Hand in Hand
Notre Dame School of Architecture believes everyone can learn to draw
Connor Patrick applied his brush to the paper, drawing a bead of pigment and water in a way that he hoped would create a smooth transition from lighter to darker color.
The first several attempts hadn’t worked out so well. The reds and oranges kept bleeding outside the hand-drawn lines and splotching together. But the sophomore from Albany, New York, is patient. This first assignment is a triangle with color shading to make it look three-dimensional, and the practice was a row of rectangles in progressively lighter shading.
He trusts his professor’s counsel that drawing and painting are not just a matter of talent. He believes he can master the skills. But this is not an art class, and it’s not his major.
“I see my peers do these elaborate sketches that I couldn’t do,” said Patrick, a philosophy major who hadn’t taken an art class since middle school. “But it doesn’t discourage me because they’re going to be architects and I’m just here to get better. I’m improving at my own pace.”
While most architecture programs jump right into computer design, the Notre Dame School of Architecture is one of the few that insists on establishing a foundation in drawing and coloring by hand. The school’s philosophy is that everyone can learn to draw with enough determination and practice. You could say the foundation and philosophy go hand in hand.
“Everyone can do it; it’s just the amount of time it takes that depends,” said Giuseppe Mazzone, an assistant professor in Notre Dame’s School of Architecture who teaches the hand-drawing course to first-year students.
“There’s always students who start, thinking they can’t be good. A lot of people think, ‘I can’t draw, but I will be a computer architect.’ Drawing starts with exercise. This is a process. One part is learning to be critiqued. The Notre Dame School of Architecture is based on the idea that nothing is perfect. All can be improved.”
Patrick is a perfect test case. His curiosity knows no boundaries. He wanted to try architecture but didn’t want to give up any of his minors: music, Portuguese and digital marketing. So he emailed and asked if he could take the introductory course. Then he got quarantined for two weeks by close contact with a positive COVID-19 case, putting him further in the hole.
“This is a process. One part is learning to be critiqued. The Notre Dame School of Architecture is based on the idea that nothing is perfect. All can be improved.” –Giuseppe Mazzone
“Giuseppe sent back a warm email and said, ‘See you tomorrow,’” Patrick said. “Once I got in the studio, things started to get better. At first, my watercolors looked so bad. It was a little scary. But the last one was so much better. I get to see what the real architects do and then I just take a stab at it.”
Some of the other budding architects in the class come from an art background, but many do not. Patrick Caron, a first-year student from Valparaiso, Indiana, said he started the year taking classes in chemistry and architecture but quickly gravitated to the studio.
“I love science and the humanities, a weird combination,” he said. “I dropped chemistry because I didn’t have the same passion. If I had to go to lab at 9 a.m., I would not want to go. But I’m psyched for studio time. I love the atmosphere.”
Caron said he worried about not having a background in art at the beginning. But he’s also a musician, so he knows that like music, “talent is a place to start off and some will be starting ahead.”
“There are students here who do beautiful work, and I realize I’m not at that level,” he said. “I know if I really work at it, I can get there.”
The Notre Dame School of Architecture is a five-year program with a classical focus that normally features a full third-year in Rome, a unique requirement among American architectural programs. The fifth year allows students to receive a degree that prepares them for immediate entry into the field of architecture and makes them eligible to pursue a professional license. The students learn computer design starting in their fourth year — after their foundation in hand drawing has taken a firm hold.
“Hand drawing helps you get involved with your art and design. A computer feels one step removed. It seems like it’s better to understand the fundamentals.” –Patrick Caron
“A computer is good if you know exactly what you want to create,” Mazzone said. “In your career, a client will say, ‘I want this and this.’ It’s important to be able to show them a sketch on the spot, or to sketch out changes on the spot.”
Caron agreed with this starting point. He said you never know when you might need to “slam draw” a sketch on a napkin.
