among the horses there are two blobs barely recognizable as men, and three foreground figures in idiosyncratic poses. The scene is so entertaining that one could go on picking out details in the narrative for some time. 

In architectural illustration you don’t usually have a chance to tell a story, but you certainly can construct a compelling composition, and inject some drama. The example below is a bit of “paper architecture” that I did for a site in New York City that was around the corner from where I lived in the East Village.

I tried several pastel thumbnails of this view, varying the values and the palette. I quickly hit on a pencil sketch that contrasted the building’s dark top with the light sky, and the lighter base to the dark mass of the neighborhood. 

I found that this complementary brick-red and olive palette popped out even as a mini thumbnail (much of the original pastel color rubbed off before I could photograph it; moral: fix pastel immediately).

From across the room the final rendering is rather enticing, if a little too stable in composition.

Closer up the building starts to show detail and scale. The context begins to look like the aftermath of a late-day summer shower, which is always magical in Manhattan.

Checking the details shows the turn-of-the-century subway entrance on the left, and the rotating cube sculpture (titled “Alamo”!?) at the center of Astor Place. The foreground would have to show more “street theater” to match Hoguet’s painting, but that was my decision (giving too much emphasis to the street activity can be a mistake when your object is the selling of the actual building). 
At this distance you can also see that the image was rendered in freehand ink, with airbrushed transparent color. There is always a certain magic when a realistic picture merges into ink lines or daubs of paint.

All right, so maybe that was all too obvious… of course you want to make an illustration interesting. But this becomes very serious when you are rendering for a competition entry. Competition juries have to make snap decisions, especially if there are many entries. Getting the jury to choose your design for later consideration is important; it’s like getting your foot in the door. During the second round they will give your design a chance to win the prize. If you don’t make it to the final review, you have no chance to win. A project illustration that compels the viewer to look closer will position a project for success.


  1. I'm blown away by your site...I don't have time now, but will get into much of this who are you?