Painting and Drawing Architecture

Local buildings make very popular subjects and require both artistic skill and thoughtful handling. To begin a two-part series, Ray Evans describes his method of painting buildings through a step-by-step look at his painting of the Eclipse Inn in Winchester.

Over the last year or so I have evolved a method of working in the studio on larger acrylic paintings of architectural subjects. Those of you who have followed my previous articles in The Artist will know that I always travel with a sketchbook, camera and folio. In a fishing bag (with a detachable lining) I put two of my favourite brushes (watercolour series 7, Winsor & Newton Nos 6 and 8); pens; a small watercolour box; small water pot; two small sketchbooks and a compact 35mm reflex camera. As the bag can easily be carried over the shoulder, I am ready to track down my subjects: my sketchbook illustrations are mainly line drawings and watercolour sketches.

Having decided on a subject and made a preliminary sketch, I return with my folio, which measures approximately 18 x 14 inches and has interleaved plastic pockets with trimmed watercolour or Bristol boards. The next step is to make a careful line drawing, using a dip pen and Indian ink (usually Gillott 303 nib) or Rotring pens 0.25 and 0.35. If the weather is bad, I use my car as a studio (providing it can be manoeuvred into the right place). I like to make as large a drawing as my folio will allow; usually 16½ by 12½ inches. As I am drawing directly in pen, it is necessary to be slow and careful initially to ensure that there is enough space. There is nothing more annoying than finding out that you are not going to get the entire building in, half-way through a drawing. Experience does help, and my architectural background has also made this aspect of the drawing easier.

Bill Bentley’s Wine Bar, London. Pen, 9” x 11”

Once confident of being able to include the complete building, the drawing can begin to be developed. It is necessary early on to establish the details you mean to include. For instance, if you are working on a pub, the lettering is particularly important. However, if selected details are repeated, it is not necessary to render them as accurately as the first time throughout, and much of the finer work can be left for completion in the studio.

Three Brewers, Islington. Pen, 9“ x 7”

When I feel I have enough information on my working drawing, I either add watercolour notes in pencil; make a separate, smaller, watercolour sketch in my sketchbook, or turn the board over and make notes on the back, drawing any details that might be important.

Lawrence Oxley’s Book Shop, Alresford. Pen, 9“ x 9”

At this point I have quite detailed information in my sketchbooks and folio, including colour notes. For additional information, I sometimes take several close-up photographs of details; if some detail is difficult to see, I use a telescopic lens. Once in the studio these photographic notes may be very useful – not for slavish copying, but for reference. A camera can also be useful, I’ve found, for recording colour and for use in lectures.

With all of these notes, I am well prepared to tackle the painting of my subject on a larger scale. Incidentally, most of my architectural compositions have been more suited to a tall and narrow, rather than horizontal, format. These studio paintings are quite different from the watercolours that I paint on the spot, whether in acrylics or watercolours, I am able to allow my imagination to run free for although the studies are ‘portraits’, they are composed in part from reality, in part from memory, and partly through imagination.

Although I have been using acrylic for at least ten years, I am only beginning to realise what a wonderful medium it is. Used in thin glazes it is a remarkably interesting paint with which to work. Acrylic can be mixed with either water or medium; it behaves differently from watercolour in that it will take repeated washes, thereby altering the effects of each successive glaze, but without losing the attractive transparent quality that I strive to achieve. Of course it can also be used in detail as you would use gouache, and glazed again without fear of cracking or washing out.

Eclipse Inn, Winchester. Pen drawing, 14¾” x 11⅛”. Collection of Trevor and Janet Marpole.

To make my method most clear, I have described the process of drawing the illustration of the Eclipse Inn in Winchester at every stage. This old inn is in a fairly narrow street across the road from the museum, which is adjacent to the cathedral. On the narrow pavement I would have been both in the way and too close for my subject. Fortunately, I was able to install myself on the first floor of the museum and so had the very best of views. Also, as it was December, my setting was more comfortable than the street would have been! This ploy which I have used several times, is particularly useful in cities. Once, when illustrating a book about the old snuff shop at the top of the Haymarket, I found it impossible to make my watercolour drawing for the frontispiece because of all the crowds. The pub opposite gave me room in the staff room on the first floor; a very comfortable and convenient billet indeed. In fact, I have only once been refused permission.

A window sill, though sometimes narrow, is an excellent rest for a drawing board, sketchbook or folio. There is plenty of room for ink bottle, pens, pencils, brushes and all the necessary bits and pieces. Moreover, it is possible to work undisturbed by dogs or curious passers-by.

First working with the naked eye, I planned the drawing so that it filled the available space, but not, as I’ve said, over filled it. We all have our own personal ways of working; I like to work my way down the centre of the subject, drawing in detail directly in ink so that although I am very careful, the effect is free and spontaneous. If I do make a mistake, I just correct it in pen and any incorrect line usually seems to disappear – or at least not to be noticed. The reason I do not draw in pencil first is because I feel it makes the final drawing look very stiff. I aim for a mixture of free, but accurate, drawing.

A finished drawing on the spot usually takes two or three hours. The finished painting in the studio is another matter altogether. When I have my drawing and sketches back in the studio, the painting is planned thoroughly.

Once I have determined the plan for a painting, I make a careful, light, pencil drawing on watercolour board – just enough to guide, but not control, my painting. I normally work on a scale which is somewhat larger than my original drawing.

Eclipse Inn, Winchester. Pen and Acrylic wash, 14¾” by 11⅛”. Collection of Trevor and Janet Marpole.

In the Eclipse painting I wanted to concentrate on the centre of the subject and leave the edges and surrounding area only partially explained; almost out of focus. I think my feelings about the building are transmitted in the final painting. With the Eclipse Inn it was necessary to avoid sentimentality because of the dangers of the ‘Olde Worlde’ look. I will further develop the technique and interpretation of a painting in next month’s article.

This article was first published in the May 1979 issue of The Artist

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