This past week saw four really interesting formals (in my opinion anyway) developed for a project in Oslo. The due date got shuffled around a bit, and so I indulged in a little extra time on these in order to develop the atmosphere and lighting in the images in a way that really tried to establish a sense of the location where the project is proposed. I haven’t gotten the ok to go ahead and make them public, so it’ll have to wait, unfortunately. Had a great time on them, and hope that it shows. In the not-too-distant future I’ll post them in their entirety.
On the second of December I spoke at Suffolk University’s New England School of Art and Design. I was invited by Senofer Mendoza, who was teaching a workshop geared toward students who are heading into the final weeks of effort on their semester-long projects. Senofer asked me to speak to them about what they can do to take their presentation images (perspectives, renderings, namely) to the proverbial “next level”.
I put together a longish presentation (hour or so, plus a half hour of Q&A) that was intended to do only a couple things. You can’t really teach anyone to render in an hour’s class, but you can show them some important issues to consider, typical mistakes to avoid, and try to inspire them. Or perhaps confuse them…
Perhaps more accurate would be “The Perspectivist is Dead. Ask around. You can get ‘photoreal’ renderings from China for $200. And any architect can buy a copy of 3d Studio Max, slap some textures on the model, and hit ‘Render’ himself if he (or she) truly wanted. Why would anyone hire an illustrator like our good friend Cyril Farey (above, ca. 1928) to toil on a ‘precious’ little illustration, with cutesy reflections on a wet street, working back in his studio in splendid isolation, while charging good money for the “privilege’? Gone are the days, right? Buy a PC and start cranking out renderings yourself, and save some money.
I say, go ahead.
Sure. I’m being facetious. I’m really not trying to pull my own rug (or business) out from under me.
But let’s take a look at the example above. The Perspective is most certainly NOT dead. Nor the Perspectivist (thank God). It’s a 2D painting, done fairly quickly, by Craig Mullins. He’s a guru in the motion picture industry now, but trained as an architect. He was hired to produce some images for the Orlando Performing Arts Center.
You can’t get this for 200 dollars from China.
This is from a suite of three or four images he did. Look closely, there’s not a lot of “there” there. Not much detail. What there IS is expression. The intent and atmosphere are communicated, powerfully, in a way that a “photoreal” rendering could never achieve. Not without a lot of time and effort, anyway, and expense. And certainly not produced in the same amount of time that Mullins spent on this. Let’s face it…. are you going to spend a few hundred million dollars on a high-profile project like this, and the turn to an outsourced discount one-of-a-thousand rendering shops to churn out your presentation? No. You hire someone you think can produce powerfully evocative images to represent your months’ long effort. The fact that Craig Mullins does this with nothing more than a hard round brush in photoshop is immaterial. The production medium is irrelevant. The message is the important thing here.
My point is this: architects today are swimming in technology, downloading free copies of Sketch-Up, building massive “BIM” models, and populating their offices with teams of students trained(somewhat) in architecture school to run the most complex 3D software available. They are bombarded with unsolicited emails from off-shore shops churning out discount images. And yet when an image is required that needs to be expressive, informative, powerful, and more evocative than clinical, invariably the most successful architects are turning to a dedicated, professional, almost always independent, architectural illustrator.
Far from being ‘dead’, the perspective is more important now than it ever was. A flood of middling, disconcerting, strangely pseudo-realistic renderings has only made the work of a professional illustrator stand out. Rather than overtaking and burying the perspectivist, the tide of sub-par photoreal work has made architects and their clients hungrier for more evocative images, something more considered, beyond cold calculation and run-of-the-mill execution.People are more visually oriented perhaps now more than in any other era. Videos, movies, television, the web… We respond to the visual more powerfully than perhaps any other form of communication.
Projects today are balancing on a knife-edge, with go and no-go decisions riding on many factors. Competition is fierce. Evocative, communicative, powerful images are necessary. The Perspective in an idealized sense isn’t “dead”, it is more vital today than it has ever been.
I didn’t spend that much time on the first two slides, but you get my point.
Moved into a little history. What is “perspective”, and how did it develop, first in the artistic tradition, then eventually in architecture? Brunelleschi, Alberti, Francesca….
My purpose for being invited, however, wasn’t to proselytize about hiring illustrators, or to give a history lesson. Senofer suggested that the students, who were in a headlong charrette to finish their semester projects, were trying to take their own illustrations to a higher level. It seems that in architecture schools around the country (world, actually), it is becoming the standard fall-back position of many students to print out something from Sketch-Up and pin it to their presentation board. Rather than computers allowing students to become more expressive, it seems the vast majority of work is defaulting to a path-of-least-resistance. Senofer and I decided it might serve the students better (in an hour’s time) if I could provide some direct comments regarding composition, relate some common errors to avoid, and give some practical tips about building a better fundamental image.
A sound composition and considered approach will pay greater benefits up front, to a student illustrating his or her own work, than any artistic ‘talent’ will. Later, artistic expression will pay off, but a more immediate improvement can be found by stepping back, slowing down, and considering the basics for a few moments. This was what we decided to spend an hour on. Fundamentals.
