a day in a japanese garden

‘a day in a japanese garden.’ is the sixth installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world. However, this last post is taking on a slightly different form – a descriptive account of sketching in Japan. 

I had toured many gardens throughout my trip to Japan. I saw large, sprawling imperial gardens dotted with garden ponds. I walked on paths lined with cherry trees, filling the air with that subtle, sweet scent. There were also modern gardens with large expanses of thick grass, perfect for walking around in barefoot. Even the more austere zen gardens had their charms – the meticulously raked pebbles contrasted against large, mossy rocks. There was most assuredly something for everyone.

taiwan 044

austere zen garden with mossy rocks – ryoan-ji – kyoto, japan

But despite all the grandeur of these massive gardens, one tiny square of Japanese history stole my heart above all others: Murin-an.

As a part of the requirements for this trip, I was told to keep a sketch book. Throughout the month and a half in Asia, we would stop different places, take out our books and sketch the world around us. Up to this point, we had been in Tokyo for a week. While I reached full sensory overload taking in the city, I was excited to be in Kyoto for tours of ancient gardens. Tokyo is very fast paced. There is a tension in the air that accompanies most large cities. People everywhere, trying to get to work, school, and places beyond. Kyoto is also a large city, but much less dense. Your eyes are corralled by the expanse of massive skyscrapers. Like Tokyo, most surfaces are covered in LED lights. And like Tokyo, people are everywhere. But somehow, it feels lighter. The air has a distinctively fresh feel. When the sun shines, it illuminates a faint presence of humidity and maybe a small amount of smog, that gives everything a soft appearance [it also makes your pictures look amazing]. I could go on forever….

But back to the garden. As I said, we had toured so many different types of gardens that morning – most of which were large, ancient gardens that had existed since the samurai days of Japan. They were overwhelming in a way. Seeing trees that were almost 1,000 years old does a lot to put your sense of time into perspective. Most of these gardens are in excess of several acres – miles in fact. Murin-an is less than an acre. It’s a very small garden, by Japanese standards. But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in design.

The gates to the garden are small. Most people had to duck to enter. The entry area is filled with pea gravel. It was slushy from water that continued to drain out after a previous rain. My feet sunk as our group trudged towards another doorway. Upon entering the secondary gate, we started down a meandering path flanked with thick vegetation. The smell of flowers filled the air. Songbirds swirled around our heads, singing sweetly. We followed the path to a small tea house that had been in the garden since the 1890’s. It was dimly lit with rice mat flooring. Although it was beautiful, the air was stagnant because the building was not all equipped with any sort of air conditioning. From there, I ventured out in the garden to experience its’ delicate spaces.

The design is a mix of Japanese and English styles. A border of lush shrubs surrounds a highly manacured green lawn. A small creek meanders in and out of the planted areas, cutting the lawn into what appears to be a scale representation of small mountains. The whole view is framed by architectural branches of maples, that appear as silhouettes when backlit by the sun. I immediately sat down to sketch.

If you research Murin-an, what I have just described is a very iconic view of this garden. It’s like the ground opened up and this beautiful landscape emerged from deep inside the earth. I wanted to sketch it in a way that captured the delicate contrast of the various textures, yet capture how they work together to form such a perfect composition. So many pieces of this garden, including this area I was sketching, are roped off to prevent public access. This is in the interest of preservation. While I appreciate it, the limited access forces you to use your eye in a more intensive manner as you can only get so close. I had to sort of imagine walking around in those tiny hills – what I would see, what I would hear and how that would transfer into the sketch. I then started layering in the clusters of rocks. They were slick from water splashing out of the stream. They peaked out of the toes of the hills, carving out the path for the moving water. It was obvious they were expertly placed, adding to the delicate perfection of this specific view. Spilling over the rocks were the various types of shrubs. Red and pink Azaleas followed the stream from beginning to end. I wanted to capture the stream in a way that looked dynamic, as if you could hear the water slowly moving over the pebbles below. The garden is also surrounded by a massive wall of green trees – maple, pine, and gingko, just to name a few. Capturing the needles and the leaves, although far away is important to relaying the balance of texture that is so carefully planned in Japanese garden. Nothing is ever placed there by accident.

