Stephanie Bower

Stephanie Bower | Architectural Illustration: | Sketching Workshops: | Sketches: on Instagram at @stephanieabower & | Urban Sketchers Blog Correspondent | Signature member of the Northwest Watercolor Society

Sunday, July 15, 2018

TIP 9/10: Use Ellipses to Sketch Arches

Sketching Tip #9:  
Use Ellipses to Draw Arches...

I often see sketches in which arches look more like horseshoes than real arches! So to help you draw an arch that looks like an arch, here are some tips.

I start every sketch I do with what I call "Good Bones" or the foundation lines drawn lightly onto my paper. This way I can mess up or easily erase as needed, and I can establish early on what my sketch will look like.

In the sketch below, you'll see how I break down the shapes of a simple arch.
An arch has straight vertical legs (in red) up to a line called the "Spring Line" (in turquoise). The spring line is where the curved part of the arch starts. The spring line is often called out with some type of decoration or moulding. And in a straight on view like this one, above the spring line, there is usually some form of a circle (in light orange). 

We are back at the beautiful Pazzi Chapel in Florence!

And here is the analysis of an arch in a straight on view. You can see the vertical straight up and down legs on both sides, the SPRING LINE at which level the straight legs start to curve, and the circle I draw in lightly to help me get the correct curve of the arch!
In Renaissance buildings like this, the arch is typically a true half circle. In other countries and in other time periods, you get different shapes. 

Now let's look at an arch from an angled view. The circle we see in a straight on view is now flattened to an ELLIPSE!!!
I draw this in lightly to help me get the correct shape of the arch--makes things so much easier! 

And here are the foundation lines, or "Good Bones" that I draw in to establish
my sketch in perspective. This is the Chiesa in Civita di Bagnoregio where I
teach a workshop each summer!

Here you can again see the straight legs up to the SPRING LINE, which now
vanishes to my vanishing point, and I have also drawn in a light guide line
to establish the height of the arches, also going to my vanishing point.
Next, I draw in a very light ELLIPSE which helps me get the right shape
of the arched portion.
And to connect all the arches together at the same height, I add another guideline to establish the bottom of the ellipse. This helps me draw them at consistent heights.
This all might look a little technical, but it's actually really easy. Just make sure you draw straight legs, then use a circle or ellipse to get the shape of the arch above the spring line!

One more sketching tip to go in this series, and it will be on DOMES.
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Friday, July 13, 2018

TIP 8/10: Towers are like Wedding Cakes

Only three more to go! Here is sketching tip #8 of 10...

Sketching Tip #8: Towers are like Wedding Cakes!

Imagine a wedding cake...if one layer is off-center from the one below it, eventually we'd get a tragic cake collapse and wedding disaster!

Same for Towers. I often see towers in sketches that somehow look a little off. The reason: it's layers are not stacked properly in perspective!

So how to better sketch a tower? I'll show you two ways.

Method 1 -- find the center of the tower.
     As in wedding cakes, it's important to establish where the center of the tower is in order to draw it properly. We do this in perspective by using your skills from middle school geometry class:  drawing diagonals.
     If you think of the forms as transparent, this is much easier. I look at a tower and I think of a stack of 3-d blocks, usually getting smaller/narrower toward the top. I often lightly draw in the entire center line up the arch for reference. You can be sure whatever detail is at the very top of the tower, it sits on top of your center line!

Venice in 2015, sketching what may be one of the most famous towers in the world, the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco.
Here I am on the left, sitting in spot of great honor with the incredible Marc Taro Holmes and his friend and mind-boggling illustrator, Sean Andrew Murray. HA! No pressure at all !?!?

You can see how I don't just see the face of the sides of the tower, I see it as a stack of 3-dimensional blocks. 
Remember one or both sides of your tower will go to the vanishing point/s on your eye level.
Consider, each face of the tower steps inward toward the center from one layer to the next.

