With Pen in Hand! Interview with Brian Lin of the BeLoose Graphic Workshop by Chelsea Larsson
Land8Lounge.com hosted a webinar in April 2010 about hand drawing with Brian Lin of the BeLoose Graphic Workshop and it lead me to reevaluate the tiny amount of time that I personally devote to sketching and hand rendering. Mike and Brian Lin are the father and son team at the BeLoose Graphic Workshop, an enterprise whose mission is to help you the individual become more confident, comfortable, and skilled at hand drawing/rendering.
Their front page states, ‘This workshop will change your life’ and it is safe to say these men are believers in the power of the pen. One aspect of their practice that I find fascinating is that a time frame is frequently given to drawings, such as ‘this tree will take fifteen minutes’ or ‘this rendering took four days.’ This tactic is interesting to me because it is a testament to the fact that beautiful work takes time no matter what, digital, analogue, digilogue whatever.
Therefore, if ever you feel frustrated with a drawing an hour into the process you can relax to think that the professionals spend four days on something like this and to continue trying. Whether you like the style or not, or whether you agree with Brian on the relevance of hand drawing or not, their message holds a powerful point of thought. When you spend hours trying to wrestle an idea onto a blank piece of paper with nothing but your hands and a pen I would contest that you gain a very different, intimate knowledge of that thing than if you used digital alone. And so sound the harps for the pen wielders.
On with the show!
Interview with Brian Lin
What aspects of landscape architecture do you think are better captured by hand drawing?
There has always been the desire to draw what is in your mind to communicate a thought, concept, or idea. There comes to mind two philosophies of drawing communication: hand drawing and digital drawing. When I first started my career, computer programs were still in a primordial stage but were developing quickly. I saw there were two types of designers: the ones who sketched with a pen, and ones who never left their mouse and keyboard. This topic has been the basis of lively debate, and sometimes a philosophical battleground, but in the realm of presentation graphics. There are some incredible computer programs that make a computer presentation rendering “look” like a hand drawing. However, I think it misses an essential point: that hand graphics is more a rudimentary part of the design process and less about presentation. I am one of many designers that “wake up” with a cool idea that I have to scribble on a roll of trace next to my bed (it never leaves my side) or it will just vaporize after I take 5 steps to the studio to boot up my computer. I’ve read somewhere that a “hand sketch is worth a thousand words,” and it truly is. Hand drawing during the design process really doesn’t have to be beautiful. It has to communicate an idea clearly and gets to the point. I’ve heard from many students that they believed that hand drawing was some great mystery and you had to be born with the talent to draw well. I’ve even heard some professors say that hand drawing cannot be taught. Hand drawing, whether on a napkin at a cigar bar or in front of a client at the office, helps to draw out the raw creative ideas that manifest a design solution. I think some students are taught to believe that graphics are what you produce after the designing is all set and done. Unfortunately, they miss the whole reason for drawing in the first place: how things fit together and how the design works as a holistic environmental system….and drawing is FUN!
Do you think clients respond differently to hand drawings versus digital media?
Very much so! The types of clients vary, so the responses can run the spectrum of what communicates the main design idea clearly and most convincingly. In my practice, we use both hand drawing and digital media with our clients. We have clients that prefer hand drawing, and some that love the flashy presentation of digital renderings. The danger with digital rendering is that if a certain design element is still conceptual or half-baked, it will look conceptual and half-baked in a digital rendering because of the “finished” look of the presentation and could cause the overall design concept to unravel. For example, one time I was presenting at a community meeting and one of our digital renderings had photoshop’d gingko trees as the street trees. The presentation was for building design review, but as luck would have it, someone in the audience who was on a streetscape alliance board said that the trees were to be sycamores…two completely different trees. Nobody’s fault really; the renderer was in China and just picked the first tree in their library. From that point on, the focus of dialogue shifted from building design to the streetscape design, which was still in development and I was not prepared to respond, which meant I did not want to promise something to the community without approval from the client. It was a difficult 15 minute endeavor to re-direct their attention back to the building. Thinking back, if we went to that presentation with a watercolor or colored pencil rendering, the project as presented would have been more palatable for the client and the community. If the same person asked “what kind of street trees are those”, I could have confidently said “why Sycamores of course!” Clients want to be engaged in every part of a project’s life, from the birth of the idea to the certificate of occupancy. Hand drawing allows them to be part of that creative process where digital drawing usually “feels” too finished and final.
Hand drawing is may be more prominent in the design process but less so in presentation drawings. In competitions how can hand drawings compete with slick digital renderings?
I don’t think it really comes down to how hand drawings can compete with digital renderings. As designers, we must consciously choose which presentation format that will communicate the design idea the best. I’ve seen lots of wonderful and compelling designs presented horribly in digital format. If I’m going into a competition knowing that our competitors are using digital renderings, I will sometimes submit hand-drawn renderings instead, usually by collaborating with an artist, or hiring illustrators like Richard Sneary or Christopher Grubbs, who in my opinion are two of the best architectural illustrators I’ve ever worked with. To my surprise, I’ve actually had judges tell me that one of the reasons why our submission made the final cut was because after looking at hundreds of digital renderings using the same group of photoshop’d people, the same Toyota Camry Hybrids, and same girl talking on her cell phone, it was the vivid richness and intrinsic quality in our hand-drawn renderings that made our submission stand out and was refreshing to see for the judges.
Do you combine analog and digital? Through which techniques?
Yes. Everyday. I sketch all the time, but I also rely on the technical exactness of computer programs to help hone my skills as a designer. What I usually do is that I’ll draw something and then test it out in AutoCAD or Revit as a BIM model. Sometimes I’ll take quick sketches that were produced during charrettes or client meetings and scan them into Photoshop to add quick layers of color, people and other entourage. My advice would be to learn as many computer programs as you can and they will in turn complement your hand drawing skills. Eventually, you’ll know when to use hand drawing and when to use digital techniques, almost as if it were second nature.
A significant aspect of digital media is that it allows for quick layering of textures and colors to create rich environments, how can this be accomplished through hand drawing?
I usually accomplish this with AD markers and color pencils. Markers can throw down color evenly and quickly. Color pencils on top of the marker layers can add richness of texture and gradual value changes, and mixing of different hues of color for more vibrant effects. Quite often I’ll find that I have to throw layers of color pencils on my digital plots to pop out certain elements of the rendering because what you see on your screen doesn’t necessarily come out of the plotter that way. It had something to do with the humidity in the air that causes the ink to be darker or lighter.
Many students now are well versed in Auto Cad and Adobe but have lost the habit of sketching, what habits would you recommend to them to improve their hand drawing?
Find any opportunity to sketch, doodle, diagram, etc. I always carry a 6 inch roll of trace and a Sign Pen everywhere I go because I never know when I’ll see something outside of the office that inspires me. My co-workers think I’m crazy when we talk design during lunch and I bust out the roll of trace, but the funny thing is they usually will grab the pen from me and start diagramming over my initial ideas. Another approach is to find an “elder” mentor, either in school or in your office, and draw with them. They can teach you in a lot 10 minutes what took them 20-30 years to learn to do. Even on technical CAD drawings, keep testing your design ideas by drawing on directly on the sheet. If you have a design element in section/elevation, try sketching it perspective to see what it “feels” like in a space. And when you draw, always think about designing in 3D. This will train your eye to see proportion and scale in perspective. After all, 3D is how we see and experience space, isn’t it?
Where or who do you look to for inspiration?
My father, Mike Lin and Bill Johnson (founder of JJR), Hideo Sasaki, and Frank Gehry
University of Texas at Austin 2011