I sat there, sketching for what felt like an eternity. There is so much finite detail in a garden of this nature. Moss, flower petals, and fallen leaves dot the flower beds. The light and shadow creates so many variances of light and dark, creating areas of interest within the context of the garden. I just remember Murin-an making me feel as if I had achieved absolute peace. The breeze was light as we were completely surrounded by a tall wall of foliage. After a morning of hustle and bustle in Kyoto – inhaling bus exhaust, riding in hot subway cars, this garden was an oasis. Despite my efforts, my sketch couldn’t even begin to fully capture that feeling of contentment at that exact moment. But it was a reminder that it happened.

I knew we couldn’t stay there forever. Eventually, my professor grabbed me and we headed to the next place – which of course, was equally beautiful. But of all the landscapes we visited, nothing compared to elegance of Murian-an. Regretfully, I lost track of my sketchbook that held so many memories of a wondrous country. But the experience of drawing that space, the attempt to capture my feelings through pencil and paper – is with me in a different way that is more real than any photograph I ever took. Sketching it required me to actually study the details that made it special, forever etching it and the feelings I experienced into my memory forever.

murin-an garden - kyoto, japan

murin-an garden – kyoto, japan

everyone should sketch: how to get started.

‘everyone should sketch: how to get started.’ is the fifth installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

When people are asked if they possess any creative tendencies, the most common response seems to be: “No, I don’t draw”. The ability to draw always appears to be most closely associated with artistic ability. True, that a seemingly large portion of artists have an innate ability to draw. However, one does not need to know how to draw in order to draw.

The truth is, everyone should sketch, doodle, train their eye to really see things. And to sketch, is to be creative, regardless of ones’ ability to draw. It is often thought that illustrators or artists are the only people who get any sort of use out of this tool. But, it is useful to everyone, in every profession, in every facet of life. As mentioned in previous posts in this series, it’s all about bolstering the ‘hand to mind’ connection that allows us to see ideas in a more comprehensive manner.

Although sketching is for everyone, some may find themselves wondering where to start. How does one become confident with a skill they feel they don’t possess. This article will alleviate those concerns with a step by step process on how to get started.

step 1: Materials are important. Paper, pencils, and pens are important in determining the success of the sketch. These materials do not need to cost a fortune. They are available in a range of prices. Although there are some differences in quality, according to what one is willing to spend, most of them are similar and will perform accordingly. First, choose a paper.  Although you can sketch on almost anything, it is recommended that you purchase a sketchbook. These books are generally constructed with paper of better quality than that of a printer. The paper has a ‘tooth’ that holds pencil better than uncoated paper. Next, select pencils. Drawing pencils are different from mechanical pencils. They are made a in a range of hardnesses. Pencils with an “H” label are the hardest, and pencils with “F” are the softest. However, there are a range of pencils in between the two hardnesses. “F” pencils are great for creating dark hues, and deep value. While “H” pencils are great for sketching outlines and other types of fine lines. A good mid-level pencil is the “HB”. It seems to be the best of both worlds – able to draw finer lines, as well as create deep hues.

step 2: Find a subject. Before you begin to sketch “in the field”, it is good to practice some basic techniques with a still life composition. The key to creating depth in a drawing is being able to shade objects in a range of light and dark tones. Creating these tones can be difficult if the light source is not dramatic. For example, it may be difficult for a beginner to replicate objects in the light of a cloudy day – it is hard to distinguish shadows. The darkest tones often have to be embellished. To remedy this, take to drawing an object under the glow of a bright light. An adjustable desk lamp, table lamp, or flashlight will do. Choose an object to feature in your still life. A cube shape or a piece of fruit is always a good choice. Position the light over the object, finding an angle that lights the still life to your liking.

step3: Now it is time to begin sketching. The tendency with most people is to hold the brush with firm pressure, creating dark lines. These lines are often hard to erase, which can muddy a drawing. The key is to draw very, very light – almost barely touching pencil to paper. As you begin to distinguish your outline, you can then apply heavier pressure, or use softer pencil to add value and shading. Pro-tip: draw so lightly you don’t need to erase. One of the most common mistakes for novice sketch artists is to erase undesired lines. People want clean drawings – but what can happen is that by erasing, the artist often repeats the same undesired stroke multiple times, over and over again. If you can see the line, you are more likely to correct it, and keep the line you want. Continue to add details with darker pencils. Get creative with your pencil strokes! The texture of the strokes add character to the object. This video shows a more detailed explanation of how to execute this process.

step 4: Repeat, constantly! It is recommended that your practice step 3 several times before venturing out into the field to sketch environments. Try different objects, with different surfaces to test your skills. Experiment with various types of pencils to practice creating a scale of values – from light to dark. Also, sketch objects illuminated with various degrees of light. Constant repetition is the key to boosting confidence in drawing. Once you possess more confidence, you’ll enjoy drawing more, and hopefully indulge in it more often.

step 5: Draw something – anything – every day. Once you fill several pages of your sketch book with different objects, graduate to environments. These can be interior or exterior. Experiment with drawing what you see. A good way to ensure practice is to keep your sketch book with you at all times. When you get the opportunity, create a quick drawing. To echo step 4, practice truly does make perfect.

