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SKETCHBOOK: a creative tool and a way of life that celebrates design and drawing as vital ways to see and value culture, to discover ideas, and to envision a better world.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Digital concept sketch demo

Hi all!  Sorry for the long hiatus; it's been a crazy few months! I'll spare you the details, because I want to kick off the summer posts with a demonstration series I've done live before audiences at a few conferences this Spring.  It's done on a Motion LE1600 pen-interactive computer using Sketchbook Pro software.  This is the methodology introduced to me by Robert Chipman, ASLA, and demonstrated in Ch. 8 of my book "Freehand Drawing and Discovery."  It's a VERY user-friendly setup that very closely mimics the use of pen (or pencil or marker, etc.) on paper.  I love it; it can become addictive once you start doodling with it.  The idea is to quickly sketch an urban design idea over a digital photo in order to generate feedback from a client, design team, or public meeting attendees.  I think it's a marvelous way to work.  Here's an example:

Here's a digital photo taken on the project site.  For this particular intersection, I want to create a sense of arrival into the shopping village, calm traffic speeds, provide better pedestrian crossings, and help build a sense of place.  The digital concept sketch will explore all these ideas very quickly.

First, I'll use the "eye dropper" tool to sample the color of the background sky, then use that color with a digital brush to "erase" the background trees (don't worry, I'll put them back later) and the overhead utilities, and to remove the arching traffic signal arm (my safety consultant tells me the lower signal is sufficient in this instance).

Now I've used the simple slider in the "layers" toolbox to reduce the base photo's opacity from 100% to 45%.  This digitally mimics the effect of laying tracing paper over a hard copy photograph, allowing you to more clearly see what you'll draw.

I've created a new layer to draw on, so that I can sketch and erase without affecting the base image.  Using the ballpoint pen tool, I start to doodle design ideas with a stylus right on the screen.  Here's an idea for a sculpture column to act as a  vertical landmark (what Walt Disney called "the wienie at the end of the street"--think of Cinderella's castle at the end of Disneyland's Main Street USA) to create attention and visual drama, drawing visitors into the space.
Here enhanced street crossings are created with special paving and intersection "bulb-outs," and canopy trees are added to heighten a sense of arrival.

People and some details are added, still using the ballpoint pen tool.

The digital airbrush tool is used to add some nice, transparent layers of color to the sketch.

Now I switch to the Pencil tool, and use colors very similar to my "analog" Prismacolor pencil collection.

Here I've used the ballpoint pen tool (for black lines) and the airbrush tool to add a foreground shadow in the street to enhance the illusion of depth.  The color of the shadow is a little too reddish, but you get the idea.  The opacity of the base photo is still set at 45%.

If I slide the opacity bar for the base photo layer to 0%, the photo disappears entirely, and you can see that I've actually done very little drawing to convey my ideas.

But when you slide the opacity bar to 75%, the base photo re-emerges, and the scene convincingly communicates the urban design ideas in their real context.  The fun freehand drawing style clearly conveys the difference between the designer's proposals and their real-life context, and does so in a loose, informal way that invites feedback and subsequent refinements, while capturing the exuberance of this exciting part of the creative process.

This is a fast, fun way to work that merges some of the best qualities of fast freehand concept sketching with the advantages of digital technology.  Hope you enjoyed it!  -Jim


  1. Love this. Always amazing to me how adding paver strips in the pedestrian crosswalk dresses up an intersection.
    How did you erase the right end of the traffic light arm without removing part of the building?
    I always love the way you simplify the shapes but the people and objects still look like what they are supposed to be. Gotta practice.

    1. Hi Chris! The color selector on Sketchbook Pro has an "eyedropper" tool you can use to sample any color from the photo. I moved the eyedropper to the building and clicked it, so that the color I was "drawing" with was the building color. Then I just drew over the black traffic arm with the background building color, effectively erasing it.

  2. hi james, its very attracted me to learn. Can I do it on a smartphone ? I am still looking for somebody to teach me ...it would be very handy

    1. Hi Rudi! I have not tried this technique on a smartphone. I suppose it is possible. I prefer the larger size of the Motion computer mentioned above, or the various Wacom drawing tablets (I have a large Wacom Cintiq 24hd unit in my studio for large scale work). they are great tools, but not as handy as being able to do this on a smartphone, or even an iPad.

  3. Hi James, Thanks for sharing your process! It is amazing what you can do when you add a little bit of life to a scene. Is the ball point pen tool a certain brush in Photoshop? Cheers!

  4. Hi; this demo is done entirely in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. It's got a tool selection that includes one called "ball point pen;' I've found it mimics my own use of a Fineliner Pen on paper very well. It also has very useful brush tools, airbrush, etc.

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