The Making Of

Urban Plaza


Most of my illustrations usually occur during the early phases of design. They are meant to be emotive images; capturing a certain spirit and energy of the place with a conceptual feel to keep conversations open regarding architecture, the landscape, etc. I find that this is where the ‘hybrid’ drawing becomes an invaluable tool in the communication of ideas.

There is a looseness and energy to this style of drawing that still captures some of the ‘sex appeal’ of the high-end finished renderings while maintaining a fluidity that allows for easy modifications and interpretation.

The following image is a perfect example of my workflow. This illustration was one I did for the very talented group of architects over at 505 Design in Boulder, Colorado. They were working on a mixed-use, urbanist community in New Orleans and needed some visuals to show the ‘feel’ of the project before any of the architecture was ironed out. I was given a SketchUP model with minimal conceptual architecture and a hand sketch on what this particular plaza should start to look like.


Below is my workflow:

Step 1 : SketchUP Export.

I typically export 3 different ‘layers’ from SketchUp before I start in Photoshop. The exports are usually 3000px in the smallest dimension (for example, for this horizontal piece, I made sure the vertical dimension was 3000px. This made the horizontal dimension almost 5000px) and I make sure they are all the same export dimension so I can ‘stack’ them in Photoshop.

First, in SketchUP, I’ll export just the black and white lines with profiles set to 1. This ensures that none of your curved surfaces loose their line-weights. It also doesn’t affect the thickness of existing lines which gives it a nice, even consistency.

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Next I’ll export only the shadows with line-work turned off.


Finally, I’ll export any of the ‘amenities’ in the scene, like cars, light poles, etc. Basically anything but trees or people. This is a shortcut I use to make sure I have an easy way to select anything on that layer and make adjustments.


You’ll also see here that I exported a separate shadow layer just for the amenities in the same way that I exported the overall shadows.


Step 2 : Drawing Prep.

I’ll start the Photoshop work by opening up my line-work from SketchUP. I’ll then copy and Paste-in-place my SketchUP shadow layer on top of the line-work and set it to Multiply. At this time, I’ll also do a bit of color adjusting to the shadow color so it takes on a bit more of a blueish hue.

I’ll also, with a very faint eraser brush, erase parts of the shadows in the distance to simulate depth. Finally, I’ll sometimes dodge/burn in some areas to simulate ambient occlusion, although in this example, it doesn’t look like I’ve done so.


I’ll then open an image of some nice textured paper, either from my library or from free images on the internet. Setting the paper layer to ‘soft light’ and then using the Photoshop Filter ‘High Pass’ has worked for me in creating a nice soft texture.

Set and leave this layer on the very top of your layer stack. You may need to adjust levels or transparency as you go along to get the desired effect. This style of drawing is all about exploring what works for you and your clients.


The final prep-work for my drawings typically look like this.


You’ll notice I have a bunch of ‘pencil strokes’ in this image. This is a style choice for me as I began my career doing a ton of hand-drawn work using colored pencils and mayline rulers.

I always liked leaving the construction lines I used in the finished drawings as I felt it gave them added depth. You can also use these lines to help lead the viewers eye and to simulate subtle reflections in the ground plane.

Again, this is all about your own expression.

Finally, I’ll group my shadow and line layers and set the group to Multiply. This way, these layers will continue to ‘show through’ my layers of paint.

Step 3 : Wash.

My first step before I do any serious digital coloring is to set a general tonal wash for the image. I like picking colors that have a nice mid-level value. This will help direct the overall color palette and give your drawing a better overall consistency. I’ll set this layer to Normal and place it beneath my Drawing Prep group.


Step 4 : Sky.

Creating a new layer set to normal (on top of the wash layer), I’ll use the lasso tool to select the sky area add some subtle gradients to separate it from the wash.


Next, I’ll use a custom cloud brush (you can find loads of these all over the internet for free and some for purchase) and dot in some clouds, messing with color and transparencies to achieve a desired look.