In general, training your eye to see objects in proportion comes with a fair amount of practice. Beyond drawing lightly and purchasing the right materials, it is important not to be too hard on oneself as you learn. Relax, be loose, make confident strokes and drawing proficiency will be a skill you can utilize throughout your life. From sketching out a home improvement project to illustrating a big idea in a meeting, drawing is a life skill that will serve you faithfully throughout life.

hand graphics: my own story

‘hand graphics: my own story’ is the fourth installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

Making my way through these blog posts each week, I’ve gone back and forth as to what to keep talking about. What can I say that will make this cause relevant to a potential reader? In debating on this weeks’ subject, it occurred to me – I’ve published blogs that illustrate the importance of hand graphics within the field of design. But what I haven’t made known is why they’re important to me. This week, I’ve decided to share my story of hand graphics in terms of my background, their importance in my life as well as my career, and why I feel strongly about their inclusion in the overall framework of the design industry.

The beginnings of my story are sort of cliche’, so I’ll spare you the sappy ‘I was born with a pencil in my hand’ introduction. The funny thing is, I actually was. From a very early age, I loved to draw. And like most designers, my fledgling career began as a small child, drawing everything in sight. My parents were quick to notice this talent, and thoughtfully nurtured it as I matured into adulthood. My parents placed me in art camps, workshops, and bought endless amounts of art supplies for me to use at home. Throughout these formative years, I learned honed my eye – drew what I saw. I also learned to paint, sculpt, print – you name it, I was creating it. By the time I was a senior in high school, I boasted a hefty portfolio, numerous awards, and a talent for creative everything from the abstract to the realistic. I kicked around the idea of becoming a lot of things after high school. Figuring out your purpose in life at that age can be daunting.

Although I wasn’t sure exactly what discipline I wanted to enter – my general path was clear: a career in design.

And that career in design was carved out and supported by one thing: my ability to draw.

Prior to graduation, I was convinced that I wanted to become a graphic designer. That is, until I actually shadowed a graphic designer or two and decided it wasn’t exactly my area of interest. Around this same time, I had landed a job at a local plant nursery. There I maintained plants, helped customers plan their own yards, and learned a ton about the industry in general. It was through this work that I began to be aware of the profession of Landscape Architecture. After some research, it became clear that it was the perfect way to combine my inherent talent and my love for plants.

I refer to my time in Landscape Architecture as ‘on the cusp’. As with any other design discipline, you have to learn the graphic language of plans, symbols – ways you communicate your ideas in a common visual language. And at the time, the majority of this was drawn by hand. Employers were still operating in this manner, and to be honest, you had to be comfortable with drawing. This ability was not merely applied to plan view. You had to know how to draw elevations, perspectives, anything that could further communicate your concept – create a vision for the viewer.

For me this was easy. I was comfortable with drawing most anything. While other people struggled, I thrived. From start to finish, I was in control of my own graphic destiny, so to speak. Until my third year when we were introduced to AutoCAD. Despite having an entire semester to learn the program, we wouldn’t necessarily be required to use it in our subsequent studios. The program was so unbelievably difficult to control. When it came to creating designs, I could so easily see what I wanted and how I could draw it. But in AutoCAD, I struggled to draw simple shapes. My projects were clunky. No matter how hard I worked, the end result on the screen did not match the vision in my head.

The most frustrating part was the negative effects on my design process. It was a struggle to incorporate my conceptual process into the computer program. As a result, I would design on AutoCAD. Designs often appeared disjointed. And when compared with projects where a hand process was used, they were noticeably weak in terms of the solution. The plans were not as tight. And, as an artist, I believe that when you’ve created something truly wonderful – you just know it. I never got that impression with my early computer work.

