From Sketch to Reality: Senior Architect John Riley on the role of imagination and intuition in creative sketching

Senior Architect John Riley joined Chapman Taylor’s core Feasibility team at our Manchester studio in 2018 and has extensive, in-depth experience of residential projects and masterplans across the UK and internationally. Specialising in the concept design stage, John’s creativity and sketching abilities make him a key asset on several of the studio’s major projects. Below, John talks about his intuitive approach to sketching and the great opportunities offered by the latest sketching software.

Anchorage gateway Build-to-Rent community, Manchester, which received reserved matters planning permission in October 2020

What are the benefits of sketching as a design tool?

Hand drawing can provide a very quick means by which to develop some initial ideas in response to a particular brief and setting. The speed and economy with which a sketch can convey an idea makes it a valuable and, for many, indispensable design tool.

A very interesting aspect of drawing is that a kind of reciprocal dialogue develops between hand, eye and brain. Sometimes, the drawing leads you to a particular design solution as part of the brain can be engaged which stimulates imagination and intuition.

Drawing may also be considered as a means of truly seeing, whereas cameras can act as a screen preventing it. A sketch somehow internalises what is being experienced in a way most photos do not. Even a bad drawing can be considered as a way of seeing. However badly drawn, I somehow internalise the subject in a way that photographing it doesn’t facilitate.

One of my favourite quotes is by Le Corbusier: “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies”.

Mixed-use urban regeneration scheme, UK

What process do you follow when you start to sketch?

It is not a purely rational process – as with any form of art, the subconscious plays a major part. Very often, the better ideas are the product of insight which leapfrogs over a rational approach, even seeming superficially contrary to common sense.

For a recent residential project we were involved with in London, we had some base layouts, block plans and a general configuration. I was asked to sketch how the building might look using those basic parameters. To inform the design, I looked at the site on Google Earth and just started drawing. It was not a methodical process; beyond considering the client’s brief and working out the general arrangements, heights, etc., I just let my hand take over.

Glasgow Harbour Lifestyle Outlet which was awarded planning permission in February 2020

However, I guess that I had subconsciously taken cues from the environment around the site. For example, without realising it, my design sketches were clearly influenced by the curvilinear nature of a nearby tower. This shows how a variety of influences manage to seep in; at a subconscious level, the sketches are informed by the urban design context, the street and building configurations and the wider environment, but these are “parked” at the back of my mind when I am sketching. As the late architect Sir James Stirling said: “Bad architects copy, good architects steal.”; drawing can be a way of quickly recreating in a new form what has already been internalised.

I followed a similar process on our Anchorage Gateway residential project in Salford. I produced some very early sketches before we had even been commissioned. These were based on the basic massing and layouts prepared by colleagues.. As the project progressed, I produced further sketches of the building’s elevations and also some quasi-CGIs, as a means of in some way informing the development of the design.

Regeneration of Crompton Place, Bolton, which received planning permission in July 2020

Do you guide the sketch or does it guide you?

I usually have no idea how a drawing or design will evolve when I start – pre-conceived ideas are, by their nature, circumscribing. There is obviously a need to understand the brief and the site, but the way a good design is developed (not the way it may be post-rationalised) and the creative process itself are neither solely sequential, nor rational, but intuitive. The philosopher Robert Pirsig talked about creativity being “supra-oral” and the same could be said about good design and drawing.

I used to work as a freelance perspective artist in watercolour rand gouache – setting up views in a mathematically prescribed. However, with experience, I have found that I could sketch with these properties factored in automatically; it has become almost second nature to incorporate the mathematical perspective approach without having to take a methodical approach.

'A human colony on Mars', winner of Chapman Taylor's 2019 Design Competition

What materials and tools do you use for drawing?

For work, when outside the studio, I tend to draw with pen and ink, or on an iPad, using Procreate software. The functionality and speed enabled by the software makes the process very time-efficient.

Until a few years ago years ago, I would draw using a pen and tracing paper before scanning that sketch on to a computer and Photoshopping it. Now, however, I usually draw directly into Photoshop using an Intuos pad and stylus for speed and efficiency.

Photoshop and Procreate are wonderful software programs for designers; both are very user-friendly and facilitate speed and efficiency. They are much more forgiving of mistakes than, for example, painting in watercolours on paper, allowing changes to be made easily and quickly.

Mixed-use urban regeneration scheme, UK

How do you see your sketching process evolving?

Designers are now increasingly using 3D sketching software such as HTC Vive , which enables drawing in a virtual, three-dimensional space . Wearing a headset, designers can work in a real time virtual spatial environment to draw and sculpt light and space.

I truly believe that software design tools such as these are as important to the evolution of design as the innovations in oil painting were to artists in Renaissance Italy. I look forward to exploring the possibilities that they open up.

A selection of personal sketches

John Riley

Senior Architect

John joined Chapman Taylor’s core Feasibility team in 2018 as a Senior Architect based in our Manchester studio.

Specialising in the concept design stage of residential projects and urban masterplans, John’s creativity and sketching abilities make him a key asset on several of the studio’s major projects, such as our Anchorage Gateway residential development.

Prior to joining Chapman Taylor, John was the Associate architect for the multi-award-winning Timekeeper’s Square in Salford, comprising 33 new townhouses in the Adelphi Bexley Square conservation area, as well as the Stagecoach development in Moss Side and the Louisa Street Development in Openshaw.

Areas of expertise:

Residential / Masterplanning / Concept Design / Visualisation / Urban Design / Delivery

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