I’ll then add a subtle ‘stroke’ around the clouds. I’ll do this to almost all the pieces that I put in the illustration. Again, this is a personal style choice, but I feel it blends better with the SketchUP line-work and helps create a consistent, pencil-drawn effect to the image.


Step 5 : Color Block-In.

I’ll create a new layer, set to Normal and begin blocking in general colors. In this stage, I know I’m going to be adjusting the colors and adding texture at a later stage, so I just want to get good tonal range and Hue down in the appropriate areas.


Step 6 : Place in the Amenity Layer.

See how it suddenly pops when I add that SketchUP layer? By adjusting the Levels on your SketchUP amenities layer, you can really get the cars, etc. to stand out very quickly and easily.



Step 7 : Block in Windows.

I’ll quickly select the windows and paint them in on their own layers (layers set to Normal). Typically, residential windows on one layer, retail windows on another. This helps me with quick selections in the future.


Step 8 : Texturing.

I’ll typically spend only a short amount of time texturing these illustrations. To achieve the photo-realism of high-end 3d renders with bump-maps,etc. would just be too time consuming for an image like this.

I’ll grab textures of brick, concrete wood and anything else I’ll need, use the transform tool to make sure the perspective is generally correct, then set the layer to Overlay and mess with the hue/saturation to get the desired effect. I’ll then erase out whatever I don’t need. You can see that the textures can have a significant effect on the color block-in. Experiment with what you think looks appropriate.


Step 9 : Texturing the Storefronts.

I’ll add in nice and warm interior photographs of retail stores, restaurants, etc. to add energy to the storefronts. These images I usually set to Hard Light and then sometimes mess with Photoshop filters to blur them out if there is too much detail. I’ll also start adding general store names to indicate signage, add awnings, etc. anything to add color and richness to the retail experience.


Step 10 : Background Landscape.

At this point, I’ll consider the architecture relatively done. I’ll still add a bit more detail later, but now it’s time to add everything that dwells ‘in the space between’ the architecture.

I typically work from the background then towards the viewer. In this step, I’ve added some quick trees without any texture. I’ll add a slight stroke to them (as I did the clouds) and then paint a few highlights to some of the trees that are catching a bit of light. In this case, I just used a simple brush with spatter to get the vibrant yellow-greens. You can see that I’ve actually set this layer underneath my SketchUP amenity layer as I wanted the cars and light poles to appear in front of these trees.


Step 11 : Ground Cover.

Painted with a few custom grass brushes (which you can find online, or make your own), I actually have several layers overlapping each-other to create depth. Starting at the back, I’ll paint in some bushes, adjust the colors if I need, create a slight stroke around the bush then create a new layer in front and repeat. Creating separate layers for each layer of vegetation allows you to adjust colors as need be and you can really start creating nice, rich effects if you toy with it. When I’m done, I’ll place an overlay layer of some texture (this could be a photo of concrete, grass, leaves – really anything to add texture), set the texture to Overlay and then adjust hue/saturation as necessary to get the right look.


Step 12 : Adding Additional Elements.

A great benefit to digital painting is the ease at which one can incorporate changes. The client wanted to add a specific piece of artwork and a commuter train while I was already working on the drawing. This hardly interrupted the workflow as I was able to patch in the art and export the train from SketchUP in a short amount of time.


Step 13 : Adding Trees.

Believe it or not, trees (and people) are actually some of the most time-consuming work. I want to add trees that feel as conceptual as the environment, but still feel lively and rich. Entourage is always a great way for you to differentiate yourself from other artists. For me, I use a combination of three layers for each tree. The first layer is an actual image of a tree taken from my library. I’ll set that tree image to overlay. I’ll create a new layer below the tree layer and set it to Normal. I’ll then paint in some general lighting direction, shade color and any other hits of light I’d like to see on that Normal layer. Because the overlay layer of the tree image is above, the texture of the leaves is preserved. Finally, I’ll stroke the outline of the tree, like I did with the shrubs and clouds, to hint at them being drawn in. Tree shadows are set to multiply and typically consist of just transforming a copy of the tree image into the right perspective.