From that point, I hated AutoCAD. I boycotted it. I refused to use it, despite the fact that the size of my projects were growing too large for me to tackle solely by hand. I worked twice as hard as everyone else, creating drawings, perspectives, sections, elevations, you name it. While other people were blowing through their work, I was painstakingly drawing every little detail. I was disillusioned. I was exhausted. Eventually, I realized that if I was going to turn out quality work, I had to get my head around making my process more efficient. I began using AutoCAD to create my ideas. However, I didn’t begin there. I found ways to incorporate the mind to hand connection in my conceptual drawings, often sketching ideas in a loose manner and then importing them into the computer to firm up dimensions. The more I used the program, the more I saw ways to streamline my process, rather than work against it. Eventually, I even found ways to fuse the two graphic styles to create even more beautiful drawings that fit into my overall stylistic sensibility.

My ability to fuse these two styles developed over the course of three and a half years. And even after I graduated college, I learned ways to even further enhance these techniques by using new programs and incorporating them into my process. As a professional, the more I observed of my co-workers and colleagues, the more I realized many of them designed straight onto the computer. Sure, it was more efficient. But in terms of aesthetics and thoughtfulness, you could tell the development was seriously lacking compared to a concept that had been worked out by hand in the initial stages. Despite my boss’s pleas to adapt this process, I resisted. I felt that I had fought hard to retain my graphic style, as well as my hand to mind connection. I didn’t want to let it go. So I became more efficient in balancing the time spent on the hand drawing portion relative to what I produced in the computer. I found ways to create hand graphics that fit seamlessly with computer generated plans in an overall package. These solutions were more expressive and ultimately more appealing to clients, which in turn provided more opportunities to get work.

The reality is, your boss is not always going to allow time and money for you to work by hand. But, as discussed in previous blog posts in this series, there are ways to retain that connection. You have to find which methods are most efficient. Moreover, you have to find which methods work within your process. For me, nothing could replace that process of drawing my thoughts out on paper. It was simply a non-starter for me to create straight away on the computer. As a result, my hand graphics became a reputation that preceded me – in a good way! I carved out a niche for myself, something that made me special relative to my colleagues.

Once, I believed that there would be no place for the computer against the strength of my ability to draw. Over time, my increasing comfort with different programs has allowed me to retain my original process, enhancing it and making it more efficient. It was a struggle to strike that balance. But I eventually did. And as a result, I feel strongly about emerging professionals honing that skill set in todays’ workplace. The key to strong design is the ability to see it from your mind to your hand. Other people should see it as a unique skill that deserves its place in the design process and fight to keep it as I have all these years.


visual notes: the new method of retention?

‘visual notes: the new method of retention?’ is the third installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

The concept of visual note taking has existed for quite some time, despite the fact that people may not know how to apply it to their daily lives. Youtube contains thousands of visual notes packaged into movies – add campaigns, persuasive arguments, and informational topics – all illustrated by a hand drawing pictures of the words in a time lapse format. This form of visual interpretation is not just limited to commercial use. Evidence continually points to the positive correlation between the ‘hand to mind’ connection in the form of visualizing information. As a result, people are now beginning to tout this form of note taking as a replacement for the conventional method: scribble everything down as quickly as possible. Visual note taking increases the ability to retain information, making it a more effective form of synthesizing ideas compared to written or oral communication.

According to a study by molecular biologist, John Medina, “visions trumps all senses” as the most powerful method of retaining information. Many people consider themselves ‘visual thinkers’ by nature. However, Medinas’ study suggests that everyone might fit into this category. He states, “Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.” According to his figures, immediate recall of information varies by a margin of 10% when comparing words to images.

Medinas’ study is general, not necessarily related specifically to note taking, but how the senses actually function within the human body. His study does not observe the effects of visual elements on retention when they are re-enforced by drawing instead of writing. Enter the ‘MIND MAP’. Educators in particular are finding ways to incorporate this practice into their classrooms, citing more engagement and better retention among students. Organizing notes in a visual form is also referred to as ‘mind mapping’. Mind mapping is a form of visual note taking in which images are combined with written words. These images and words organize thoughts or ideas into a graphic composition that is easier for the author to comprehend, retain, and recall after the fact.

