Liz Steel’s Buildings Course: My takeaway messages

This blog is not really a review of the course as much as a brief summary of my results and key learnings, so it’s something for me that I can return to as an aide memoire. I try to do this for all the drawing courses I take as a way of making the most from them.  The course was, as usual for Liz Steel’s courses, packed full of useful examples and tips about drawing architecture not to mention some excellent demos and incredible handouts so its well worth checking it out when she runs it again.

What I wanted to get out of the course

I am a landscape architect by background, not an architect and my main drawing interest is reportage illustration with a focus on urban-I’ve been a regular urban sketcher for about 3 years. Therefore, my scenes are hardly ever just about the architecture, they are that heady combination of people, architecture, entourage and whatever else contributes to creating a scene, a story and a sense of place. Therefore, the reason I did the course was to help and support me to capture more accurate and realistic 3D architecture, if only as a backdrop to the scenes I am capturing (although often times it is the focus). I wanted some help to see and record architecture in meaningful ways and to try to do that more accurately and quickly.

The following are the key subject areas taught. For each subject, we were encouraged to create some initial drawings from Liz’s photographs, as a way of understanding the concept before moving out on location. Whilst I completed both types of drawing, the ones below are all of my local area and done on location (main title text added afterwards).

Seeing buildings in Edges, Shapes and Volumes

A useful recap session, sharing the 3 ways of visual thinking: Feeling edges, abstracting shapes and constructing volumes then applying them to buildings. ‘The best way to feel edges is to start at a set point and work with a continuous line, thinking about line not object and focusing upon eye-hand coordination’. Getting the angles wrong is the biggest issue I think I have. Abstracting shapes is a good way of simplifying the building or a group of buildings (and I do this in my colour-first sketches). This approach helps to differentiate light and dark areas of a building but like edges, the challenge is accuracy and trying to avoid distortion! Constructing volumes is particularly useful for sketching buildings and involves seeing the building as a series of volumes, starting with the big volumes (base volumes) and working systematically to the details, helpful for drawing complex buildings. The challenge comes with mixing all these approaches together in the same sketch, which is how, in reality we need to draw our buildings!


Constructing Volumes

This was a very useful subject for me as it covered several things that I had been aware of but ignoring! It built on the idea of seeing the building in base volumes but then building in the ideas of adding elements e.g. chimneys, piers, columns, window frames etc. and subtracting elements such as windows and doors which are carved out of the main volumes. Importantly, the subtracted elements also show you wall thickness which is an important 3D aspect-it makes the sketch look solid. Its also important to look an the width and depth of the element in question. I always seem to make columns narrower then they should be and windows smaller than they should be and apparently that’s a common issue! The other very useful part of this session was that of the so-called Leading edges: I had always struggled with the complex corners of buildings and other major components with lots of ins and outs within the façade. Manchester is full of them! The course helps you to look for the leading edge profile rather than getting confused with the complexity of all the lines in a systematic way. The homework sketch I did for this subject doesn’t illustrate the ideas above so clearly, but the drawings in the next section hopefully do a better job!


Working Structurally

Depending upon the complexity of a building, having a structured way of working is important. Liz shared a 7 step process for working with complex buildings and this can be simplified if necessary. I’ve used this since for several complex buildings and it really does help! In the first instance, the overall volumes and shapes are assessed. Then the proportions are established (my usual preference is for a basic unit of measure e.g. the height of the building; all other measures are then referenced against that but there are other approaches too!), Then the main structure and storeys are established to break the building down into vertical and horizontal bays. The main thing is to look at how thick and deep these structural elements are and then allow for them. The next 3 steps are then all about the windows/other elements: First, through drawing guidelines (horizontal to align windows, central lines for classical architecture and different shaped windows etc), establish the rhythm of windows and other elements (being careful not to draw the windows too big!), then add the window frames, watching out for their thickness before finally drawing the openings and windows. Drawing the glass so late is a big help in not drawing the windows too big! The seventh and final step is then to add details, being careful not to overdo it with the texture as this can take away from the overall structure of the building.  Often times, depending upon scale, colour is all that is needed to imply texture.



  • Mapping Light and Dark

This last topic focused upon adding colour and tone to the drawings, using a volumetric approach. Personally I found this very useful as it focused upon simplification of buildings by mapping light and dark and breaking down shade vs caste shadow and looking at the added and subtracted elements separately as well as looking at thicknesses and how they effect the cast shadows on a building. The areas of a building that are in shade i.e. not receiving sunlight directly tend to be darker than the light side but of similar local colour(which is usually much lighter than imagined-see my sketch below which doesn’t have enough contrast between the sunny and shady sides of the houses although it wasn’t a particularly sunny day!). The cast shadows on the other hand are darker and cooler than the shade side having less reflected light. Liz encourages a way of working where the shadows are added first with the sketch built up from that point. Because I have not traditionally done a lot of shadow work, I have been trying not over complicate the areas of reflected light whilst making clear distinction between shady areas and cast shadow-more work to be done!


In Summary

This course has helped me to see and record architecture in my sketches in an improved way, hopefully with more clarity of purpose and greater convincingness (I certainly feel that I have an improved tool kit to understanding buildings better!). Perhaps the most fundamental of my learnings is the discipline of working with the 7 (or 4 step) structural process such that this can be used as a way of developing and reviewing the drawing and ensuring that, when working in a more organic way, I can pull back to the key structural aspects of the building without missing things. It also helps me not to discount buildings I consider too challenging (see Gorton Monastery above)!  I think I have a greater understanding of leading edges and how to deal with complexity of connection between areas of the building, including roof and wall edges and window frames as well as wall thickness etc. I think my 3 dimensionality has improved (but I need to watch my proportions, especially of the roof and angles!) and I will need to continue to consider what I am trying to achieve as I draw (I sometimes get caught in the moment and don’t think enough!); My understanding of shadow vs shade and colour related to dark and light is better so in time, I hope that this will also feed into the 3 dimensionality and improved clarity of my drawings.

Next Steps

Now I have to look through Liz’s new book: ‘Architecture: Super-quick techniques for amazing drawings’ -yep, whilst I think I learnt about improving my architecture drawings through the course, becoming faster at drawing didn’t really happen (probably a bit too big an ask given the amount of information we needed to understand and put into practice) but I am sure that this book (which looks jammed packed with great tips) will help me with that!  Watch this space.




2 thoughts on “Liz Steel’s Buildings Course: My takeaway messages

  1. Hi Liz,

    Great summary of the Drawing Now Building course. I am still working through the lessons. Liz Steel teaches wonderful online courses!

    I love your take away!

    I didn’t know you were a Landscape Architect. Fun!

    I really enjoy your visual storytelling.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your twist, drawing from a Landscape Architect perspective.

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