Here are some of the slides…
Here’s a poorly located center of interest. Dead center, and static. The horizon cutting the scene in half top to bottom.
Same image, simply shifted to a third-point.
Center of gravity is often a consideration. When a number of elements share the relative same level of ‘importance’ visually, it is often best to locate their center of gravity somewhere close to the center of the image.
Here are three elements crammed low left on the page.
Here, the image is more restful and literally balanced.
All of this is fairly basic, and can be found in art, film, television…. Nothing new here. But I remember the first time some of these concepts were related to me as a student. It produced an immediate improvement in my presentation work, and has since then provided a great basic “check” for me when producing images professionally. Sure, these are rules which can (and often are) broken. But they retain an elemental truth, and speak to the very clearly understood way in which the human eye consciously and subconsciously breaks down or digests, and understands, an image.
There was more, but I’ll jump ahead. The students were working toward their Interior Design degrees, and so I tailored much of the talk specifically to architectural images (interior and exterior).
Whether it is trees on an exterior image, or columns in an interior image, don’t set your viewpoint equally between them, with each side of the frame established by the same element. Feels a bit like wearing horse-blinders. …or like you are staring between the goal posts.
Break it up, change scale, or move the camera. Create some differences. In this case, I’ve scaled the elements differently.
Don’t allow the geometry of the composition (which is established most of the time by the subject) to lead the eye straight out of the image.
Use other elements to keep the eye moving within the image.
Fast forward a bit… some slides spoke directly to handling “entourage”, those other elements in the scene which are supplemental but necessary. Trees, cars, people, furniture… all of these elements are secondary to the message, but without them the page feels empty. If treated with too little thought, they can sabotage an image and disrupt the message. In some cases, they can nearly defeat the effort. Entourage is important, and yet it cannot be made TOO important, lest it overtake the composition.
Some entourage basics.
When people of similar height are introduced into a rendering taken at eye-level, they will all be properly placed when their eyes coincide with the horizon line. The horizon is, after all, the “Eye Level” of the viewer. And if the other people in the scene are close to the same height, their eyes will also fall on the horizon. Smaller figures will read as though they are farther away, and larger figures will read closer.
Don’t use distracting elements as entourage. The woman dead-center is so graphic and obvious, that she would draw the eye away from the center of interest. Perhaps the single worst piece of advice I ever heard regarding entourage was when someone said “I get all my entourage from photographs of fashion shows. Runway models are great.” Using runway models is a sure way to look like an amateur, and to defeat the purpose of the image in the first place.
Just as you don’t want to grab the eye from your center of interest, you also don’t want to introduce elements which are uninteresting and dour. The woman at left is a little too dumpy… all neutral grey/brown/ecru and utterly uninteresting. Also not good. You can’t steer the eye to your center of interest by making your entourage boring.
The woman at right is the best of the three. Even so, she’s a little too obviously “photo stock”. No one smiles like that walking by themselves, unless they are on psychotics. But she’s better than the others. If I were going to drop her into an image, I’d pair her with a friend (give her a reason to smile), tone down the hues, and break down her image enough to kill some detail.
Distracting people are bad, but the rule holds true for other elements too.
Often, an in-house rendering, or one done “on the cheap”, will exhibit a parking lot filled with Porsches, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and (what seemed to be a trend for a while, and my personal pet peeve) the bright yellow 300zx. It’s not enough to be able to run the software. A person needs to step outside the image and look at it from the perspective of the viewer. Fancy sports cars do NOT imbue an image with a sense of “upscale lifestyle”, they draw the attention of the viewer, and send the message that “we had our intern produce the image”.
I have seen the “cloned tree” phenomenon so many times, I’m ready to scream. Bad enough when it is done within a sketchy conceptual image. But i have seen the same tree creep into even some of the finest photoreal illustrations. It’s as if people forget that we recognize pattern. Trust me, use the same tree twice in an image, and it will stick out. Flip it? Still obvious. If you must, try to at least break it down, clone-stamp bits and erase others to fabricate similar trees from the original “clone”. Go ahead and create ten trees from the same tree, but for the love of god don’t think we won’t notice a street of the same tree used over and over again. It’s all that we WILL notice.
Don’t think your design (your interior, your building, whatever) is so precious that you cannot obscure parts of it with entourage. Problem number one in my line of work is trying to convince the occasional architect who refuses to permit ANYTHING to touch his building. Look at this sketch. All the trees are held safely away. “Thou shalt not touch the building”. The building here floats in a safe cocoon. It’s boring, and isn’t at all integrated into the image. Notice how the trees awkwardly stay away from the building.
Instead, take a little joy in breaking the too-perfect lines, integrate the elements into the scene, and it will integrate the subject as well.
The slides here represent a small portion of the practical aspects that we discussed. These are perhaps the concepts with the greatest impact.
The remainder of the talk was spent introducing the students to sources of inspiration, showing examples of other student work, and included a brief survey of the work of the leaders in architectural illustration.
You can never really know what effect a talk like this will have on the students, and so can only hope to spur their interest and give them some practical help and advice regarding their own work. I feel like I learn something every day in my profession, and so I look at this as passing along the same sorts of things that were passed on to me.