According to mindmapping.com, these visual charts consist of five basic characteristics: the main idea – condensed into a single image, the main themes of that idea radiating from the central image, a word that encapsulates a related idea is associated with each branch, less related topics are represented by “twigs” connected to each branch, and lastly, all the branches form a structure, connected by nodes [ideas]. This form of ‘radiant’ thinking allows the author to organize thoughts related to the central idea, making the information easier to recall – and remember long after the lecture is over. Antonio Ontoria Peña, Juan Manuel Muñoz González and Ana Molina Rubio who are professors from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cordoba, Spain studied the learning abilities of 140 students through the use of mind mapping between the years of 2006 and 2008. Over the course of the study, 1,200 individual mind maps were created, as well as 125 team maps. The researchers concluded that through the practice of visual note taking, the students improved in two major categories: cognitive abilities and social abilities. According to the study, “the authors distinguish comprehension, information organization and capacity of reflection”. Their increased ability to synthesize that information had a positive impact on self esteem, which allowed for more confident oral communication of ideas.

Visual interpretation of ideas obviously has massive implications for the way educators impart information to their students. However, this concept transcends all fields. Specifically related to design, mind mapping could hold a prominent place within the conceptual process, and moreover, effectively communicate ideas to potential clients. Beyond synthesis of concepts, this form of note taking reinforces the ‘hand to mind’ connection that directly contributes to success as a designer. The ability to visually communicate thoughts in a client presentation carries just as many positive implications compared to a student taking notes on a lecture in a classroom, according to the results of the studies.

“Mind Maps” are a rigid form of visual note taking, adhering to the five characteristics. However, any sort of visual framework that aids in retention can be successful. “Doodle Notes” are another form of visual information synthesis that prove highly effective in terms of author retention. As people conduct more studies on this method, it can become the preferred method for digesting information. In turn, the practice of visual note taking will create more confident, knowledgable recipient, more capable of synthesizing and communicating those ideas.

perspectives on drawing: Alvaro Siza Vieira

‘perspectives on drawing: Alvaro Siza Vieira’ is the second installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

Álvaro Siza Vieira is a Portuguese architect. He graduated from the school of architecture at the University of Porto, and has spent time in the United States as a visiting professor at the Harvard School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, among many others. As a professional, he established a practice in Portugal, where the majority of his built work is located. However, he also has projects all over the world. Vieira is a highly celebrated designer, winning an endless list of prizes and awards.

His buildings are complex, detailed spaces. They, like any other inhabitable place, require a heavy amount of data analysis to be constructed – and constructed well. This complex process is obviously streamlined by the presence of the computer. Years ago, he and his team likely did the majority of this work by hand. However, his practice to day is like any other. Final, packaged drawings and renderings are produced in a digital format. It makes sense. But despite the technological advances, Vieira still champions the practice of drawing and its essential role in the mind to hand connection.

Like so many designers, he began his career as an artist. Sculpture was his media of choice. He planned on attending college for art. But his desired pursuits were not supported by his family. His father, an engineer, especially did not appreciate why his son wanted to live “an artist life”. With pressure mounting from his family, he eventually attended the University of Porto, where he achieved a degree in architecture. As an architect, he never traded his ability to draw in an artistic manner for his ability to draw in a technical manner. In fact, he learned to fuse drawing with his new set of skills to further enhance his design process and to develop his ideas on a much deeper level.

In an interview with Francisco Granero, Vieira discusses his process and how drawing is inherent  to the success of his work. One exchange in particular resonated with the premise that these skills are still important to modern designers. Granero asks, “Apart from your vital need to a constant dedication to drawing, in what aspect do you think that drawing and the drawing exercise could have had an influence in your living, your way of life, your style in facing life, and in building up your ideas?”. Vieira responds: “Drawing, in my life as an architect, gives access to my work.” In his practice, drawings are a way for ‘people to learn to see’. Related to design, this means the process by which your ideas were formed – the evolution, the solutions.

In general, it allows people to process the solution within a broader context, say in relation to potential surroundings. Vieira is an avid traveler, and constantly sketches everything that surrounds him. He fuses these contextual references with his designs. He also animates his drawings with ‘personalities’, people – both real and imaginary. He says he introduces these human figures to control the scale of his design – a concept that is not limited to the field of architecture. It goes without saying this is a practice meant for a pencil and paper. And as mentioned in the previous post in this series, this process allows one to draw over other solutions, potentially creating new forms, patterns, and ideas. Drawing is something Vieira does all the time. He feels that beyond problem solving, studies of the human form within his spaces reinforce the fact that humans are at the center of architecture. This is a practice he enforces in his own office as a way to form the design process, citing that ‘instruments serve thought’ rather than replacing thoughts, specifically through the use of hand drawing.

