Tag Archives: Education

How to Draw Well

How many of you have a sketchbook? How many have it within 5 feet of you right now? I carry a sketchbook with me at all times. Ideas, images and nice buildings pop up around every street corner and, seemingly, at every café I find myself spending any time. Some friends over at the RISD Graduate School of Architecture invited me to give a talk about how to draw. I normally don’t think about how to draw, I just draw. But, this exercise in self-understanding was informative, and made me realize that I had not thought in detail about artistic technique since teaching drawing class at the University of Miami with Rocco Ceo. Thanks again to Emily and the RISD Graduate Architecture Program for making be ask myself how I draw. It starts with the sketchbook.

Lesson One: Strengthening Your Mind’s Eye


As a kid I had a large, almost cartoon like, art teacher who talked about your mind’s eye. This was an abstract idea at the time, but I have carried the concept along with me throughout my education and into professional practice. To draw well you need to be able to see well. Your visual reference library must be extensive, and your powers of observation finely tuned.

Here’s a little test. Pick an object in view. Give yourself a few moments to really look at it, don’t worry I’ll wait. Study its shape, color, details, ornament and all the other unique features that make it memorable. Now, close your eyes and reconstruct the object in your mind. Keep them closed for 30 seconds. Open and without looking at the object again draw it… How did you do? Now try it again, but this time instead of just looking at the object make a quick sketch of it in your trusty sketchbook. The simple act of observing and documenting helps upload the object into your minds reference library.

Building these reference images is a vital part of being able to draw well. However, the simple practice of trying to copy something with pad and pencil is just as important. As a designer and urbanist I have come to enjoy not only observing our built and natural environment, but also sifting through the city or university libraries for volumes of plans and images. If one strikes my fancy I make a quick sketch of it. With careful observation, I copy the details, proportions and signature elements of a design. Hopefully, through the process learning not only what makes the design remarkable, but also committing those elements to memory so that one day in the future I might come to reference them again.

There is only so much you can learn from sitting in a library sketching from books. One needs to travel to further enhance the mind’s library. The images associated with this post are from several of my travel sketchbooks. Over the years, I have come to find that there is valuable urban and architectural design lessons to be learn all around us. Documenting these lessons with watercolor, pen or pencil has been essential to strengthening my mind’s eye. I have found that the best sketchbooks for the field are Moleskins. This is no surprise to those who have used these books before. They are sturdy, well sized and have good paper options.

Too often today the digital photo is taken in exchange for the field sketch. Photographs will not improve your drawing abilities, and most certainly will not strengthen you mind’s eye as much as a field sketch. Now, I am not saying don’t take photos. I have built up a photo library of thousands of images. Buildings, streets, squares, retail, homes and everything else that I find both inspiring, and regrettable, has been photographed and archived in a digital library. As this database has grown it has become a great addition to the travel sketches. However, make sure your digital library is well organized with tags and a smart folder structure. Having had to rebuild my library a few times, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a smart way to organize your photos that allows for quick searching. Building a great digital library in addition to your mind’s library is great, but only if you can find what you are looking for with minimal effort. I’ll post more info on the details of my Aperture digital library in later posts under this topic.

There are a lot of other great exercise you can do to strengthen your mind’s eye. If you are interested in some of the theory behind this you can check out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence.

To review: carry a sketchbook, draw everything, travel and document what you find inspiring, and set up a well organized digital library to supplement the one between your ears.

Stay tuned for “How to Draw Well Part 2: The Power Sketch” and “How to Draw Well Part 3: Draw Stories, Not Lines”. Here are a few more travel sketches for your enjoyment… let me know what you think.

Children and Cities


My good friend Matt rang me up the other day with some great news. He and his wife are expecting their first child. I am thrilled for them. However, his next questions was “where should they move?” His main reason for moving from a nice street in San Francisco was the public schools are better in the suburbs. Matt has always been a big fan of city living which made this news even more puzzling. His search for the great walkable neighborhood in the ‘burbs has lead me to thinking about children and cities. This will be the first of several posts that I hope will persuade Matt to reconsider the value of living in a city with kids. 

Position 1: There are better schools in the suburbs.

I understand that schools are the primary reason for young parents to leave America’s cities. I have been able to learn about America’s public school system troubles by talking with my friend Damian Ewens at Big Picture Learning. I had the pleasure of hearing Dennis Littky, Big Picture’s co-founder, give this passionate talk at BIF-4. The Big Picture program clearly gives me hope that the American education system can be fixed. However, I fear not in time to keep my friend Matt from leaving San Francisco. 

Position 2: There are better extracurricular activities for kids in the city.

There are a great number of other opportunities for education in the city. The cultural institutions, museums, parks and historic sites can be an important addition to a young persons education. Here are the top three (1, 2, 3) from a Google search for “San Francisco kids education programs”. These institutions are in close proximity to kids in the city giving them better access. Keeping true to the single use nature of the suburbs, sprawl is often devoid of these institutions. The time a parent can safe on commuting to and from the suburbs can be used to frequent these institutions. I propose that it is far easier to give a child a well rounded educational experience in a city than the suburbs. 

Position 3: Do you want to put gas in the car or money in the college fund?

The cost of owning and driving a car must be considered when moving from a city to the suburbs. AAA calculates that it can cost between $5,514 and $9,095 a year to drive 10,000 miles. Let’s say my friend Matt goes from not owning a car to owning a minivan and an affordable sedan. Their auto expenses have now gone from a Zipcar membership and some car usage fees, that might average $2,780 a year, to $14,588 for the two cars. In addition to the Zipcar, I am sure there are some additional transportation costs that I have missed, such as a monthly BART pass, that living in the city demands. However, there is at least a $10,000 savings between living in the city and driving in the suburbs. If Matt put $10,000 in the bank for the first 6 years of his child’s life he would have a pretty good start to saving for their college education. 

As a disclaimer, I do not have any children. Stay tuned for the next post exploring children, cities and why my friends should reconsider a move to the suburbs.

CNU New England Urban Design Workshops

CNU New England’s “301 Urban Design Workshops” start tomorrow in Providence. I will be helping instruct two of the events with Bill Dennis, Don Powers and Rick Chellman. Thanks a bunch to our partners, Maine Association of Planners, 1000 Friends of Connecticut and Grow Smart RI, for helping make the workshops possible.