“Hand drawing helps you get involved with your art and design,” Caron said. “A computer feels one step removed. It seems like it’s better to understand the fundamentals.”
The course began in August with assignments of simple shapes and color gradation. Studio time is informal, with students working at their own pace with the help of teaching assistants and Mazzone. Fridays begin outdoors with 30 minutes of free-sketching buildings or nature.
Nora Lavins, a first-year architecture student from Lexington, Massachusetts, said she had some background in drawing but had already improved a lot by September. Her 20-minute sketch of the architecture building from a picture she took that morning offered proof.
“I think you get a better idea of a building when you hand draw it,” she said. “The lines and the shape and where the building is positioned compared to you. It’s all really important because it gives students a better idea of space.”
Lavins said she chose architecture because she’s interested in the functionality of buildings, especially because her mother uses a wheelchair. “I notice how buildings help her or hurt her,” she said.
Architecture students are notorious for spending long hours in the studio, a scenario that doesn’t worry Lavins, who said she’s used to a rigid schedule after ice skating in high school. “Even if all the architecture students are working to 2 or 3 a.m., it’s a unifying experience,” she said.
After simple shapes, Mazzone’s assignments increase in their complexity. A lattice pattern in green and purple requires students to shade the coloring in a way that creates a perception of depth on a flat piece of paper.
A study of a fruit or plant includes the whole object and some dissected parts, along with some fake language. The idea stems from a medieval study in early science. Next comes a charcoal assignment that reverses the order. The sheet is completely dark, and students apply light by erasing.
“It challenges the brain to think in a different way,” Mazzone said.
Mazzone studied architecture in Italy before coming to Milwaukee for his doctoral work in 2008. He researched how to reconstruct Sainte-Anne-la-Royale, a baroque church designed in Paris in 1662. Mazzone used handmade and digital drawings, as well as 3D-printed models, to illustrate the design of the church, which had until then been documented only by three engravings.
This research won the student section of a competition judged by the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in 2014. It also drew the attention of John Stamper, the associate dean of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. Stamper invited Mazzone to offer critiques of student work on campus, and Mazzone applied for an opening three years later.
Mazzone acknowledged that subjectivity plays a part in grading the works in his class. But he places heavy emphasis on improvement. “I have 56 students, and I don’t want them to all be the same,” he said. “I want them to develop their own style.”
He invites students with many different motivations. They have included aerospace engineers who want to improve their sketches of planes or turbines. Another student wanted to be a fashion designer.
“One way to judge is how much a drawing is like a picture,” he said. “But it’s also important to give your own representation of the subject and decide what emphasis to give.”
The final project in the class is one watercolor and one charcoal. Patrick Caron appreciated the freedom of the final because he was one of the few students who were not working off a single picture.
“If I painted it exactly like it is, I would be disappointed if it doesn’t look perfect,” he said. “The point is to practice watercolor.”
On the other end of the spectrum, classmate Garrett Nagorzanski painted a scene of a building on a river in Sweden that looked so realistic that Mazzone doubted whether he could replicate it.
Nora Lavins decided to paint the base and top of the Golden Dome. She points out that she’s painting the shadows in purple, which fits “my interpretation of how I see it” to give a 3D impression.
“At the beginning, I would have cried at this Dome project,” she said. “I had a very basic knowledge of color and how it works. There’s so much trial and error. But now when I make mistakes, I know I can fix it rather than give up and either turn it in or start over.”
And Connor Patrick, who came in so far behind, felt that he’d achieved his goal. He did not decide to change his major to architecture, at least right away, but he gained a foundation that he could fall back on in the future.
“I felt other students were prodigies and there was a huge difference between my work and theirs,” Patrick said in November. “I closed the gap some because I learned so much.”
As proof, he pointed to a teardrop-shaped section above the head of a saint in a project that resembled a medieval glass window. The teardrop represented the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and had to transition from red to orange to yellow at the top. It dried just as it was intended.
“I would have freaked out before, but now I think it’s going really well,” he said.