February 9, 2012 by: Ben Heimsath

 Clovis Heimsath, FAIA writes about one of his passions - architectural watercolor renderings.

With all the advancements in computer imaging, there's still an important role for traditional architectural watercolor renderings.  Overall concepts are developed in the master planning process.  The master plan may not have a final design, but it helps if the major ideas can be conveyed in shape and form.  And that's why I break out the brushes and paints in the early stages of design.

Archtictural Water Color St Francis by the Sea resized 600On the Outerbanks of North Carolina, St Francis By The Sea planned a raised second floor worship space. The composition featured an exterior stair, traditional brick foundation, and wood siding.  The watercolor gave the concept life at an early stage.  Note the addition of shutters on the completed building which protect the windows from hurricanes.

Conventional two-dimensional plans indicate placement and size of each program element. But only a three-dimensional image gives a sense of the scale, materials and architectural character of the project.  From many years of practice I am continually impressed at how well architectural watercolor renderings give life to the otherwise dry information in a typical master plan. 

Architectural Watercolor Rendering Cornerstone resized 600

Cornerstone Baptist Church is currently exploring options in the massing of their new building program. The watercolor rendering adds the dimension of color, materials, light and shadow.  Congregation members can experience their new building under a broad Texas sky.

At the master plan stage, a great many aspects of the design have not been determined.  Are the building or buildings going to be stone, brick, stucco, metal or wood siding, or a combination of these materials? Where will windows be placed?  What size will they be and what materials?  What trees or landscaping be planted?  Will there be exterior lighting?  What about paths and walkways?  

A watercolor rendering focuses on the general image of the building, leaving the details to the imagination of the viewer. A watercolor is soft-edged based on the artist's inspiration. A computer generated architectural drawing in either 2D or 3D is hard-edged, based on technical data.

Some of the current rendering programs have technologically “softened” the images to make them more like watercolors. What the technological rendering machine lacks is the human inside.  To make those effects on computer, an architect still needs to make specific assumptions and document technically precise information.  Once the computer model is generated, then the "effects" are superimposed on the computer model.

Architectural Watercolor Renderings Unity resized 600The master plan shows the existing campus expansion with proposed additions including the spiral design for a new sanctuary. We used the 3-D computer rendering as an underlay to create a watercolor image. While a highly detailed computer image could show specifics, a watercolor of the same scene brings life to future developments. 


The architect creating with watercolors stays at the level of inspiration, the details aren't precise.  The architect / artist is sharing a vision, a glimpse of the world this new building will inhabit.  No amount of bits and bites can equal what happens when he or she puts brush to paper.

I'm not an architect who longs for the old, hand-drafting days.  Computer generated design, drawing, and documentation are essential advancements in our profession.  But remember, neither a computer screen nor a paper drawing is what we will see when the building is built.  The perception of the building will have all the variation of tone that comes from reflected light, all the minute irregularities of the materials, the movement of shadows, the variation of tones and the recognition of the space around it.  

So are we merely romancing the client in showing the building as a artistic watercolor?  No.  Even in the earliest stages of the design process, the architectural watercolor gives viewers a glimpse what the architects are seeing and feeling about a new and potential building.   Computer technology can share a lot of information.  In the later stages of design, it is miraculous to show a real-time walkthrough.  But a good watercolor has it's own power, especially in the master plan phase and I believe it actually enhances our current technology.

Architectural Watercolor rendering train  resized 600

Clovis is an artist as well as an architect (clovisheimsathartist.com).  From his studio in Fayetteville behind the Country Place Hotel, which he runs with wife, Maryann, Clovis paints the historic images of Fayetteville.

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