image credit: Alvaro Siza Vieira

image credit: Alvaro Siza Vieira

Vieira has a way of capturing his surroundings and incorporating those thoughts directly into his designs. His drawing ability is masterful in the way he captures realism and perspective. His ability to draw in such away is almost as celebrated as his architecture. Designers, especially design students might look at his sketches and feel intimidated by their technical strength. How can you incorporate this practice into your process? Again, as mentioned in the inaugural post of this series – you don’t have to be good at drawing. Although Vieira is obviously very skilled, his drawings are quite loose and bordering on scribbly. However, as with anything, practicing a skill often leads to improvement. Between all the work, conferences, meetings, awards ceremonies, and life, Vieira makes time to draw. He makes time within his process to include this very important form of visual interpretation. When asked by the interviewer if he ‘lived for drawing or draws for a living’, he replied “I do not recognize drawing as a reason to live by itself, but it definitely helps come people in their lives. Drawing is a way of spiritual liberation and of direct relation with thinking, and its opening to the external world.” That constant nurturing of the connection between your head and your hand trains your eyes to see solutions more clearly – as well as tie designs back to a broader contextual concept.

Vieira is now 82 years of age. He still practices. He still draws. His drawings are often an expression of his surrounding world. But he reminds us that these seemingly unconnected scribblings are a way to bolster his skills as a critical thinker. “Drawing it is more a help to thinking to solve the design problems, and also a motor to find the solving formulas to establish the norms, and to study them”. He is part of a generation that still values this practice as a part of the design process. Hopefully, through the teachings of Alvaro a new generation of designers will make time in their ritual to include drawing as a way to think, alongside the computer.

mind to hand to paper.

‘You Are What You Draw: A Manifesto’ is the first installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world. 


imagecredit: Roger Penwil

image credit: Roger Penwill

The art of drawing has largely been declared ‘dead’ by many of my elders, contemporaries, and piers within the broad profession of design. We all decry the flashy software used by our students and emerging professionals – fearing what we have yet to understand. Todays’ young designers have a connection from their brain to their computer. They are comfortable conceptualizing on their screens, working quickly – and as a result, are convinced that their first idea is their best [only] idea. They see drawing as an archaic practice – an exercise in futility, as opposed to a skill that is imperative to a successful design effort. For my students, drawing was a forced march that was ‘for their own good’ and something they ‘would thank me for later’. But, over the years, I’ve come to understand that preserving this lost art is all in the way we integrate it into their consciousness. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design”, says Michael Graves, an architect and partner at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. When we think about the hand to mind connection in this manner, drawing is given potentially immortal existence within the field of design. Drawing is a vehicle through which you explore the design process rather than the culmination of your work in a completed concept, and therefore can never truly be eliminated in the process of creation.

I am a landscape designer who cut her teeth on the cusp of paste-up lettering and AutoCAD. As a result, I understand the advantages of working on a computer as opposed to generating everything by hand. Changing plan elements in AutoCAD is a matter of several clicks. Changing hand drawn plans is a completely different ballgame. Changes could take hours or even require trashing your plan and starting over. In that regard, one can see the obvious benefits. Production is streamlined, business is made more efficient. In addition to operational benefits, computers also allow us to store massive amounts of information within our designs. A program like Revit, for example, keeps track of complex building systems. It calculates square footages, pressures for HVAC systems, and even stores an extensive library of materials. The amount of data we can store within plans is nothing short of astounding. Computers afford us flexibility and latitude that were otherwise not possible prior to their existence. These amazing machines can complete every part of the design process – from sketching preliminary ideas to the creation of large plan sets and renderings. However, despite all of the advanced technology, computers still lack the capability to facilitate the mind to hand connection.

So how do we present drawing in such a way that it’s an unavoidable, and dare I say, enjoyable exercise within the design process? Michael Graves offers further insight into how. He lumps drawing into three different categories: Referential Sketch, Prepatory Study, and Definitive Drawing. The final type – definitive, is the drawing in its final form. It is highly refined and is most often made on the computer, as are most polished graphics. But the other two types are essential to our conceptual design process in terms of hand to mind connection.

As their names might suggest, each of these drawing types has a specific purpose. The referential sketch is often completed in the very beginning. These drawings may be fragments of a broader idea. As Graves says, “it might not be a drawing that relates to a building or any time in history.” It doesn’t necessarily represent reality – such as loose bubble diagrams or form studies. It is a reminder of why you were fixated on that idea in the first place. That visceral connection between your hand and the memory of that idea cannot be replicated by a computer. It is the repetitive doodling of these fragments that evolves into the next phase of the process: prepatory study.

