Young Architect Guide: 5 Techniques to Improve Your Sketching

Bob Borson of “Life of an Architect” offers some handy tips that should improve your architectural sketches.

Bob Borson Bob Borson

Bob Borson is creator of the famous Life of an Architect blog, a Texas-based architect at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects and an indispensable guide to professional practice. We are pleased to present a selection of his posts on Architizer, each one providing amazing insight into the complex process that goes into all great architecture.

Architectural sketching is becoming a thing of the past — at least that’s how it seems to me most days. I graduated eons ago in 1992, back in the days that predate computers being used in the studio. This doesn’t mean that everyone who graduated in my era could sketch — far from it. What it does mean is that we learned how to think and communicate our ideas in a slightly different manner from the students graduating from modern-day architecture programs. Now that I’ve been at this “architect” thing for a little while, I can look at my sketches all the way back to my time in school, see how my sketch technique has evolved and how that technique has shaped my architectural solutions.

Looking back over 25 years of my sketches is kinda freaky to be honest. I’m not sure I would have made this observation had I not started writing this blog and posting my sketches for others to view. While I don’t think I am particularly gifted at sketching beautiful drawings, I do think that I have a style that has become recognizable as my own — and that is pretty awesome to discover.

Because I didn’t have anything else to write am such a generous person, I thought I would pull the curtain back today and share with everyone a handful of the techniques I use when sketching. While this might burst the illusion for some of you that I can actually sketch well, I think you’ll see that these techniques are easy to incorporate into your own sketches, and before you know it, you’ll be fooling people just like me!

Before we get to the actual tips, let’s talk some tools of the trade real quick.

Almost 100 percent of my sketches are created using two pens. I use Sharpie Permanent Markers — “Ultra Fine Point” for my thin lines and the “Fine Point” for my profile (heavy) lines. I use a 12-inch-wide-by-50-yard-long roll of trace paper and an architectural scale (which is used to measure out dimensions as I sketch to help tear the trace paper off the roll). On occasion, I will use an Alvin 10-Inch Parallel Glider, but normally only when I am sketching out dimensioned floor plan concepts.

It drives me slightly crazy to have a roll of trace paper constantly rolling away when I am trying to sketch. A tip I learned from my current partner, some 20-plus years ago, was to smash the roll slightly so that the tube gets crushed. Instead of the roll being round, it’s now oval-shaped and won’t roll away. It also helps me know which rolls of trace paper in the office are mine. Just some food for thought …

So let’s get to it: Here are five tips and techniques that should improve your architectural sketches.

1. Adopt the “Hit-Go-Hit” technique.

I learned this technique from my friend Jon Kathol 18 years ago. The “Hit-Go-Hit” tip is a way for you to pick up and set your pen back down on the page as you’re drawing in a purposeful manner. Why would you need to do something like that, you ask? Well, tip No. 2 will elaborate a bit more, but whenever you are drawing a straight line, you’ll frequently find that you need to reposition your arm, or the paper, to continue drawing. Make that reset look intentional and add some graphic flair with this technique.

If you use this “Hit-Go-Hit” technique, you’ll find that your straight lines will actually become a lot straighter. It’s kind of amazing to see the difference a sketch with straight lines looks over one that’s all squidgy and wonky (yes, those are real architectural words in case you’re wondering … ).

2. Don’t move your pen/pencil by bending your wrist or elbow.

I should also point out that you shouldn’t “push” your pen across the page, you should always “pull” it. Lock your wrist and elbow into a comfortable angle and only move your entire arm when sketching. As you get more skilled, this tip can be relaxed and you can first bend your elbow and ultimately your wrist. In the beginning, by limiting your movement to the entire arm, you’ll end up with straighter lines. And because you can only move your arm so far, that’s when the “Hit-Go-Hit” technique comes in.

Now, all of a sudden, you realize that you need to reset your pen on the page more often than you previously did. Using the technique where I only move my entire arm, my sketches have straight lines in them — which really does make a big difference.

3. Incorporate the use of pen weight.

This technique is a biggie … You have to use line weight to help convey depth to your sketch. More gifted sketchers take care of depth using hatches and shading techniques, so eventually that’s something you can take on. In the meantime, use two pens and get some profile lines into your sketches.

Don’t know what profile lines are? You need to know, and I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of Architectural Graphics by Francis D.K. Ching. I’ve had my copy since 1986 and still look at it from time to time. Ching’s book (along with my studio professors) taught me how to show profile lines. Their use defines the look of my sketches as well as a generation of other architects’.

Another benefit to using a heavy pen is that it can help show you what you should be looking at — what the point of the sketch might be. Multiple pen weights help the viewer understand the order of things within the drawing, and through proper technique, they can also show to the viewer what’s not important in the sketch.

4. Intersect your lines at the corners.

This is pure style and allows the inexact nature of a sketch to come across as what it is: a delineated representation of a thought or concept. That sounds a bit like architectural mumbo jumbo, but it really isn’t. The inexact nature of the sketch — when attempted to be exact — looks sloppy and, well … inexact. By allowing your lines to cross at the corners, you can still convey the thought (or shape) you are going after without having to focus on making the shape perfect.

There is an “in-the-moment” feel that sketches imply, and if you look at the two rectangles illustrated above, I think the one on the left looks far better despite the fact that it is far less precise or exact than the rectangle on the right.

I think this crossing of lines at the corners is a carryover from when I used to hand-draft with a pencil. The beginning and end of a line had slightly darker marks than the middle of the line, and they accentuated the edges very crisply. Just about every line I have ever drawn by hand in the last 20 years crosses at the corner. Take that for it’s worth.

5. Trace isn’t precious. Draw in layers.

The design process is typically additive, so why shouldn’t your sketches be, as well? Because most of my sketches happen on trace paper and not in a sketch book, I am able to lay sketch upon sketch to build up and refine my finished sketch. I may start with a clean piece of trace paper for every sketch, but it’s only that first sketch that doesn’t have the benefit of something prior to work from.

A lot of the sketches I draw are the result of several iterations of tracing … one idea superimposed over the other. Tracing allows me to take advantage of my previous work while experimenting with new ideas and concepts.

Those are the five main sketch techniques that I use that create the “look” of my drawings … nothing magical about them.

I hope this post inspires you to pull out your pens and paper and start sketching. I’ve come to believe that if we as architects can sketch well enough to convey our ideas, our clients are the real winners.

Happy sketching,


This post first appeared on Life of an Architect. Enjoy this article? Check out more of our Young Architect Guides:

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7 Tips for Getting Hired After Graduation

5 Lies Told About the Profession You Must Ignore

How to Convince Your Audience With a Powerful Project Narrative

How to Write About Architecture

5 Specifying Tips for First-Time Architects

Now you have the skills, consider entering the One Drawing Challenge, the architectural drawing competition where one drawing could net you $2,500! Click here to learn more.