Architectural drawing can be intimidating, particularly for older buildings with ornate details! Even if you’re comfortable with the perspective and technical side of the drawing, it can be tricky to turn a complex building into a drawing with a clear focal point and a simple enough composition to read well from a distance.

Urban sketch artist Elizaveta Smirnova has put a lot of thought into this dilemma. In her FREE Demo, she shows us how to simplify a cathedral tower into an approachable and clear painting.

Step 1: Get the Sketch Precisely Right

A painting hangs on a sketch like a vine hangs on a tree, so your sketch must be sturdy enough to hold it! Elizaveta uses her pencil to measure angles by holding it over her reference photo and lining it up with the lines on the subject.

This technique is called sighting, and it is often taught in art schools. With your pencil standing in as a “line”, you won’t need as much trial and error before your real line is correct!

If you are having trouble understanding why the lines and proportions are what they are, I recommend tracing the lines in the reference photo back to an imaginary vanishing point where they will eventually converge. Here are a few ways to transfer your linework for paintings. 

This picture is in two-point perspective, meaning that the corner is facing us, and the two faces we can see are both receding back to a vanishing point on the horizon line.

Elizaveta can draw the sketch so quickly because she has practised perspective for a long time, so she doesn’t have to think so hard about it anymore.

When you have the big lines placed, you can start adding details. Remember not to add details until the main structure is correct because the details will be measured relative to the main structure, and if that’s wrong, then the details will be too.

Step 2: A Layer of Paint

The building in this painting is made only from yellow ochre and a dark eggplant purple (I didn’t have the exact purple that Elizaveta had, but Royal Purple from the Etchr Watercolour 24 Half Pan Set works beautifully).

Elizaveta uses far less pigment in her first layer, so I messed up just a bit by going so dark, but it’s entirely possible to have just as lovely of a painting if you make a mistake so long as you adapt the rest of the painting!

Step 3: Details

It’s important to make sure the first layer is dry before moving onto anything else because we don’t want the paint to cauliflower. Once it’s dry, you can add the second wall of the building, lighter than the first since the shadow side is facing us.

Then, using the darkest mostly-purple mixture, you can start adding in the rough indication of lines and shadows on the building. The lines can be imprecise and broken since the building is old. If the lines are too perfect, the illusion of distance won’t be there.

Step 4: Sky

Once your details are the way you want them to look, make sure they are dry and then add a sparing wash of blue for the sky. You can let a few drops of water splash down for effect if you would like!

The water did not want to run down my paper, but I thought the illusion of drips would help my composition, so I carefully painted them in.

If you are painting from your own reference, and there are a lot of tricky details in it that clutter up the composition, feel free to change the painting to be simpler!

Elizaveta took out a clock that was on the front of the building in her reference because adding it would have tangled up the composition.

The freedom to eliminate some elements from your reference will also help you when you are painting Plein air because if you don’t have time to catch every detail before the light changes, you can modify the painting and leave some things out. Professional artists leave things out all the time.

Hopefully, this project gave you an approachable method for painting architecture! By keeping details to a manageable minimum and choosing what aspects of your subject to include in the painting, you can make Plein air buildings easy and calming!

If you found value in Elizaveta’s Live Demo, you can dive deeper by participating in her Mini Workshop!

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Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the south Idaho hill country. She  loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that  came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long  hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl.

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