Built to Last

Recently I did a quick, unscientific survey of all the landscape paintings I could find in several art publications. Some of the paintings were contemporary; some dated to the 19th century. I was interested in finding out how many landscapes included man-made structures, and the results might surprise you: More than half contained a building of some kind. Buildings and houses may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of the scenes you want to paint, but taking them seriously could make a dramatic improvement in your outdoor scenes.

I’ve found that the secret to drawing effective buildings is to include the appropriate amount of detail. How much is that? It’s the amount you absorb visually when taking in the building as a whole. As artists, it’s easy for us to include too much detail because when we focus on an individual part of the structure we see every detail of it clearly, and we’re tempted to draw them all. But including every detail in focus would result in a drawing that presents the building as you could never see it. To be convincing, you’ll need to render some features with only the principle lights and darks that define them at a casual or peripheral glance. And, most importantly, don’t let the details dominate the drawing at the expense of overall volumes and shapes.


A Balance of Elements: To avoid overloading this house with details, I used the suggestion of texture to define some areas of the roofs and walls instead of drawing each individual shingle and clapboard.

The Structure
Unless you’re up close against a wall, all you’ll see of it is the texture rather than the individual bricks, boards or whatever the wall is made of. This is fortunate for the artist because it means that we don’t have to spend endless hours drawing these items unless we want them to dominate the drawing (as in the wonderful close-ups of a window in a clapboard wall done by Andrew Wyeth, or the brick walls of Ben Shahn).

One advantage of concentrating on textures is that they can be graded in value, as in the examples at right. You can make a roof, for example, darker against the sky and lighter against a tree while maintaining a common shingle texture throughout. Plus, drawing textures is often your only option. If the drawing is small it’s impossible to draw all the shadow lines under the siding, or the lines around a brick, to scale. Even if your pens, pencils and brushes were sharp enough the results would be distorted and unconvincing.

In the city a building can meet the ground (usually the sidewalk) in a straight line?the line may not be perfectly horizontal, but at least it will be straight. This is rarely, if ever, the case in a non-urban setting. Even if a lawn were perfectly flat beside a structure it would look artificial if you rendered it that way because the building wouldn’t look as though it were actually sitting on the ground. To make the joint between the building and the ground believable, vary the direction or value of the ground line, as in the example below, or add plants or taller grass to break up the line. In looser, less realistic drawings you might even omit the line and let the building blend into the ground.


Building From Shapes: I started the drawing of this house with a quick sketch (top left) that established shapes and approximated the correct perspective. Next I added a horizon line for reference, refined the perspective of the roofs and added construction lines throughout the house (top right). Then I drew freehand lines to define the windows, shingles, etc., and I altered the horizon to a more natural contour of the ground. Finally, in the finished piece above, I used shadows to tone down the sharp lines, to indicate the direction of light and also to provide the strong values that give the house volume.

Windows on the World
Windows are the most prominent feature in almost all buildings, so if you get them right you’ve gone a long way toward creating a believable building. The great thing about windows for an artist is that there are so many different options, not only in style but in the effect that the light has on them. You can make them dark rectangles arranged in an interesting, rhythmic order, or you can treat them as mirrors reflecting their surroundings, or you can even make them transparent to reveal curtains, people or other interior objects.

What this means is that windows can be either an active or a passive element in your composition?a simple, repetitive row, for example, or the dynamic center of interest. Plus, don’t be afraid to vary the visual effect of the windows you’re rendering, according to their prominence in the composition and their relationship to the light source. You can even play around with the style of windows to add subtle elements of interest, but be sure that they’re appropriate to whatever building you’re drawing. Don’t, for instance, put a Victorian window on a postmodern building unless you’ve got a related message for your viewers.

Note also that windows define the shape and direction of walls, so it’s important to get their perspective right. Don’t let them point toward a different horizon than your rooflines do. As with other elements, let the amount of detail you include be determined by how prominent the window is in the picture and how close it is to the viewer.

The Extras
Before you finish your drawing, consider adding a bit of decoration, particularly if you’re drawing older houses and buildings. Eaves, for instance, come in many shapes, from the simple to the ornate, and they can be very useful in defining how the roof and the walls interact. They almost always create shadows, too, which are great for creating a realistic sense of depth. Also, it usually doesn’t take much effort to include the rough lines, small cracks or peeling paint that can suggest a weathered look in your older buildings.

Once again, to make your buildings look like a natural part of your landscapes, choose your details carefully. Unless a structure fills your entire picture or you’re going to the extreme of photorealism, reserve the finest detail for the center of interest or the foremost part of the building. Then concentrate on good forms and the suggestion of particulars for the rest, and your buildings will be strong enough to support whatever else you’d like to draw.

Michele Suchland began painting about six years ago. Since then her paintings have appeared in a number of exhibitions in Alaska and along he West Coast of the United States, winning several awards. Suchland is an associate member of the Northwest Watercolor Society, a member of Watercolor West and Alaska Watercolor society and a signature member of the National Watercolor Society. Suchland currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where she?s represented by Antique, Ltd., Anchorage, Alaska. Her work may be viewed at www.suchland.com/michele.

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