Guest Lecture at The New England School of Art and Design

About all I can show of the work from the past couple weeks...

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….

Francesca's paintings were perhaps the earliest images where hypothetical architectural designs were developed using Perspective Theory to accurately construct the 'built' forms. Still, though, it was more about 'Art' than it had anything to do with communicating an actual, proposed Architectural Design

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…

Consider the placement of your "Center of Interest". What's the part of the image that's most critical part of the message? Try Placing it close to or on any of the "Third Points" of the Composition. Mentally divide the Image into thirds. In general. locating the center of interest near one of these points can produce a fundamentally more composed, balanced, even dynamic image.

Here’s a poorly located center of interest. Dead center, and static.  The horizon cutting the scene in half top to bottom.

Zzzzzzz..... no good.

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.

Awkwardly placed center of gravity of three equal elements.

Here, the image is more restful and literally balanced.

Immediately better, simply by considering the placement of the group as a whole.

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).

Avoid the Goalpost Effect

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.

Break up the goal posts...

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.

The angularity and "vanishing" of the subject can sometimes be so strong as to lead the viewer out of the frame, which is a problem.

Use other elements to keep the eye moving within the image.

A foreground element introduced at right steers the eye back into the frame.

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.

Hang them from their eyes....

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.

Only one of these people really "works" well enough to be included in an image.

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.

No one cares which cars you think are "cool"....

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”.

Don't cut and paste the same element over and over again within an 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.

Don't be afraid to overlap the center of interest with entourage elements. This false reverence for the subject is just so sad and obvious...

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.

Much better, and far less obsequious....

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.


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16 responses to “Guest Lecture at The New England School of Art and Design

  1. Blazej

    Hello Jeff,
    very straight away article – most of the times I agree.
    What do you think about entourage that is accessible here:
    What suggestions would you have for an entourage submitted here in close future?

    • Hi, and thanks for your thoughts.

      Since you asked, I think the way in which your site handles entourage for people is very solid. I like the search (drill-down) method by character, activity, etc.

      I will say I think that the entourage offered for cars and vehicles falls into the trap often experienced by beginning illustrators. I fundamentally feel that the cars should not be too visually arresting. In many cases, in a poorly considered rendering, the cars are often the first thing one’s eye goes to, and are a little too forward in that way. Yellow vintage Camaros, Corvettes, etc. are just too obvious. They can undercut any message in the image, and generally their un-subtle nature feels very out of place.

      Your people are much better frankly. You don’t seem to have any which are “too pretty” (models), “too obvious” (staring at camera with exaggerated smile) or “too staged/commercial” (instead of candid “regular” people), etc.

      Your people feel ‘right’. Would just recommend adding to them. It’s not possible to have too many.

      Are your images from your own library, or have they been sourced from other online content? Do you own all the rights to your own images?

      What are you plans for expanding the library? I find that I no longer even keep a library of entourage, because I then run the risk of using the same people over and over again.

      Thanks again for weighing in.

  2. Harry

    Wow! I just found your site and this blog entry yesterday. And it’s just what I’ve been looking for! I’m an architectural visualization artist too (though not of your caliber). Lately I’ve been thinking about how 3d rendering artists can go overboard making their renderings look too much like photographs to the point where they put in things most photographers want to avoid (light blow-outs, lens flares, chromatic aberration, heavy vignettes,etc.).

    Reading this blog entry and looking at your work made me realize how much I miss making hand marker renderings and painting… I still love 3D, but today I think it can be best used for creating descriptive animations, interactive cutaways and motion graphics.

    Thanks for rebooting my love of perspective rendering!


  3. Julestar

    Great tips, great blog! ~
    Any books and/or resources you might recommend someone trying to get better at creating architectural entourages?


    • If you are asking about entourage (the people, trees, cars, etc that support an image) I would suggest NOT going to obvious sources of advertising and fashion, the people will look too perfect, too synthetic. Same for stock photographs. I occasionally purchase stock photographs for use in entourage, but they really need to be more like candids than staged or produced photographs. You need to be careful with regard to copyright, but sometimes you can find images in the public domain or under a creative commons license, that are good. In a crunch, you can also search flickr or another site where people store photographs. Again, though, copyright is an issue. As a last resort you may consider some of those CD collections of “businesspeople” or people engaged in other activities (“sports”, “casual”, etc.). Truthfully most of them are awful and expensive. You can find lots of automobile images on eBay if you are desperate, but keep in mind they are often taken from very close range and may not work most of the time in perspective.

      Frankly, if the image is a critical highly formal piece, (as opposed to a quick sketch), I will often devote literally a half day to a day’s time finding the right entourage for the image. The quickest way to ruin a great perspective is to skimp on the entourage just because it doesn’t feel as important as the building you are illustrating.

      Also, try not to repeat the same people either within a series of images you are doing, or even across your work in general. When potential clients look at all your work, they will notice if the same person shows up in every rendering even if the individual clients for each job were satisfied. Entourage is very often rushed or ill-considered, but it can make or break a piece.

  4. 3Dfabrique

    Hi Jeff. This is really a nice blog. I never seen a content like this with beautiful illustrations. Well all drawings are like a child drawn. Really perfect. I am really impressed with the tip – Don’t cut and paste the same element over and over again within an image…

    In most of the cases to reduce time, designers do this mistake. It’s better to place image according to the surrounding. I mean matching background images. Really nice blog Jeff



  5. Neill

    “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.”


    The fact is architecture schools are only concerned with what other architecture schools are doing. If one school is churning out stuff from (insert any 3d software), then others feel the need to follow. Rather, they (x,y,or z schools) should be concerned with their own individuality.

