With Pen in Hand! Interview with Brian Lin of Mike Lin Graphic Workshop

Land8 is hosting a webinar about hand drawing with Brian Lin of the Mike Lin Graphic Workshop and it lead me to reevaluate the tiny amount of time that I personally
devote to sketching and hand rendering. Mike and Brian Lin are the
father and son team at Mike Lin Graphic Workshop, an enterprise whose
mission is to help you the individual become more confident,
comfortable, and skilled at hand drawing/rendering.

Click here to sign up for Land 8’s webinar!

Graphic Workshop’s front page states, ‘This workshop will change your life’ and it is safe to say these men are believers in the power of the pen. One
aspect of their practice that I find fascinating is that a time frame
is frequently given to drawings, such as ‘this tree will take fifteen
minutes’ or ‘this rendering took four days.’ This tactic is interesting
to me because it is a testament to the fact that beautiful work takes
time no matter what, digital, analogue, digilogue whatever.

Therefore, if ever you feel frustrated with a drawing an hour into the process you can relax to think that the professionals spend four
days on something like this and to continue trying. Whether you like
the style or not, or whether you agree with Brian on the relevance of
hand drawing or not, their message holds a powerful point of thought.
When you spend hours trying to wrestle an idea onto a blank piece of
paper with nothing but your hands and a pen I would contest that you
gain a very different, intimate knowledge of that thing than if you
used digital alone. And so sound the harps for the pen wielders.

On with the show!

Interview with Brian Lin

What aspects of landscape architecture do you think are better captured by hand drawing?

There has always been the desire to draw what is in your mind to communicate a thought, concept, or idea. As I type this, there comes to
mind two philosophies of practice; hand drawing and digital drawing.
When I first started my career, computer programs were still in a
primordial stage but were developing quickly. I saw there were two
types of designers: the ones who sketched with a pen, and ones who
never left their mouse and keyboard. This topic has been the basis of
lively debate, and sometimes a philosophical battleground, but in the
realm of presentation graphics. There are some incredible computer
programs that make a computer presentation rendering “look” like a hand
drawing. However, I think it misses an essential point: that hand
graphics is more a rudimentary part of the design process and less
about presentation. I am one of many designers that “wake up” with a
cool idea that I have to scribble on a roll of trace next to my bed (it
never leaves my side) or it will just vaporize after I take 5 steps to
the studio to boot up my computer. I’ve read somewhere that a “hand
sketch is worth a thousand words,” and it truly is. Hand drawing during
the design process really doesn’t have to be beautiful. It has to
communicate an idea clearly and gets to the point. I’ve heard from many
students that they believed that hand drawing was some great mystery
and you had to be born with the talent to draw well. I’ve even heard
some professors say that hand drawing cannot be taught. Hand drawing,
whether on a napkin at a cigar bar or in front of a client at the
office, helps to draw out the raw creative ideas that manifest a design
solution. I think some students are taught to believe that graphics are
what you produce after the designing is all set and done.
Unfortunately, they miss the whole reason for drawing in the first
place: how things fit together and how the design works as a holistic
environmental system….and drawing is FUN!

Do you think clients respond differently to hand drawings versus digital media?

Very much so! The types of clients vary, so the responses can run the spectrum of what communicates the main design idea clearly and most
convincingly. In my practice, we use both hand drawing and digital
media with our clients. We have clients that prefer hand drawing, and
some that love the flashy presentation of digital renderings. The
danger with digital rendering is that if a certain design element is
still conceptual or half-baked, it will look conceptual and half-baked
in a digital rendering because of the “finished” look of the
presentation and could cause the overall design concept to unravel. For
example, one time I was presenting at a community meeting and one of
our digital renderings had photoshop’d gingko trees as the street
trees. The presentation was for building design review, but as luck
would have it, someone in the audience who was on a streetscape
alliance board said that the trees were to be sycamores…two completely
different trees. Nobody’s fault really; the renderer was in China and
just picked the first tree in their library. From that point on, the
focus of dialogue shifted from building design to the streetscape
design, which was still in development and I was not prepared to
respond, which meant I did not want to promise something to the
community without approval from the client. It was a difficult 15
minute endeavor to re-direct their attention back to the building.
Thinking back, if we went to that presentation with a watercolor or
colored pencil rendering, the project as presented would have been more
palatable for the client and the community. If the same person asked
“what kind of street trees are those”, I could have confidently said
“why Sycamores of course!” Clients want to be engaged in every part of
a project’s life, from the birth of the idea to the certificate of
occupancy. Hand drawing allows them to be part of that creative process
where digital drawing usually “feels” too finished and final.