And here are the steps I use to draw the tower:

1 -- Start with the blocks, as above.
2 -- Use diagonals to find the center of each block.
3 -- draw in your center line all the way to the top of the tower.
4 -- Here, once I find the top of the center line, I can just connect it to the corners to get the pyramid shape at the top. This is easier because the faces of the pyramid are sloped.

I don't always draw every level like this, but it's important to understand this concept when you sketch a tower.

Method 2 -- Use Edges
     In reality, I probably use a combination of methods 1 and 2. This way is definitely easier... I look at the edges and where they are relative to each other. Examine how much each is set in from the level below it. 
     And at the end, I look at where the top of the tower is relative to the layers below, just to check I've got it right.

In this sketch of a tower at the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, you can see 
how each corner is set in from the one below it. An easy way to draw 
towers, although be careful you don't pull the layers off center!

Hopefully, one or both of these methods will help you see towers a little differently, and draw them better!

Monday, July 9, 2018

TIP 7/10: Stuck or Overwhelmed? Try This...

Sketching Tip #7: Stuck or Overwhelmed? 
Use Thumbnails...

You see the inspiring view, you figure out what angle you want, you sit down and... you are overwhelmed and stuck. Has this happened to you? It happens to me all the time.
That blank sheet of paper in your sketchbook is a whole lot of unknowns, and that's where the fear and panic come from.

One of the best ways to get around this freeze is instead of jumping in with both feet, dip your toe in. I do this by drawing thumbnail sketches. Thumbnails are small sketches about the size of a large postage stamp to a note card. In my thumbnails, I figure out the simple perspective, draw in the big shapes, and sometimes add tone for lights/ darks or even add color! 

Doing a thumbnail before your big sketch works on several levels:

For one, it's so small, you simply cannot put any detail in. This is a good thing, as detail at the beginning of a sketch is something of a rabbit hole... you go down it and suddenly an hour has passed! For me, sketching is less about capturing the detail than it is about capturing the sense of architecture and space, so avoiding detail at the beginning really helps.

Two, a thumbnail helps you figure out the solutions to a bunch of problems before you are too deep into your sketch, especially issues of composition. It's easy to crop your thumbnail several different ways to see what works best. I often have lots of thumbnails doodled in the back of my sketchbook for just this reason.

These are thumbnail sketches in the back of my sketchbook. I use these to figure out perspective and also where to crop my future sketch for a good composition.

Three, and probably the best reason of all, doing a thumbnail helps calm your mind. Instead of panicking (as I confess I often do), you take deep breathes and sort it out. Once you've settled into the sketching "flow", it's easier to move on to your sketch.

I have started to use thumbnails as a way to explain my sketching process as I'm teaching. I even number each step and write notes...this is super helpful for sorting out the layering process of watercolor! 

This is the thumbnail with notes on the left, and the finished sketch on the right. A demo for my annual workshop in Italy, DRAW CIVITA 2018.

Thumbnails should be very quick, a few minutes at the most. They are simply a tool to help you dip that toe into the water before you jump in!!!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

TIP 6/10: Sloped Roofs in Perspective

Sketching Tip #6:  Sloped Roofs in Perspective

Sketching a sloped roof, or any sloped surface, can be a real challenge. I pretty much always draw lines down the slope of the roof so that the angle of the roof reads, no matter what the roof material is. The clearest way to understand this is to look at tile roofs with ridges and valleys, like this one at Brunelleschi's  Pazzi Chapel in Florence in this classic, one-point perspective view.

Step one is to find the vanishing point and your eye level for most of the parallel horizontal building and ground lines. My eye level line was very low, close to the ground, and the VP just to the right of center.

To draw the slope of the roof correctly, the first line I draw on the sloped roof is a true vertical line (in yellow) directly above my vanishing point at eye level... yep, straight up and down right over my vanishing point! 
Then, I know that all the ridges and valleys to the left of this line angle in one direction, and all the lines to the right of this vertical line angle in the other direction. The farther the line is away from my vertical, the flatter the angle.  I usually eye-ball this. 
Take a look...

