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The History of Color in Architectural Drawing: From Simple Sketches to Today's Renderings

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How cultural and artistic shifts changed the way we visualize buildings

The art, and often science, of high-end architectural renderings can play tricks on viewers. It’s not uncommon for glossy images of potential projects to look nearly indistinguishable from actual photos. That uncanny valley of representation is, of course, by design, since architectural paintings and renderings have for centuries been the profession’s greatest sales tool. The ability of today’s architects to create renderings (and even virtual reality models) that lets clients evaluate an unbuilt project would make previous generations of draftsmen and painters jealous.

It’s a far cry from the origins of architectural representation, according to Basile Baudez, a French professor and architectural historian at the Centre André Chastel who recently delivered a talk on the subject, "Color in Architectural Drawing." Evolving over the centuries, architectural drawings grew from monochrome sketches to today’s 3D models due to shifts in technology, culture, and even our ability to recreate color.

"I found that the need for color and architectural conventions doesn’t come from the architectural world as much as it comes from early engineers," says Baudez about his examination of the topic. "They play a key role in setting the conventions of architectural representation."

To put these shifts in perspective, Baudez studied sketches, paintings, and engravings through the lens of art history, tracing trends in painting, engineering, and architecture to find trends and turning points in European artwork as it pertains to the built world. At the beginning of the Renaissance, architects used monochrome drawings to represent their projects. Trained as masons at a time when architecture was a much more niche profession, and lacking sophisticated drawing tools, these early architects typically stuck to simple, single-color, brown ink drawings, minimal, informational sketches that communicated information to workers, nothing more.


Basile labels this the Italian tradition, which stems from Medieval manuscripts. The work clearly shows that, at the time, architects considered themselves workmen, not artists (in many cases the term architect and engineer meant that same thing during this period). This perception, and divide would remain for centuries. Outside of celebrated 18th century Brit Christopher Wren, who adopted more multi-hued, colorful compositions, many Neo-Palladians showed a deference to these classic traditions. (British architects would later adopt color for their sketches in the 18th century, as the watercolor movement in their country began to take off).

"At the beginning, the architectural world tried to establish itself with its own rules and means of presentation, done without color and pictorial effects," says Baudez. "When you see this Italian style, it’s like a trademark, an identification with that school."

The shift toward color, according to Baudez, comes in large part during the middle and end of the 17th century in France and the Low Countries, such as Holland and Belgium. A confluence of trends led architects in the region to utilize color as a convention in their plans. French engineers were building more elaborate fortresses, due in large part to the numerous wars started by Louis XIV, and needed to communicate ever more complicated information to builders. At the same time watercolors and new methods of painting were being refined in the Low Countries. Suddenly, sketches of towns and fortifications appeared with flashes of red and blue.

Oftentimes, it was just a simple code to let workers know which materials to use. Unlike in Italy, where the majority of roofs were tile, French architects had the choice of using red tiles or blue slate. It’s the beginning of what Baudez calls imitative color, which would eventually begin telling builders which materials to use, and even lay out plans for landscape architecture. It was also an indication of the growing influence of Dutch art on architectural representation.

The middle of the 17th century also saw important institutional shifts in the way that architects were being trained. In northern Europe especially, architects begin to be trained like painters, instead of masons and workman. Coming at a time when watercolor art, centered in the Low Countries, begins to blossom, this shift towards more artistic training for architects leads to an explosion of colors in renderings and drawings. This Dutch tradition, widely adopted in France, begins showing up everywhere, including maps and town plans.

"You begin to see colors used not only to differentiate materials, but to give the likeness of the building as a painter would," says Baudez. "At the time, you see the first manual on watercolors being printed in the Low Countries, and how to make certain colors and pigments. These ideas will be copied by French engineers by the end of the 17th century, when they’re assembling the first engineering draftsmanship manual."

Colors become more widely used both for representation, and convention. Baudez points to the use of pink as a prime example. Architects begin showing cut-aways of structures to represent the interior of a building. Pink becomes the standard to represent cut masonry, and its use spreads across Europe, as more elaborate construction techniques require better communication between architects, engineers and workers. For decades, different architects subscribe to these dueling traditions, Italian and Dutch, especially the English, who use both.

By the mid-18th century, another major shift, what Baudez calls the "colors of seduction," begins, primarily in France. Architects, who are now training together with painters, discover a field more crowded than ever. Schools such as the Académie de France à Rome began teaching techniques until then considered the domain of painters.

At the same time, an increase in private commissions, including theater sets means architects are now selling ideas and plans to people who don’t understand the intricacies of engineering. They need to tell a different story and adopt the tools of their training, such as colors and perspective, to create architectural paintings and representation.

"It’s a moment when architectural plans become a kind of architectural picture, and a market develops," says Baudez. Sometimes, it’s not even connected to a client; these pictures and paintings are sold like artwork.

Cloud-filled skies, elaborate landscaping, figures strolling across the imagined landscapes (the forefathers of today’s scalies) all become commonplace. The number clients, and social status of these clients, begins to change and expand during this period, forcing architects to begin drawing plans for people who don’t understand the intricacies of buildings and construction. From this point on, a new visual vocabulary takes hold. Fashions and trends come and go; for instance, a backlash against overtly colorful paintings in the early 19th century established a renewed interest in monochromes, right as Beaux Arts began taking off. But even as the tools become more sophisticated, the concepts in many ways remain the same. The color-coded drawings for fellow craftsmen have given way to artistic sales pitches for clients.

"This is what we’re still living with today, the way architecture is designed for magazines, to be sold to clients," he says. "It’s all about selling an image that’s absolutely convincing and understandable to someone who doesn’t know about architecture. It’s the birth of the rendering."

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