In Defense of Sketch

November 05, 2014

By Steve Simpson

There is something..../ The feel of paper, the resistance graphite or ink makes./ Emotion carried by weight of line. With mind, eyes, hands, and body fully engaged, the search begins..../ The sketch, allowing for interpretation, reveals a multitude of possibility, never being too definitive. Like a verse ambiguous enough for multiple understandings. Nothing preconceived nor prescribed.

As a young child, I loved to draw. Sketching was a vehicle into a world of discovery.

I once received an Etch-a-Sketch as a gift and was fascinated by the way the toy operated. I could draw by turning the white knobs in the lower corners of the red frame, directing an internal stylus to make dark lines on the silver screen, and with a quick shake I could instantly erase everything. Over time, however, I found it difficult to create any drawing of much interest. It was too slow, constrained, precise, and disconnected from the "act of drawing." Even the best drawings that I managed to create were flat and lifeless. Soon its novelty wore off-I abandoned the Etch-a-Sketch for the traditional yellow "Ticonderoga # 2" pencil and white sheet of paper. The sketches I could now create by pencil and paper had depth and interest, embodying a sense of form, surface, composition, light and shadow. They were loose and evoked a sense of life and wonder.

Fast forward several decades and I find myself immersed into the practice and study of architecture. The digital age is well established and computers have transformed the way architects work. The computer has helped make tremendous advances in the profession by storing an immense amount of information, aiding in presentations of a building design, the development of a design, helping to create "building information modeling," and, ultimately, aiding in the final documentation of a building design. Perhaps this is where the use of the computer should remain.

When I taught fourth and fifth year architectural design studio several years ago, I was shocked at how dependent students had become on their computers. The machines had gone from drafting aid, when first introduced to the field, to design crutch. In some cases, it appeared students allowed the computer to take over the design process entirely. I expected to see hand drawings with vigor tacked up throughout the studio, but mostly found computer generated hard-lined, and in my opinion, lifeless drawings instead.

When I use the computer in the early phases of design, all frustrations that were raised by using Etch-a-Sketch years before, come back. Like the toy, the computer is too precise, constrained, slow, and disconnected from the mental and physical act of drawing hence a loss to the creative process and discovery. Though design and technology can be complementary they are far from being synonymous.

The act of drawing is a necessary and integral part of the architectural design process.

It simulates the imagination. Drawing fully engages the individual, mind, eyes, hands, and body. An active search transpires - our mind directing while the hand records, and an idea comes to life. Emotion comes through as the hand applies more weight or takes an unexpected turn. Sketching is a visceral experience. This aspect of the artistic process is lost when designing solely on the computer.

Drawing by hand allows for a mind-hand interchange. It is a pure search for opportunity and invention. There is no technology in the way. Sketching is direct and immediate allowing for a personal and emotional connection to the work.

The sketch can allow for interpretation, revealing a multitude of possibility, by lightly suggesting rather than leaving an absolute mark. Like a written verse or poem, a sketch is ambiguous enough for multiple understandings-if the sketch becomes too precise or time consuming to make, the search is lost. It is a fragment of an idea or concept. Building up layers of tracing paper allows the good ideas to emerge and the lesser ideas or notions to recede into the layers and into obscurity.

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Steve Simpson

AIA, LEED AP

Principal