Hand drawing is may be more prominent in the design process but less so in presentation drawings. In competitions how can hand drawings
compete with slick digital renderings?

I don’t think it really comes down to how hand drawings can compete with digital renderings. As designers, we must consciously choose which
presentation format that will communicate the design idea the best.
I’ve seen lots of wonderful and compelling designs presented horribly
in digital format. If I’m going into a competition knowing that our
competitors are using digital renderings, I will sometimes submit
hand-drawn renderings instead, usually by collaborating with an artist,
or hiring illustrators like Richard Sneary or Christopher Grubbs, who
in my opinion are two of the best architectural illustrators I’ve ever
worked with. To my surprise, I’ve actually had judges tell me that one
of the reasons why our submission made the final cut was because after
looking at hundreds of digital renderings using the same group of
photoshop’d people, the same Toyota Camry Hybrids, and same girl
talking on her cell phone, it was the vivid richness and intrinsic
quality in our hand-drawn renderings that made our submission stand out
and was refreshing to see for the judges.

Do you combine analog and digital? Through which techniques?

Yes. Everyday. I sketch all the time, but I also rely on the technical exactness of computer programs to help hone my skills as a
designer. What I usually do is that I’ll draw something and then test
it out in AutoCAD or Revit as a BIM model. Sometimes I’ll take quick
sketches that were produced during charrettes or client meetings and
scan them into Photoshop to add quick layers of color, people and other
entourage. My advice would be to learn as many computer programs as you
can and they will in turn complement your hand drawing skills.
Eventually, you’ll know when to use hand drawing and

when to use digital techniques, almost as if it were second nature.

A significant aspect of digital media is that it allows for quick layering of textures and colors to create rich environments, how can
this be accomplished through hand drawing?

I usually accomplish this with AD markers and color pencils. Markers can throw down color evenly and quickly. Color pencils on top of the
marker layers can add richness of texture and gradual value changes,
and mixing of different hues of color for more vibrant effects. Quite
often I’ll find that I have to throw layers of color pencils on my
digital plots to pop out certain elements of the rendering because what
you see on your screen doesn’t necessarily come out of the plotter that
way. It had something to do with the humidity in the air that causes
the ink to be darker or lighter.

Many students now are well versed in Auto Cad and Adobe but have lost the habit of sketching, what habits would you recommend to them to
improve their hand drawing?

Find any opportunity to sketch, doodle, diagram, etc. I always carry a 6 inch roll of trace and a Sign Pen everywhere I go because I never
know when I’ll see something outside of the office that inspires me. My
co-workers think I’m crazy when we talk design during lunch and I bust
out the roll of trace, but the funny thing is they usually will grab
the pen from me and start diagramming over my initial ideas. Another
approach is to find an “elder” mentor, either in school or in your
office, and draw with them. They can teach you in a lot 10 minutes what
took them 20-30 years to learn to do. Even on technical CAD drawings,
keep testing your design ideas by drawing on directly on the sheet. If
you have a design element in section/elevation, try sketching it
perspective to see what it “feels” like in a space. And when you draw,
always think about designing in 3D. This will train your eye to see
proportion and scale in perspective. After all, 3D is how we see and
experience space, isn’t it?

Where or who do you look to for inspiration?

My father, Mike Lin and Bill Johnson (founder of JJR), Hideo Sasaki, and Frank Gehry

Information on the Lin workshops at:

Published in Blog


  1. Excellent! Thanks for this…

  2. There I am in the picture on the left. In front of my computers. What crutches! I learned enough hand drawing to get a degree but that was about it. When I saw great hand drawings I felt I was listening to concert piano while I was still playing “chopsticks” and not very good Chopsticks. I longed to be better at hand drawing but how? I was in Prague this last summer and saw some hand sketches done by a Czech architect. I finally said, “I can do that.” I’m now enrolled in Mike Lin’s May workshop. It’s time to teach this old dog some new tricks. Hope my Czech genes can get me beyond Chopsticks. You can view those Czech sketches on my facebook.

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