So what is really going on here? Remember that lines that are parallel to each other converge to the same vanishing point, so since the roof is angled, it goes to its own vanishing point in the sky...

Remember this tip: 
if a surface tilts UP and away from you, the Vanishing Point also tilts UP.
The part that most people don't realize is that the vanishing point for the slope is directly over your eye level vanishing point!!

This principle is also true for 2-point perspectives, but it's easiest to see in a 1-point view.

Look at this view from Florence and see if you can find the vanishing point and how I drew the tile roofs!

Friday, July 6, 2018

TIP 5/10: When Buildings Twist, Multiple Vanishing Points!

Welcome to a series of 10 Sketching Tips!

#5: When Buildings Twist

Key to this concept is to remember a basic principle of perspective, that lines that are parallel to each other appear to converge to the same point.

Quick trip back to Venice. I'm standing on the upper level of the Basilica San Marco. Using my pencil, I extend the receding lines on the left side to find one vanishing point on my eye level line.

Then I use my pencil to extend the lines of the building on the right, and what happens? I get TWO vanishing points, both on my eye level line!  
So, what does this mean? It means the two buildings are actually not parallel to each other in plan (like a map view)... each facade has generated it's own vanishing point. 
Key also is that BOTH vanishing points are on my eye level line--yet another good reason to mark where your eye level line (aka Horizon Line) is located in your sketch!

Does using the two VP's for this sketch make a huge difference? Probably not, as they are so close to each other. The only way I could have realized this was by drawing it!! BUT this concept in perspective is extremely helpful to understand when you are sketching anywhere that was not built on a grid plan, like most of Europe, India, and many other places in the world.

Let's look quickly at another example in Italy. This is Civita di Bagnoregio, an amazing tiny hilltown north of Rome where I teach a sketching workshop every summer. This view is of the narrow main street behind the church. The buildings twist and turn in plan along a curving pedestrian street.

This is a diagram I made in the workshop to explain the concept of multiple vanishing points. I used my pencil to extend the vanishing lines (usually using the tops or bottoms of windows or stone courses), and lo and behold, I get three separate VP's, each on my eye level line, one for each building.

Here is a break down of the three VP's...

In summary, it's easiest to remember that when:
--the building rotates in plan toward the left, the VP shifts to the left along your eye level line
--the building rotates in plan toward the right, the VP also shifts to the right along your eye level line.

I hope this explanation helps! Happy Sketching!
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Thursday, July 5, 2018

TIP 4/10: Lines Get Flatter at your Eye Level

Welcome to today's sketching tip~

#4: Lines Get Flatter at your Eye Level

Well, technically speaking, lines and shapes appear flatter the closer they are to your eye level. In perspective-speak, 
this is called "foreshortening", and it's another reason why knowing where your Eye Level Line is can be so helpful.

The sketch that comes to my mind regarding this concept is one from the interior at the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy. I only had a little over an hour to do this sketch, so sitting on the floor midst bird poop at the very back of the cathedral, I relied heavily on knowing about foreshortening.  

Let's analyze this view.

First, know where your eye level is and draw that line all the way across your page as you start your sketch. I do this every time, be it in a sketch or an architectural Illustration. It's helpful in so many ways. You can see where I drew this line in lightly in my sketch (highlighted in turquoise in the mark-up). In most of your sketches, your eye level will probably be close to the floor and very low on your sketchbook page.

Now that I know where my eye level line is, I know that 
-- receding lines ABOVE it will angle DOWN to my vanishing point in the distance, and 
-- receding lines BELOW it will angle UP to my vanishing point.

I also know that :
--  lines will appear flatter the closer they are to my eye level, again, a useful reference (especially in a two-point perspective when the vanishing points are off your sketchbook page!)

Try drawing in your Eye Level Line in your sketches, then you'll know that even when the vanishing point is way off your page, as in a two-point perspective, you KNOW the receding lines will get flatter the closer they are to your eye level.

