It was art time in our household so I set my son up with some paints, crayons and paper before I sat down next to him with my own pencil, scale ruler, graph paper, and numerous pictures of a building I was working on.
“Are you not doing art with me?” He asked.
“Yes I am, I’m drawing,” came my reply.
He tilted his head down and raised his eyes as if to sternly correct me. “Drawing isn’t art.”
My defense mechanism kicked in. I held up my graph paper, showing him what I had completed so far, the footprint and west elevation of a building. I figured he wouldn’t comprehend my higher understanding of what art was, but I didn’t care. I proceeded to tell him, “Yes, this is a form of art. I am making a representation of a building and putting it on paper so as to recreate it in another form.”
He stared at it for a little while. “That the building they took down?”
I smiled, yes! I achieved my purpose, he recognized the subject in my scale drawing! It felt good to have his shoes on my feet. (“Yes, that does look like a horse!”) I affirmed that it was, in fact, that building, and he then went on to recount the story of how it came to be that the building was no longer with us–just as he does every time we drive past the site where it once stood. Fire, bulldozers, dirt.
Then he mentioned our pet rabbit who died last year. I think he was making a greater connection to life and death than what actually exists.
Maybe he wasn’t too far off as at times I felt this project was a kind of memorial to a piece of local history. The Carpenter building lasted about 119 years before succumbing to an unexpected fire in early January. It sat in the middle of town opposite the railroad tracks, kitty-corner from the depot, along U.S. Highway 61 welcoming train passengers and later motorists for over a century. It is not hard to believe that when it started as a goods store back in the 1890’s it would have housed many interesting conversations between the shop keeper and patrons even before it became a steak house welcoming dinner conversations in the 1970s. Throughout its life it was a staple, or rather a member, of the community.
Needless to say, when we were done with the art session he came away with a train going across a railroad bridge (he painted the sky, I the landscape and bridge, we both applied the train stickers) and I had finished the detailed west elevation and footprint of Carpenter’s Steakhouse. I had been working on it off and on since January and I can now look at it with some sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. 13 windows, 1 door, signage, and enclosed porch all perfectly placed and drawn to scale to the best of my abilities.
The photos I went off of were not ideal as many were angle shots from the corners. The only straight-on shot I had which maintained proportions was of the front lower-level after the fire. Yet, combined with Google satellite and Bing Bird’s Eye imagery as well as shots taken from Google Street view, I was able to come up with suggested proportions and work them out. There was a lot of tweaking, erasing, re-calculations, and re-measuring, but in the end I think I was able to come up with a near perfect N scale (1:160) representation.
I did learn some lessons. First, when you choose a subject, and it still exists in the physical world, go out there and snap some photos. (It is too late for Carpenter’s, but not too late for other of my proposed subjects.) Take some directly facing an elevation at multiple parallel locations. I found out that even an 80 foot building lends itself to distortion of proportions on either end when shot straight-on in the middle. I should have taken some smaller shots of the front exterior at regular intervals parallel to the building.
Second, the scale on satellite imagery are approximations for greater distances and don’t hold up well for measuring buildings. Building edges are blurred and depending upon the angle the satellite was, can skew measurements. I ended up using a semi-trailer, which I reasoned was 53 feet long, as a rough measurement guide.
Third, once you figure out a proportion in a photograph, write it down. Using common widths of doors and windows, I was able to determine ratios for conversion. Working from several photographs I was able to move quicker when I didn’t have to re-calculate each time. Also, as mentioned before, depending upon angle, proportions of large object can change within a picture. Segment the picture and write all proportions down.
Finally, it is okay to readjust your measurements. The steakhouse fluctuated from between 70 and 85 feet before resting at 83 feet long. As I would work through drawing it I found some things didn’t fit properly. I ended up fudging a few measurements here and there (I still don’t know the exact shutter widths–16 inches maybe?) and only cared if it was within a ballpark and that it “looked right.” By looking right I mean that windows were placed relative to other objects in the pictures and didn’t appear to be too close or too far apart. While I was working on the west elevation I ended up refining my footprint several times (even though I had before that point considered it “done”) to account for new measurements. Despite this cumbersome effort, in the end I think of it as “refining the outcome as more data points become known.”
At this point I don’t expect any more refinements to the measurements to come about. First, I don’t have many pictures of the sides, I don’t have any of the back, and there weren’t many windows or doors there anyway. A blank wall is easy to scale and I can take artistic liberties with what I think should go there. Secondly, the front is the money shot, and if that doesn’t look right, it is not representative of the subject at all.
I’m not quite sure when I will commence on a scale model. I don’t really have time or space for that as of yet. I do have a few other buildings I would like to draw but they will wait. In the mean-time I will just make sure I have the right pictures of them and enjoy the satisfaction of the completion of this “little” art project. My son (and my wife) certainly took in satisfaction on his picture.