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How to Draw and Paint Architectural Subjects: A New Perspective

Updated on February 16, 2015
Dbro profile image

I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!


As an artist, one of my favorite sources for subject matter is architecture. I am attracted to architectural themes for many reasons, largely because of the symmetry and beauty engendered in great buildings and monuments around the world. Archtecture reflects the culture's aesthetic values and gives these esoteric notions a tangible expression.

I like to do two-dimensional works based on the three-dimensional world of architecture. Never having studied architecture, I approach these subjects with an innocent, but heart-felt appreciation. I render my works with an eye toward accuracy, but no pretensions of perfection. I want my architectural subjects to look realistic and "believable" without feeling sterile or looking "measure-y."

To achieve this balance of accuracy and artistry, I begin with a carefully rendered drawing. For architectural subjects I rely on reference photos I have taken during optimal lighting condtions that play up the features of the structure.

To provide greater interest and drama in my paintings of buildings, I will frequently choose an unusual or unexpected vantage point from which to portray the structure. Another approach I enjoy is focusing in on one component or feature within a much larger whole.

In this hub, I will show some examples of my work on architectural subjects in various stages of completion to explain my approach.

Texas Tech Textile

This painting was completed in 2005. As you can see, the perspective is one of viewing this building "from the ground up." This unusual view lends a certain unexpected interest in what could have been a staid portrayal of the building. To execute this drawing, I had to extend the lines of sight beyond the edges of the paper. I hope with this painting I was able to convey a sense of reality, but that a certain artistic "looseness" is also present. For example, the bricks in the wall are suggested by simple brush strokes charged with varying hues of burnt sienna mixed with other coordinating colors.


Devotion - Drawing ready for transfer to watercolor paper
Devotion - Drawing ready for transfer to watercolor paper

This is another painting "in the works" using this same "up swept" view. The subject building is a cathedral I visited in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The drawing was completed at 11 x 14" and enlarged to 22 x 28". The drawing was executed at this smaller size because I find it easier to draw in these dimensions. Again, the much larger dimensions of the final painting will add to the impact of the piece.

A Capital Idea

Here's the starting point for "A Capital Idea." I'm ready at this point to transfer my drawing onto the watercolor paper.
Here's the starting point for "A Capital Idea." I'm ready at this point to transfer my drawing onto the watercolor paper.
This is the finalized drawing, ready for painting!
This is the finalized drawing, ready for painting!
This is a photo of the initial lightly colored washes applied to the painting.
This is a photo of the initial lightly colored washes applied to the painting.
Here I've begun adding some of the shadows to the capital.
Here I've begun adding some of the shadows to the capital.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, another method to increase the visual interest of an architectural piece is to focus closely on one component or feature of a structure. In this case that component is the capital (or top) of a Corinthian column. I've always admired the complexity and intricacy of classic architecture, particularly the ornate capitals atop the columns. This painting is allowing me to study this feature in detail.

As always, I begin each painting with an accurate, highly detailed drawing. The drawing is then xeroxed. I use this xerox copy to trace the image onto my watercolor paper as one would use carbon paper to make copies with a typewriter.

I don't remember the specific building this column is from, but I do know I took the reference photos for this piece in Washington DC. The subject structure is made of white marble, which gives an artist the opportunity to really explore the play of light and shadow upon the feature. However, the artist is not at all limited to strictly white, gray and black to portray this subject! There is a myriad of colors present in this image, if one studies the subject with a sensitive and discerning eye. These colors come from reflected light from objects surrounding the column as well as some naturally occurring color within the marble itself. I chose to begin the application of paint by placing light washes of yellow, pink, and blue over portions of the drawing. I decided where to place these various washes by observing where these various colors were present in my reference photos.

Once these washes dried, I began to "sculpt" the capital by painting in the shadows cast by the shapes of the many intricate parts carved into the marble. These shadows help define and lend wonderful drama and contrast to this painting.

A word about these shadows - I mix my "darks" using a combination of paints. I do not use black paint. Mixing dark colors rather than relying on black gives the artist much greater range and control over the dark passages of the painting. The dark colors you mix yourself have much more life and interest in them than simply using a premixed black paint. To make these "darks" I mix French ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I can then easily "bias" this color by using more of one of these colors than the other. I can also further enrich this color with the addition of one more color. Adding more than one other color into this mixture runs the risk of creating a dull and "muddy" dark.

"Architectural beauty more than any other object is enhanced by favorable light."

~Arthur Schopenhauer

As you can see by this last photo, I have far to go before this painting is complete. I look forward to finishing this painting and hope it will do this wonderful architectural feature justice.


As you search for subjects for your next drawing, painting, or photograph, I hope you will consider buildings. In addition to their obvious beauty and symmetry, architecture is a reflection and celebration of the human spirit. What better subject can there be?


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    • Dbro profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Your comments mean a lot, Bldg an Architect! I'm flattered that someone "in the business" likes my hub about architectural subjects!

    • Bldg an Architect profile image

      Bldg an Architect 

      8 years ago

      Wonderful hub. Beautiful work.


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