“Drawing is a privilege,” stated Michael Vergason, FASLA, principal of Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, speaking at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture during the launch of Sketching + Drawing + Describing, an exhibition of his sketchbooks spanning over thirty years. During the talk, Vergason used sketching as a thread to weave together ideas about exploration, inquiry, comprehension, and memory, drawing stories from his life, including ones from when he was a student at University of Virginia pursuing his Masters of Landscape Architecture degree and through his professional career.
Vergason began by linking travel with drawing, stating “it was traveling that got me drawing…you travel to see; you draw to see better.” In 1975, funded by the sale of his beloved Austin-Healey, Vergason traveled to Vicenza, Italy, first as a student and later as a teaching assistant at University of Virginia. These excursions proved to be formative for him. Not knowing what to draw first, he eventually drew nearly everything. He recalls a process of sketching the facades of each building and pasting them to a 7 by 7-foot base map of Vicenza. From this, he developed a notational system sketched onto several layers of vellum, recording data including the material of façades, the type of businesses operating in each building, how people moved through the site, and where they congregated. Through this process of sketching and mapping, he developed a rich understanding of the city and used the map as a way “to keep in touch with the place when away from it.”
Describing the process of learning how to draw, Vergason spoke of the discipline he employed to hone his skills. He was influenced early on by architect Carlton Abbott’s pencil drawing techniques— shading, smudges, line weights— and later by the English illustrator Paul Hogarth, whose drawings taught him to “loosen up, relax a little, and draw quicker.” He pointed to the works of Leonardo da Vinci and John Ruskin, who used sketching as a tool for both inquiry and comprehension, as a way to peel back the superficial and understand the inner workings of things.
Vergason recounted the creation of a series of sketches of the Laurentian Library he completed while traveling in Florence. He produced an incredible series of drawings in 45 minutes (he often notes how long it takes him to sketch), but not wanting to “face another blank page,” he made a composite of these sketches on a single sheet that inform and relate to one another. The sketches jumped from body-level details to the broader urban context and included plans, sections, and perspectives. Vergason’s thought process was evident on the page yet he also emphasized the new relationships that revealed themselves through sketching.
Winning the Rome Prize in 1979 brought Vergason back to Italy, where he used Rome as a base for further travels into Germany, Istanbul, Greece, and northern Africa. In addition to expanded horizons, this period was marked by experimentation. He sought to incorporate pen and ink drawings and watercolors into his sketchbook, as well as a broader variety of styles — quick and rough sketches, composite sketches, studies of just the shadows cast, and more. He joked that the evolution of his drawings was the result of newly-afforded comforts: they took a slightly higher perspective as he was now seated sketching at the cafe with glass of wine, no longer relegated to street curbs. During this period, he also began to draw a range of subjects which encompassed friends, dinners, statues, and animals. What came out of this period is an evocative and unique slice of his travels, from soaring Baroque architecture to everyday meals, from colleagues to camels, whose sensual qualities were put to paper as a kind of souvenir, “what we take away.”
Following this heightened period of exploration, Vergason talked about re-working his sketch book as a tool for professional practice. There was an initial period of culture shock, joking there was a “lack of inspiration” to draw in professional practice and noting his notebook became an inconvenience, or “just another thing to carry around.” To ensure that his notebook wouldn’t be left behind, he bought a larger sketchbook and taped his calendar on the inside cover. Eventually he found himself drawing regularly again, on trains and planes and amusingly, during meetings for projects. His sketching became a way to comprehend particular aspects of a site, such as its geomorphology or stream hydrology. In his typical self-deprecating humor, Vergason remarked he only truly understands the seasonal movement of the sun as he is sketching it out, forgetting the details soon after his finishes. He also spoke of sketching as a way to articulate thoughts visually, elegantly, and most importantly, quickly, even during meetings.
When asked about how digital drawings affected his sketching, he said it hadn’t had much impact. Interestingly, in works on a touchscreen laptop, he combines digital sketches with renderings to mix the texture of a sketch with the sleekness of digital renderings. He’s not always happy with the results, but remarked that he would need to apply the same level of discipline to sketching on screen that he employed while first learning to draw.
Vergason emphasized sketching as a process of inquiry. It’s an exercise that “increases your ability to understand what makes a good composition. It’s about training your eye to see beautiful arrangements of parts.”
For those in the area, an exhibition of Vergason’s work, Sketching + Drawing + Describing: A Field Book Practice, is on display now through December 16, 2011 in the Dean’s Gallery, School of Architecture, University of Virginia. Also, check out more images from his most recent award-winning project, “A Farm at Little Compton.”
This guest post is by Peter Malandra, Student ASLA, Masters of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture.
Image credits: 2011 ASLA Honor Award for “A Farm at Little Compton” / Drawings by Michael Vergason. Photography by Nic Lehoux