    I wish you could’ve given this presentation at my school. I’ve been preaching this for years and nobody listens. In the end, the computer is just a tool. Learning the foundation, principles, and techniques are the key… no matter which software or medium one uses. The point is today we have at our disposal… 1.) Software that eliminates the challenging task of setting up perspectives 2.) The beloved “undo” button . Can you imagine what Farey could have done with Photoshop? Or Wright with Sketchup?

    Awesome post, always inspirational… Keep up the good work Jeff!


    • Thanks Neill.

      Your point that “learning the foundation, principles, and techniques are the key… no matter which software or medium one uses ” is key.

      I’ll tell you right now, I could go to Tom Schaller’s studio and steal his watercolor kit, smash Dennis Allain’s computer, and wrench the charcoal nub out of Hugh Ferriss’ hands, and they could simply pick up some other medium and produce compelling images. Sure, their technique in a medium that is brand new to them might not be technically perfect, but the medium (pencil, pen, brush, and yes the computer) is a TOOL, not the thing that actually produces the work.

      I’ve said to anyone that would listen that a talented illustrator could produce a great illustration using a stick in some wet sand at the beach. Simply because an illustrator chooses to work in a medium doesn’t mean that medium is the source of their creativity.

      I heard back that one of the things the students responded to was that simply because you have a digital model, doesn’t mean that you need to struggle with photoreal. Take the information and just DO SOMETHING with it. Paint over it, sketch on it, montage… doesn’t matter. Especially when the illustrator is also the designer, whatever they do to express the idea will be better and more correct than a poorly communicated idea rendered perfectly.

  6. Jeffrey M. George

    Hi Jeff,
    I enjoyed finding your blog today….It’s encouraging to find our special interest out there in the internet world….I particularly enjoyed the section you devoted to the continued need for spirited, creative hand-crafted perspective rendering–whether it be digital or hand-drawn….Great thoughts! And I concur completely….I am an architectural illustrator who offers hand-drawn and painted renderings (no digital) in California.
    Thanks for the blog,

    Jeffrey M. George

    • Thanks very much for your comments.
      I was surprised to find very little with regard to architectural illustration out there on the web, except for the portfolio websites of other illustrators of course. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help bring our little niche industry out into the light. I also want to show a little bit of what goes into the process. So many people think that producing an image today is little more than “pushing a button”. Far from it. I want to show that even digital images require as much consideration and expression as the “older” mediums of watercolor, pencil, or opaque paint.

      Thanks again.
      Jeff Stikeman

  7. Dean Yeaton

    Hey Jeff,
    Enjoyed your post and agree with you about learning something new everyday. Have you ever given thought putting something together with Frank C. and maybe combining both your expertise on triditional medium as well as how you work, as well, with Photoshop?
    Just a thought

    • Thanks Dean.

      I haven’t thought of teaming up with Frank C., as he’s basically one of the gurus, and I’m not sure what I could offer that he wouldn’t. Are you thinking in terms of teaching, or more with regard to producing professional work? Not sure I have anything to offer him, because he’s pretty much written the book. If it came about, I’d be happy to help somehow, just not sure what I bring to the party that he doesn’t already.

      He’s got a great new series of watercolor tutorials that are hosted over on youTube, by the way. Check them out.

      Jeff Stikeman

      • Dean Yeaton

        Hey Jeff,
        I agree with you with regards to Frank…and this could have easily been a comment on your earlier post of “sketch for E/Y/P”, I could envision signing up for one of Frank’s 3 day gigs that explored traditional architectural watercolor as a first half and something such as your process for something like “sketch for E/Y/P” for the second half (or combination there of). And correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you need watercolor understanding to create the image using the software….otherwise you just select the ‘watercolor filter’ in Photoshop.
        My point a professional class combining both of these topics together would be great.
        Happy Holidays
        p.s. Haven’t had the chance to check out Frank on youTube yet, but plan too.

      • Hi Dean.
        I had toyed with adding a bit of a tutorial about the process. I think for a while there was a tutorial appended to the end of the post about the sketch for EYP, actually. But sometimes it feels a little proprietary. Took me a few years to come up with a process where I could integrate digital models, photographic reference, and hand work to the point where it would produce a unified composition. In fact, I’m still developing it. Which I guess means I’m a little hesitant to give away the show. I’m also changing the way I approach an image almost every time. Depends entirely on what assets are available, how much time I have to produce it, etc.
        It would be difficult to put together a cohesive step by step method for the purposes of a class, because with every illustration it almost feels like “the first time”, but I suppose a case study might work.
        At some point I will include perhaps a longish tutorial that shows what goes into an image, but the EYP post (re: the ‘ Quick Sketch’) lays a lot of it bare. After that, it’s merely working the brush, which is a different thing for everyone.
        Suffice to say, though, you are right. Running the “watercolor” filter has no part in the process. Oddly though, it actually doesn’t require any experience with actual watercolor either. There are some analogs, but it really is a different thing.
        I have a soft spot for fine art watercolor, and I’ll be the first to admit that though my process for digital illustrations often produces images that feel similar to watercolor, my goal is really to just produce an effective, softer NPR (non-photoreal) illustration using the information I have at hand. I’m not necessarily trying to replicate watercolor, so much as produce something that is received the same way; with less concern for realism and more emphasis on atmosphere and attitude.

        Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      • Dean Yeaton

        Thanks very much for the inspiration Jeff. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond to my comments.
        Happy New Year!

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