And, referring back to Tip #3, you'll see that the people who are closest to me appear a little taller...this is because I was sitting on the ground!

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

TIP 3/10: Heads Align at YOUR Eye Level and more...

Welcome to a series of 10 blog posts with tips for better sketching!

#3 : Heads Align at YOUR Eye Level...and more...

Now that you know how to find your eye level, lets look at using that line to place people into your sketches. The eye level line is something we see all the time but don't really notice how it works in sketching on location. It's a true "ah-ha" moment for lots of people in my classes.

Let's say you are about to start a sketch...

     --you are standing 
     --the ground is more or less flat
     --there are lots of other people in your view who are approximately your height, give or take a foot.

See the view below of a charity run in Florence this summer. This is a super common kind of view for lots of sketchers, and it's called an "eye level view". You are looking straight ahead, not up or down.

An interesting phenomenon happens with an eye level view, and it's something that can help you understand both where your eye level line is in the view and also how to draw all the people.

In an eye level view, all the heads align on the same horizontal line, which is also.... at YOUR EYE LEVEL! So "Horizon Line" + your "Eye Level Line" and all those heads in the view are all the same!
This means that in this photo, I was standing, the ground was more or less flat, and everyone was close to my height, between 5'-6' tall. No matter where their feet fall in the view, or if they are close to you or far away from you, the heads align...take a look!

Knowing this makes it sooooo much easier to populate your sketches with people, which is so important for understanding the size and scale of the things we see and sketch. It's part of why I ALWAYS draw my eye level line across the page in my sketches.

And here is the sketch...the heads all more or less align whether they are close to me or far away.

LOOKING UP -- When your eye level is BELOW everyone else's:
Let's also take a quick look at what happens when you are sitting and your eye level is lower than all those people standing. My eye level when sitting is about the height of a door handle, or maybe around someone's belly button. This view, when looking UP a bit, is often referred to as a "worm's eye view".

You can see in this view that relative to my eye level (in turquoise) the people who are closest to me have heads that appear the farthest above my eye level, and the people in the distance have heads that are closer to my eye level line.

Not a lot of people in this sketch, but you can see the people closest to me on the left are higher
than the people in the distance (tiny, I know...)

LOOKING DOWN -- When your eye level is ABOVE everyone else's:
Back to Venice... let's look at what is called an "aerial view" in which your eye level (in turquoise) is way above everyone else's eye level. (At the horizon!)

In this view, you can see that people follow the general rules of perspective, that things closest to us are bigger, and things farther away are smaller. BUT, we also see that the people closest to us appear lower in our sketch/photo, with their heads farthest away from your eye level line.
The people in the distance are not only smaller, but they appear closer to your eye level line, or higher in your sketch/photo.

Knowing these simple tips will make it MUCH easier for you to place people in your sketches!!

Also, sign ups for my workshop in Seattle, Good Bones, open July 5! Email me at  thanks!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

TIP 2/10: Think EYE LEVEL, not Horizon Line

Welcome to a series of ten blog posts with tips for better sketching!

#2: Think Eye Level, not Horizon Line

Most people who know even a bit about perspective have heard about the "Horizon Line". We know that the vanishing points are supposed to be on the Horizon Line, but it's a vague concept that many of us don't understand very well.

Let's unpack this...

The Horizon Line is literally the horizon, where the land/water meet the sky. Imagine you are at the beach and looking out at the ocean, or in Venice looking out at the sea...where the water meets the sky in the distance is the horizon line.

The problem with this term is that it's not particularly relevant to location sketching since most of the time, we can't see where the water or land meet the sky! Buildings, mountains, almost everything we see block our view of this important line in the distance.

Lucky for us, we have a unique relationship to the Horizon Line...the Horizon Line aligns with your eye level!!!!

Yes, your horizon line is the SAME as your EYE LEVEL LINE, no matter how high or low you are above the ground. Take a look at this photo from the Basilica San Marco in Venice...I'm standing on an upper floor looking down, but the line where the water meets the sky is at my eye level. 