Prepatory study refers to that messy progression of scribble that eventually emerges as a design. For me, it’s layering translucent [trash] paper over and over again until I arrive at my solution. At times, I will pile up in excess of twenty pages of trash with scribbles, notes, doodles, you name it. Most designers will tell you this part, the build up to what we call the ‘schematic’ phase, is their favorite. It’s messy and a little furious at times. And it’s a process that cannot be replicated by designing on a computer. The wonderful thing about drawing in this prepatory stage is that amongst these layers of trash, you can see the evolution of your idea – what worked, what didn’t work. You can see different forms and how they interact with the layers of paper above and below. Although one can duplicate floor plans, create other options, within the digital interface of a computer, the process doesn’t compare to one where those changes can be seen on top of each other. Once more, the repetition reinforces that connection from mind to paper, which in turn, strengthens the idea.

Categorizing the types helps identify their place in the design process. But one last element that can help determine their effectiveness is drawing ability. It can be inferred that with the advent of the computer, drawing as a skill is not a necessary pre-requisite to become a designer. Being that most designers are not always trained to draw, it can be a daunting task. But, you don’t have to be good at drawing to indulge referential and prepatory drawing. These quick studies or concepts are simply to get the ideas out of your head and onto the paper. The goal is to create a visual record of your ideas to reference as you create the concept. Completing this process on a computer is often one-dimensional as it allows you to draw within perimeters or constraints. Your mouse only draws according to the commands it has available. Contrast this with your hand, where you can draw anything and abandon the limits of the paper. Often these stray marks or mistakes open unexpected possibilities for design solutions. Regardless of the skill as an artist, this process allows a designer to see their ideas in a way that cannot be realized on a screen.

 As a general rule, a designer should never pigeonhole themselves into one skill set. Designers must be well-versed in both worlds. Although drawing is a foundation for good design, computers often take those efforts to the next level – refining, quantifying, and polishing the final product. However, when we take the conceptual process out of the computer, and present it as an informal way to catalogue ideas, the two skill sets combine to create a more effective design concept. Because the truth is, anybody can learn to use a computer. However, the ability to visually communicate ideas through the hand to mind connection is what sets a thoughtful, profound designer from all of the rest.

change is good.

new digsNew digs. New school. New outlook on how things get done. This year has been full of new ways of doing things. I concluded my first year of graduate school. I left the gallery I had previously been at for three years. I’m five months into my tenure as president of my professional organization. And as usual, I’m still trying to break myself of the habit of wanting to do all the things.

Attending graduate school effectively ended my ability to pay my own rent without borrowing six-figures in student loans. My parents were kind enough to offer me a place to live while I embarked on my educational journey. Mom and dad are cool people. We get along, we stay out of each other’s way. But as a 32 year old woman who has worked on her own most of her life, it’s definitely different. There is something comforting about being back home. My parents are very supportive, loving people. The positives are living in a comfortable house with a killer backyard. They see my struggles with school and everything else first-hand and are always there to give me advise. There are some little things we all do that get on each others’ nerves. But the idiosyncrasies are few and far between.

Probably the coolest thing they did for me was build out an art studio off of the kitchen. In December of last year, I left the gallery I had been with for three years. I don’t mean for it to sound like an ugly breakup. It was more of a semi-mutual decision to go in different directions. My friend wanted to use my space for additional retail sales. I wanted the rent money back in my pocket. It was a warm and fuzzy parting of ways. But…the fact still remained that I was a studio-less artist in need of a place to work {and store my mountain of supplies}. Out of the kindness of their hearts, my parents built out the new studio. It’s small. But it has operable windows, which is a rarity in an old house. So I have a place to work, but am navigating the ways of selling my art without the ease of the instant exposure of a gallery. I’m having to learn to use online platforms such as etsy and paypal. In the meantime, I’m trying not to produce more than I can store, which is not a whole lot.

Fortunately, I’ve only had to worry about this in recent weeks. Graduate school is the ultimate distraction from everything else you want to do and need to do on a daily basis. Is your car broken down? It can set in your driveway, you’ve got a project due. Are your bangs growing down to your chin? Cancel that haircut because you’ve got a meeting for a group project. Sleep? Yeah, that’s cute.

