A pandemic sketchbook becomes an invitation to design activism.
Text and images of Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA
In thinking hand, Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa describes how sketching is a multi-level interpretive process, requiring quick decisions and adjustments. For example, the darkening of a shape affects our understanding of those around it, or when we notice that the foreground object is of a certain size, we understand that a distant object must be half of size, and so on. Through this continuous dialogue, a memory is imprinted.
Observing and contemplating the phenomena and nuances of a scene are essential skills honed specifically by field drawing. The father of neurobiology, Santiago Ramon and Cajal, forced his medical students to enroll in drawing and watercolor classes because he believed that the act of representing heightened attention and compelled us “to cover the whole of the phenomenon studied and to prevent, therefore, details to escape our attention which often pass unnoticed in ordinary observation. ”
Sketching as a form of activism, the documentation of societal injustices through the pen, has a long and storied history. Until the introduction of the camera, field sketches were engraved on copper plates or engraved on wooden blocks, printed and distributed to a wider audience. The artist Honoré Daumier created acerbic criticisms of 19th-century French social and political life and was imprisoned for his satirical portrayals of French kings and the bourgeoisie, only to resume his pen and continue his militant dissent upon his release. Despite the predominance of photography, the sketches have aroused a deep resonance among viewers ever since Daumier created his controversial drawings. For example, Mark Loughney has drawn pencil portraits of over 600 fellow inmates since his incarceration in 2012. His visual studies of mass incarceration humanize the individual, offering a respectfully rendered counterpoint to the demonization and stereotypes often portrayed in the media. His sweeping drawings are tender, nuanced and dignified. As reflected by Loughney in an interview with the Marshall Project, they are quick field sketches which are then fully rendered, as he only had 20 minutes per session to focus “in the midst of the chaos of the prison”.
Many landscape architects excel in drawing, as sketches at ASLA conferences confirm, but few seem to use it to document the social conditions of their time. A notable exception is Breath on the Mirror: Seattle’s Skid Road Community, a book by Laurie Olin, FASLA, which is a powerful anthropological depiction of Seattle’s Pioneer Square in the early 1970s. More often, landscape architects use sketches to explore means of communication, observation, and sense of place. Chip Sullivan, FASLA, practices and teaches drawing using a graphic novel and comic book approach. Richard Alomar, ASLA; Caroline Lavoie; and Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, use sketches to document the places they live or visit. Many landscape architecture programs offer courses in field drawing and use field drawing to record their study abroad experiences.
I started drawing around the age of eight and I never stopped. Perhaps as a less than stellar student serving in “remedial” classes, I discovered early on that traditional academic America was not a possibility and viewed drawing as a sanctuary. Drawing gave back in a way that only a few of my teachers did. As each line or mark was applied, the page grew richer, the scene more resolved, the gesture more emphatic. I was drawn to drawing as an act of magic, an act that did not judge me but rather rewarded me. I followed my father to sketch out his string quartet practices and eventually, after dropping out of college, I undertook a three year apprenticeship with an artist and went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
Last year, isolated in confinement and teaching studio classes over Zoom, I began to wander to ease the restlessness, invigorate my body, and escape the confines of four walls. The pandemic has forced many people to ask fundamental and introspective questions. What I’ve seen are deserted streets, businesses closing overnight, and a dramatic increase in homeless encampments. They have been carved into freeway median strips, tucked under bridges, filling parks, abutting or blocking sidewalks, occupying parking spaces or penalized in parking lots. Seattle was like the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. After a long break from wandering with my sketchbook, I found myself undertaking extensive documentation. I became adept at finding campsites and inventorying places. I have come to realize how temporal these spaces can be, in some cases only returning to find a site removed by the authorities, destroyed by fire, or the resident(s) having moved out, died or been arrested , as reported by those who still live on -placer. I started with quick six-by-eight-inch sketches made while perched on walls. Later, as the intentionality grew, I carried a lightweight stool and larger sketchbooks. At home I started refining pencil and pen and ink, adding lines and shadows with 005/01 Pigma Micron pens.
Pallasmaa noted the difference between photographing a location and sketching the same scene and the power of sketching to spark lasting memory, a process he found insufficient by simply taking a snapshot, a process that is now dominant in our culture. with the preponderance of the cell. Phone(s. These living memories accumulate, serving as visual and emotional inventories and informing designers’ approach, perspective and narrative. As Pallasmaa notes, it is both inventory and development “Each act of sketching and drawing produces three different sets of images: the drawing that appears on paper, the visual image stored in my brain memory, and a muscle memory of the act of drawing itself. The three images are not just momentary snapshots, as they are records of a temporal process of successive perception, measurement, evaluation, correction and re-evaluation A drawing is an image that compresses a whole process, merging a separate duration into this image.
Wandering around for scenes of interest, I consciously make choices. Is there a striking contrast or an absence of light? Are there any specific details, or is this documentation of a larger landscape or tent camp? Then I look for the right angle to frame the composition. This is an important decision because the subsequent rendering process cannot salvage a bad composition. I consider whether the scene should be centered or asymmetrical, which will bring out the dynamic qualities that tell the story and represent my interpretation. Once the composition is lightly marked, I place the primary directional lines, scale the elements in the composition, and quickly render what is seen. As the render takes shape, I start adding shadow patterns, hardening or thickening the lines to accentuate them, filling in details – leaves, leaf litter, fabric folds, plants, etc. – then to balance the tones throughout the composition. In pen and ink I usually use parallel lines to create density or hatching to achieve a darker tone. Once the shading and line thickness are set, I darken any areas that need to stand out and adjust the hue and tone to achieve spatial depth. I sometimes apply watercolor over the waterproof ink.
So what is the role of the sketch in landscape architecture? The focused observation that sketching requires broadens and deepens our understanding of the world and its ecology, and affects how cultural imprints are rendered and absorbed. Analyzing and articulating spatial relationships, textures and patterns helps us develop greater literacy around the natural and built environment. This in turn informs and expands our design decisions. Rendering techniques become intuitive and applicable to both manual and digital expression, conceptual and illustrative drawings. As we travel, our curiosity grows. We become more comfortable exploring places we would have previously overlooked or avoided. We study the effects of natural light, observe the habits of plants and their characteristics. Perhaps most importantly, we continue the essential process of learning to activate, awaken and witness.
Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and the founder of Winterbottom Design Inc. in Seattle.