Step 14 : Flattening and Curves.

At this stage, once I’ve dialed in the trees, I’ll usually save a flattened copy of my Photoshop file. My files sizes can get really large (1 GB or greater), so flattening this image so I can work on top of it makes a huge difference in computer performance.

I’ll always keep the original layered Photoshop file in case of changes.

If I do need to make a change, I’ll do so in the original file, save out a flattened .tiff, then place the revised .tiff into the new Photoshop file that I’ve created.

The first move I typically make on the new flattened file is I’ll do some quick adjustments.


Sometimes I’ll just use Levels, but often I’ll set up a Curves Adjustment layer and keep that layer at the top of my layer stack when working on the new image. Here, I’ve just adjusted the overall curves to really pull out the lights and darks of the image.


Step 15 : Window Detail.

Next, it’s just adding a bit of movement in the windows. In this case I just used a layer, set to normal, and painted some abstract strokes. I did add some subtle reflection in windows that would be reflecting other parts of the architecture. For instance, in the corner where the wood meets the concrete on the right hand side of the drawing, I simply copied and pasted some of the concrete area into the windows.


Step 16 : Flowers.

Using the Photoshop brush, set to spatter, I’ll paint in some flowers. In this case, I also added some more trees to the balcony on the right hand side of the image.


Step 17 : Water.

For the pop-jet fountains, I used another custom Photoshop brush of a water spout and had the ‘wet edges’ option checked in the Photoshop brush palette. I had the layer set to Normal, but turned the opacity to 80% or so. I also copied and pasted some of the base file into the foreground water feature. I then flipped it vertically, applied a motion blur filter to it and turned the opacity down to around 50%.


Step 18 : People.

Aside from trees, people take the longest to get right in the drawing. I can spend almost a whole day just on people if the drawing is big enough.

I used to hand draw all my entourage, but I find it much more convenient to use photographic sources these days. The first step I take is to place all the photo files into the drawing and scale them according to the horizon line and where they appear in the drawing. I’ll leave each person (or group) on its own layer so I can easily move, modify or delete them if need be.

Next, I’ll spend time with the dodge and burn tools to create highlights where the sun would be hitting them and darken the shaded side. I’ll also use hue/saturation and curves if I feel like there needs to be more severe color corrections. Finally, I’ll add the same style stroke around them so that they carry the same ‘feel’ as the rest of the illustration.

For the shadows on the foreground girl, I copied and pasted her layer, set the copied layer to multiply, adjusted the hue/saturation and then with the free-form lasso tool, quickly ‘cut-out’ areas where the sun would be filtering through the trees.


Step 19 : Final Adjustments.

After the people are dialed in, I’ll put the drawing away for a few hours (or a night). It’s easy to get really sucked into your own work and become accustomed to what you see on the screen. Stepping away for a while allows your brain and eyes to recalibrate a bit, and you’re able to see your drawing in a new light when you return.

In this case, I felt like it needed a bit more punch in color in the foreground. I created a new Overlay layer and painted in some reds to the foreground right, some cooler hues to the left and some light areas just to create a bit more contrast on the building outline to the left.

I also Burned out the edges of the drawing to stop any ‘eye-leak’ off the edge of the illustration. This wasn’t much work, maybe 5 minutes, but I feel it helped the drawing. Sometimes I’ll do a lot more correcting after I’ve stepped away. It just depends.


All in all, this drawing probably took me a little under two days, which is about my average for these types of drawings.

In a world of beautiful 3d renders, the ‘hand-drawn’ look has definitely been overshadowed in the past few years. I’ve found this hybrid style to be a natural bridge between the two and a perfect solution for conceptual representation.

A hybrid artist can use ‘messy vitality’ in his/her drawing that creates a great energy and richness which engages the viewer and creates excitement without getting lost in the minute details.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Feel free to ask me any questions.