This was my first semester of studio classes in the interior program. I should say this was not my first rodeo. My undergraduate program was a rigorous schedule including twelve studios over the course of five years. I’m definitely seasoned. But, interior design is a different animal. So different, that I would say I dramatically over-estimated my capabilities in terms of completing projects. I also took on four classes, which I will never attempt again. Ever. I had the option to say no when my advisor suggested it. But hey, when it comes to dramatic change, my M.O. is to often learn in the most stressful way possible. I’m trying to change that behavior, but it’s a long process. I persevered with two As and two Bs, in fact. But in those good grades were some valuable, but extremely hard lessons learned about my capability and what it is to say no for your own sake. I’ll likely write a more detailed blog post on this subject later.

I’m carrying some of those lessons learned from the past semester into how I approach my life in general. After school was over, my first instinct would have been to stack in as much as possible. It’s hard for me to say no, especially if it’s for a friend or family member. But I’ve been saying it. All the time. Instead of filling my schedule with to do’s for other people, I’ve taken a good hard look at what I want – the things I want to do. The things I need to do.

As a result, I’m making some other major changes to put myself in a position to really get everything I can out of my remaining time in school. Clearing my schedule in such a way that my classes will actually be fun. Sure, I will be really busy. But, I’m looking for working smarter, not harder, rather than  endless paddling. I’ve also changed my outlook on my artwork. I’m switching to a more volume based approach – smaller pieces without compromising quality or price. No big solo exhibitions or investing in mammoth canvases that get warped sitting in my dads’ shed. I’m reawakening my online avenues to build a steady presence, rather than forget about it for a year only to spend weeks re-working my blog and wonder where my money is.

It’s not easy to do everything. And in the end, I won’t be able to stretch myself that thin. But, I’m figuring out what I need to do to achieve my goals. Along the way, there’s plenty of time to indulge in the things I want to do as well. The rest of the year holds a lot of potential. I aim to capitalize on it.

more cambodia.

The Cambodia painting is coming along quite nicely. I’ve added most of the detail along the ground plane. Now, it it’s time for one of my favorite parts: adding detail to the walls of the ruins. It’s kind of slow going, as I have to do some research as to what type of relief will appear Cambodian. Like the Indian painting, I love adding these delicate details. Overall, I’m very excited about the progress.


more watercolor.

I learned about a wonderful book while taking my class at the art museum. It’s entitled ‘Water Paper Paint’, by Heather Smith Jones. Annnnd I love it.

The book is filled with all kinds of projects for the creative person. You don’t have to be an artist to do any of this stuff. As for me, I plan on trying out every project in here. There are many pages of basic information that preface the projects. So if you are not familiar with watercolor, Jones tells you everything you need to know before getting started.

I was mesmerized by one project in particular. It’s a study in pattern, color, and working with brushes of different sizes. It’s a series of glassy blobs, tied together with black dots. I know it sounds a little crazy. But here are the results….


I love it so, so much that I am exploring a series. These are not difficult to complete and therefore, inexpensive to create. I think I will get a bunch of them framed to sell for Christmas. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg with this book. I plan on experimenting with more projects in the future. I highly recommend this book for any creative spirit.

re-discovering watercolor

Throughout high school, I painted with watercolors all the time….really, that’s about all I used. I loved the watery texture. However, I also learned to control my paint such that it almost resembled the consistency of acrylics. I did all kinds of on site competitions and entered many exhibitions to showcase my abilities.

Even though I was a prolific artist in school, I realized that I needed a more technical, focused degree to build a career after college. That path was Landscape Architecture. My minimum requirement of course hours to graduate was hefty {162 hour minimum to be exact}. Although I took tons of design classes, fine art had to take a back seat.

To make a very long story very short, when I left my 8 to 5 design job to pursue art, watercolor was a skill I was eager to recapture. If you’ve ever tried it before, you know it isn’t easy. And just as with anything else, it takes tons of practice.

Needless to say, I was pretty rusty. To sharpen my rusty skills, I enrolled in a beginning art class at our local art museum. It’s a very basic class. However, it’s given me some foundational elements that I was missing when I first started. It’s awakened my enthusiasm for the medium again. My plate is full of acrylic paintings right now. But, I am also making a lot of room for watercolor. I’m excited to begin some new projects and see where they go!

It just comes down to the fact that sometimes, you need a little continuing education. Like any other field, there are always new techniques to learn….and old concepts to brush up on. If you find yourself lost, or in a creative rut sign up for one of these classes. At first glance, it may seem redundant. But, I can assure you, something can always be learned.

Below are the results of my class.

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