When you are sketching, find your eye level by holding your pencil/pen directly in front of your eyes, without tilting up or down, and pin that line like the game "pin the tail on the donkey" onto something in your view. Then draw your eye level line as a horizontal line all the way across your sketch. It will come be useful in many ways. Once you know where your eye level line is, it's much easier to find your vanishing points too, as most VP's will live on this line.

This is what makes perspective so interesting to me, as the structure of the sketch is literally dependent on YOUR eye level, your viewpoint, your "perspective". And perspective is not hard, once you know what to look for...

Monday, July 2, 2018


Welcome to a series of ten blog posts with tips for better sketching!

#1: Long Lines

Let's start at the beginning, the foundation of any sketch... a good line! A good line 
not only defines shapes and detail, it conveys a sense of energy and personality. Let's talk about how to make LONG LINES, as this can be a challenge when working on location or in a sketchbook.


Anyone who has seen me sketch knows I rely on a straight edge for making long and accurate lines at the beginning of a sketch. I use an  8" 30/60 degree Architect's Triangle that I carry in my waterproof zipper bag with my pencil and sketchbook.

Using this tool started for me with this sketch, at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, India in 2011.

Looking at this amazing expanse of space and architecture, I was faced with a huge sketch some 24' wide. I struggled quite a bit with getting long was taking forever and frankly, they looked awful! In a moment of desperation, I pulled out a small triangle I was carrying, and voilá, I could snap long, straight lines QUICKLY! Speed is the key. I do this at the beginning of a sketch to SPEED UP and also add energy and some accuracy to my line quality. 


-- Using LIGHT lines at the beginning, architects call them "construction lines", as you lay down the foundation of your sketch.

--I use the straight edge at the beginning of my sketch to set up the big shapes in perspective, then I put it away and just DRAW. Drawing without the straight edge is important for adding character to your drawing as it imbues your sketch with the qualities of your unique hand!

--Work quickly. If you find using this tool slows you down, then ditch it! It's not perfection, it's about speed.

These are the foundation lines of my chiesa sketch in Civita di Bagnoregio, where I teach a workshop every summer.

You can see the long, straight lines done at the beginning of the sketch, then how I go over those guidelines with freehand lines to add the information and character. You can also see my trusty triangle and pencil.

Our hands and arms naturally want to make long lines that are curved, based on the radius of our arms. We can learn to compensate for this curve by intentionally drawing UP as the line gets longer, or an easier and more successful way is to draw lines in segments.

In the piazza of the Italian town of Casaprotta, zoom in and you can see the long lines of the border are actually drawn in segments. Instead of OVERLAPPING the line, which makes the overlap look really obvious, pick up your pencil or pen and ever so slightly separate the lines with a tiny bit of space. Your eye will naturally connect the two, and you won't perceive the gap!

Long lines of the border are drawn in segments to keep the long line straight! Wiggles are OK and can add energy to the line.
Below, you can see how the long line is made in slightly separated segments, and the lower line tends to show the overlap. These are drawn with a .5 mechanical pencil, a fine line, so it is a little hard to see these difference, but with a thicker pencil or pen, they become very obvious!!

Try using these methods to draw long lines in your next sketch!

Here they come, 10 Top Sketching Tips

Are you ready?

To jumpstart summer sketching in the northern parts of the world, and because the Urban Sketchers symposium starts in about 3 weeks (so sorry not to see everyone this year, but look for me in Asia in October!), I'm launching a series of 10 posts with my favorite 10 sketching and perspective tips!

I often see lots of the same questions and challenges come up time and again in workshops, so I decided to collect some of my responses into these posts. 

Thanks to my friends Marc Taro Holmes, Liz Steel, and Suhita Shirodkar who did a month(!) of beautiful painting sketches called "Direct to Watercolor", you are my inspiration for this.

And of course, I invite you to sign up for future blog posts.

Thanks for your interest --  I hope you find these helpful!