Stephen Harby Architecture and Place:

Watercolor Paintings: Process


My work in the medium of watercolor began during a year of travels made possible by a sabbatical from the office where I worked as an architect for fifteen years. These travels were a quest for what I came to see as the essence of architecture: an understanding of how a highly sophisticated and organized armature can give focus, order, and meaning to the experience of a place, and indeed to our existence as human beings. The elements of this armature—which include scale, proportion, color, light, and meaning—I found to be best experienced and understood through the extended contact with them gained through sketching and painting in watercolor.

When one is obliged to remain in one spot for longer than the snap of a shutter, sketching or painting with patience and concentration, one gains a sense of total immersion, not only visually, but through the sounds, smells, and (most rewardingly) tastes that a prolonged stay in these favorite places makes part of the experience.

I am often asked how the process of observing and sketching the architecture of the past informs my own architectural design. Many architects design imaginary and fantastic projects not intending them to be built, but my own engagement with the fantastic and the excellent and the speculation of its potential application to our own lives is focused on the great achievements that surround us in the world. The lessons we can gain of the mastery and richness that has been achieved by others in the past adds immensely to our own vocabulary of forms and solutions.

* * * * *

The pleasure of experiencing and studying architecture in this way began twenty years ago when I was a student in that carefree interval of anticipation between college and architecture school. I spent a year in Europe, primarily in Italy but in France as well, during which I recorded what I saw in a series of sketchbooks. The intimate relationship that I maintained with these favorite places in Italy and France was established at this time and can be traced in two decades of sketches maintained whenever good fortune permitted a return to these beloved places. The person who influenced me most profoundly in the joyful process of discovering and communing with favorite places through the medium of architecture was Charles Moore, whose life was the very model of an exuberant melding of exploring, sharing and creating great spatial experiences. Kent Bloomer and Alexander Purves, were among the most dedicated and faithful teachers and mentors I have known. Kent taught us at Yale how to learn and observe by understanding the consequences of haptic and physical experiencing of architectural space through our bodies. Alec encouraged our explorations to be rooted in the act of drawing and sketching, a process of investigation which allows us to get at the central “riddle” hidden in every great architectural place.

Revealing Form Through Light

The play of light and shadow defines physical form. The process of revealing that form in a watercolor involves the identification of the areas of light in a painting, which must be expressed by the white of the paper. The strategy of completing a painting involves layering areas of successive gradations of tone as well as a symphony of colors in harmony, allowing the areas of light to remain and allowing the forms to gradually emerge and be revealed. An illustration of this process can be seen in the following pages…

Sketching Architecture

Collect / ContactCollect___Contact.html

© Stephen Harby