Is the computer mightier than the brush?

Special Sections editor

On Bill Hook's drawing table are three small petri dishes filled with dirt.

They were brought in by an architect who wants Hook to match the subtle color differences of each sample in several watercolor paintings for a wealthy Seattle client.

The architect wants to give his client some visual images of potential house designs. At $5,000 a pop these are pretty expensive visual aids. But Hook is one of Seattle's best known architectural renderers. While he is a little surprised that an individual has commissioned watercolors of houses that don't exist, he is seeing a general resurgence of interest in transparent watercolors to illustrate new projects and has never been busier.

Hook is one of about 40 architectural illustrators in Seattle and president of the American Society of Architectural Perspectivists (ASAP) which has 300 members all over the world.

Computers are being used to generate more and more architectural imagery and Hook wonders if they will eventually put him out of business. But he attributes his current success to the countervailing forces that accompany the spread of technology.

"Any time technology takes a leap there is always an equal leap in another direction," Hook said. "As machines become more sophisticated and become incredibly valuable tools, the value of hand work becomes greater because it is rare."

"There is a rebirth in transparent watercolor," Hook said. "I don't know how long it will last but I am seeing a lot more hand-illustrated work -- pencil, pastel, watercolor."

Hook, who worked as a architect in Chicago and Seattle before turning his hand to rendering, has been sketching and painting buildings for 10 years. He was never trained in art or architectural illustration. In fact, he says, there is only one school in the country that gives a degree in architectural illustration, Lawrence Technological Institute. It will graduate its first class of illustrators next year and Hook is curious to see what happens.

He thinks some of the interest in hand drawing is related to recent trends in building design. "The modernist movement was an era that was pretty boring to draw. Now we're in an era where buildings are pretty fun to draw."

Architects are asking for more hand-drawn work today and a supply of illustrators is available now to do it. The use of transparent watercolor for architectural work almost died out in the 1920 and 30s, Hook said, as designers became more interested in systems rather than aesthetics.

"Architects got away from drawing things. It's just in the last 15 years that people have become interested again in design elements and the quality of materials."

Hook said a typical watercolor takes him between 100 and 180 hours to complete. Prices start at $4,000 and can go up to $8,000 for multiple images. Black and white sketches start at $2,000.

He begins by studying plans, working drawings and elevations, using them to "walk around" a project, getting a feel for it and investigating the structure. He uses a simple computer program to help him find the best angle from which to draw a building and then does loose sketches to give his clients some options before he starts on a final piece.

Sometimes these sketches are the first time architects have seen a three-dimensional representation of their building and occasionally they don't like what they see and redesign it. Hook enjoys being part of the design process in those cases.

Since one drawing must tell a lot of different stories, Hook works with clients to find the angle that best does the job. Then he must figure out how to paint it. Most clients today want watercolor which Hook describes as a "cantankerous media. It is not forgiving. I have to live with what is on the board so it forces me to concentrate on what to do first."

Hook spends a lot of time deciding what feeling he wants from the piece and how best to get it. "You can have a great game plan but at some point the drawing starts to take over and take on its own character."

He spends a lot of time thinking about light and how it would play off the surfaces of the structure. Today that is what interests him about architecture, not what he calls "architectural games" or theories. Some of the theories are interesting, he said, but lead to structures that are better off unbuilt.

Hook said he is expensive enough that he gets to work with many of the best architects around and on some of the most fun projects.

He sometimes is called on to design buildings in images for design competitions. In these situations he talks with the architects about their ideas, researches the design history of the area and then comes up with an image for his client. This is where his architectural training is very useful.

"I try not to get them into too much trouble," Hook said. "Generally if I draw something it is buildable."

Hook finds it ironic that he makes his living "in this little eddy of romanticism." He said using a computer to help him select the right angle for a drawing has improved his work but he finds architectural images produced solely by computer to be "static and dead."

A recent survey by the American Society of Architectural Perspectivists found that 60 percent of its members use computers at least some of the time in their illustrations. Only 14 percent said they prefer to lay out perspectives entirely by hand.

Alex Bennett, a principal in Ron Lloyd Associates, a Seattle computer imaging firm, said he thinks doing architectural renderings on a computer is also an art, though perhaps one more related to photography than to hand drawing.

"There is no aspect of the technology that doesn't need to be controlled, manipulated or understood with as fine a touch as an artist's," Bennett said. "Our toys are mice, RAM chips and processors but they are as fine and finicky as a watercolor."

Bennett said people who produce computer images work with lighting in the same ways that architectural photographers do, trying to find the "sweet light" that best shows off project. "I guess I find that as much an art as a brush stroke."

One limitation of the computer is it can't produce images without plans. Bennett said plans need to be 75 percent complete before his firm can begin its work. But the computer has advantages over hand work such as the ability to alter part of an image without damaging the whole piece.

Bennett thinks the photographic quality of computer imaging brings a higher level of credibility to marketing a proposed project because our culture is accustomed to assuming that photos are real. "Photo-realistic images connect with people at a higher level. There is a lot of information and it is accurate geometrically. There is no 'gaming' of it."

An artist can gloss over areas if plans aren't complete or if a client wants to highlight a particular feature of a project. Ron Lloyd brings up the renderings of the Seattle grain terminal as an example of the advantages of computer imaging.

He said renderings shown to the public suggested the grain terminal would be much smaller than it was and people were shocked when they saw how large the structure was. A computer image of the terminal would have been geometrically accurate and the public would have seen its true scale, Lloyd said.

Lloyd said his firm refuses requests by clients who want to alter a computer image in order to make a proposal more acceptable. Though an offending post or balcony could easily be removed, Lloyd said he has taken an ethical stand that if something is in the plans it must be in the computer image. He is willing to work with clients to see if another angle will work but he won't take things out to fool people.

A single computer image costs between $2,000 and $5,000. Subsequent images from the same plans cost about half that. Lloyd knows that in a few years cheap programs will be available that can produce images similar to the ones his staff does now but he said his firm plans to stay ahead of that curve by increasing the quality of its work and broadening the scope to include animation and virtual reality.

Already Lloyd's firm has produced a interactive display for a mixed-use, multi-unit project which allows potential condo buyers to "tour" a variety of units in several different buildings by moving a mouse. Viewers can use the mouse to move from the kitchen to the living room. A mouse click on the light switch shows the night view of the skyline from the unit.

Bennett said retention is much greater in an interactive display than with brochures, sales talks or other passive methods. Such displays costs between $30,000 and $100,000, depending on the level of detail and information desired.

Lloyd thinks that within a year his firm will be able to produce virtual reality tours, giving potential buyers or tenants a chance to walk through a project before it is ever built.

Are computers taking over the market for architectural images? So far only minimally, Bennett said. The real estate industry remains fairly traditional and traditional rendering techniques often serve their purposes, he said.

But computers are displacing the methods used by marketers in selling residential projects, he said, in some cases eliminating the need to build model units or homes.

"This changes marketing because of its realism," Bennett said. "It is information intense."

"We're still in the world of rendering here," Bennett said. "We haven't left it. We're just taking it into the needs of the marketers."

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