Sketching School challenges notions
of visual expression, seeing © Feb. 4, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Architecture students Gina Fantoni and Joe Fisher sketch their impressions of a waterfront dock during Sketch School in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in August 2010.

photo courtesy of Tom LeythamArchitecture students Gina Fantoni and Joe Fisher sketch their impressions of a waterfront dock during Sketching School in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, in August 2010.

People who can sketch well aren’t necessarily great artists, but Norwich University students are banking it’s a skill that will make them better architects.

Norwich’s School of Architecture & Art now sponsors weeklong trips outside of Vermont for a crash course in the fundamental technique of sketching. Unlike other forms of drawing, sketching is about expressing ideas in a forceful and unadorned fashion rather than capturing beauty. Those who attended one or more sessions of Sketching School, held in a variety of locations starting in 2009, believe it will help build their confidence and marketability.

“Sketching is straight communication,” said Gina Fantoni, a third-year student from Derry, N.H., who attended sessions in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. “Sketching is where it begins.”

The towns that we go to are our classrooms.

Prof. Tom Leytham,
School of Architecture & Art

She calls it a critical skill that an architect must have to hold clients. With the ability to establish value with the fewest lines and adornment, an architect can convey ideas immediately. A week of focus really brought that out for her.

“I was able to express not the entire picture, but just what I wanted to express,” said Fantoni.

It didn’t hurt that sessions were held in beautiful, seaside towns such as Portland, Maine, Gloucester, Mass., and Savannah, Ga., or that the Norwich group was surrounded by other artists and students learning to sketch. During the Lunenburg trip in August 2010, for example, they joined students from Montreal’s McGill University.

The reason they travel, according to architecture Prof. Tom Leytham, is partly to find a seasonal climate that promotes being outside. More importantly, he wants to see students taken completely out of their comfort zone where they can explore a new town and experience a new culture while challenging their notions and fears related to drawing.

“The towns that we go to are our classrooms,” said Leytham, who proposed the idea of Sketch School and has led all trips.

For Andrew Doyle, who attended Sketching School in Lunenburg shortly before starting his graduate year as an architect [Norwich offers a four-year bachelor’s degree and one-year master’s degree in architecture], the process was very much about challenging his own habits.

Doyle, who is from Rhode Island, earned an art minor as an undergraduate and had taken every drawing class he could find. Although sketching wasn’t a new idea, Doyle found he became hung up by the minimalistic nature of some exercises. Often students were instructed to sketch for 60 seconds and then move on to the next drawing. The idea was to isolate an idea without worrying about the quality of the artwork.

“Deep in my head, I wanted to have a really beautiful result,” he said.

He believes that environment and mood play a big part in sketching. You have to zero in on the information you want to convey, unlike other forms of drawing where you try to capture much more information, and get it exactly right.

“You’re trying to get an idea down in its basest form,” said Doyle, who was a member of Norwich’s Corps of Cadets as an undergraduate, and is now working on his master’s thesis.

Students usually travel to the Sketching School locations together, and live in a rented house or university dormitory. In addition to intensive exercises and lots of time for drawing and evaluation, students are encouraged to explore the towns and local cultural activities. Leytham spends his time traveling between groups of students on a bicycle.

Leytham said he developed Sketching School because he was unsatisfied by the limitations of traditional studio art classes, and hoped to bring students to an unfamiliar environment to explore space, proportion and light. It’s also simply a great gift to be able to focus on one skill for an extended period of time, and allows students to develop their own definition of sketching.

“They find their own balance,” he said. “It’s not the type of thing that can be taught. It can be disciplined.”

Fantoni said Sketching School helped her learn to provide a better use of context to a picture, adding the right secondary elements without muddying the point she’s trying to make. Above all, it has made her simply feel more competent.

“I could sketch anything,” she said.

Confidence, according to Leytham, is one of the primary values he hopes young architects take away from Sketching School. If you can put down an idea without being critical of its artistic merit, you’ve learned a serious skill that can help you connect with clients as an architect.

“They literally come out of the class high,” he said. “Sort of like learning to walk.”

Students interested in attending Sketching School may contact Prof. Tom Leytham at tbla@together.net. A class in art is a prerequisite.