3D Artists from Over 65 Countries

Architectural rendering styles & techniques

To many people, architectural rendering is art. The people behind the mouses and keyboards, the pens and pencils, take great pride in their work because, as all art, it is their form of expression used to elevate the design of a place.

To many people, architectural rendering is art. The people behind the mouses and keyboards, the pens and pencils, take great pride in their work because, as all art, it is their form of expression used to elevate the design of a place.

As is such, the individuals and teams behind architectural rendering give to the design their own “architectural rendering style”. Sometimes architectural rendering will be solely for making something look nice. Other times it will be to tell the viewer something very specific about the design. But no matter the angle, there is no denying the wide range of architectural rendering styles and techniques 3D Artists use to make their work stand above the rest.

The following list describes the indescribable, as I attempt to give form to something that really does not have any. A 3D Artist’s style is an ethereal concept - much less tangible than the subject matter itself. Trying to put a name or a label on it in many ways discredits the thought and rigor of iteration that went into it.

This is in no way my intention, so please take these assertions with massive grain of salt and a tongue planted firmly in cheek.

1 | The “That Cannot Be Fake”

We are all familiar with this one, no? It is the architectural rendering style you look at that might as well have been taken with a real life camera, by a real life human being, in a real life location. They suspend disbelief and show the viewer exactly what something will look like without it actually being a thing yet. Sort of like the first time you saw Jurassic Park.

It takes a mountain of technical skill to make these types of drawings work. If you are aiming for ultra-realism, you better nail it. Otherwise the 3D rendering style ends up looking like a screenshot from a made for TV Sci Fi movie. That is what makes nailing it so impressive. 3D Artists who are able to recreate lighting, materiality, and most importantly, the accuracy of human perception, are highly sought after and paid well.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

Aside from years and years of practice and education? To get good at photo realistic renderings, you have to get familiar with your 3D rendering software. Many say VRay is the most capable rendering engine, but the 3D Artist must also be well versed in Rhino, 3DS Max, After Effects and so on. It takes all of that 3D rendering software knowledge and skill to recreate life digitally.

Most importantly is an understanding of light. Light is how we see, so being able to manipulate the rendering engine to mimic real time lighting is key. The rest is about the 3D Artist’ssense of composition, framing, and emotion.

2 | The Diagram

Architects love their diagrams. Put it right up there with black mock turtlenecks and working through the night. A diagram tells a story. It shows you something vitally important to the conceptual force behind a building’s design. Architects and designers use diagrams to explain the “why” behind the “what.” It is a singular representation of the idea, and for it to work it needs to be graphically straightforward and abundantly clear.

Bjarke Ingels Group has made waves in the architecture and design world in the last decade. Their designs are a blunt representation of a small collection of environmental inputs. They create elegant, simple diagrams showing exactly how the design responds the world around it. A few arrows here. A splash of colour there. And voila! You have got yourself a diagram that could explain to your grandmother what the project is about.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

Diagrams do not look like much as far as technical prowess, but you would be surprised in the amount of work that goes into crafting something with such clarity. Often diagrams are best served being created with a combination of SketchUp and Adobe Illustrator. A simple vector drawing goes a long way, and in the case of a diagram, less almost always means more.

3 | The Stan Lee

A comic book drawing is something most people instantly identify with. This architectural rendering style awakens a childlike nostalgia that allows the viewer to connect with the subject matter on a much more playful level. The Stan Lee attempts to tap into this tucked away portion of the human psyche, and does so with an abundance of colour and thick, expressive line work. Who better to name this architectural rendering style after than the father of modern comics?

A good design presentation tells a story. You want the people who are seeing your creative labours for the first time to be able to get into the head of the designer and see what the project is attempting to achieve. With building design, it is much more effective to tell that story with images rather than words. If someone can look at a drawing, or series of drawings, and put together that story for themselves, the greater the impact it will leave. That is where the Stan Lee comes in so handy. Giving your drawings emotion and expression goes a long way to framing the story you are trying to sell.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

The Stan Lee can be best achieved through a combination of hand and computer drawing. First modeling the building in SketchUp or Rhino, then printing and drawing over to achieve the desired comic book effect. The drawing can then go back into the computer to be touched up and polished in Adobe Photoshop and InDesign.

4 | The Old School

You can pry my drafting pens from my cold, dead hands!

The Old School is a tried and true design drawing technique that happens almost exclusively outside the computer. The old guard of architects and designers will demand hand drawn design renderings, claiming the computer cannot capture the soul in the same way. While not everyone agrees with that, there is merit to the assentation that hand drawings have a quality that cannot be replicated digitally.

There is a haptic quality to a hand drawing. You can see the pencil strokes, smell the lead, feel the tiny ridges in the 220 pound paper. There are imperfections and nuances that can give a project life, utilizing the imagination of the viewer to fill in the real world gaps that will be manifested in the completed project. Hand drawn renderings can be the most visually stunning way to represent a project, especially now that we have shifted so hard and fast towards the digital rendering. They are time consuming, expensive, and only a small handful of people still know how to do them. Sadly, a dying art indeed.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

Pens, pencils, markers and paper. These are the tools of the old school architectural renderer. And thousands upon thousands of hours of practice followed by… more practice.

5 | The Star Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Or in the basement of a young renderer’s mother, where stunning depictions of futuristic works of architecture are created. The Star Wars architectural rendering style and technique is best served for architectural designs that look to the future. Because of the progressive nature of the building itself, it often demands an artistic depiction that reflects that conceptual force. The drawing needs to say: this is what the future looks like, and this is why this building represents that.

You will not see any aliens or spaceships or blasters or Han Solo shooting first. Well, you might. What you will definitely see is a keen eye for the unexplored aspects of 3D rendering technology. This particular architectural rendering style tends to lean towards the hyper-real, but does not necessarily have to. Most people find the future easier to believe in if it in some way represents the world they currently know. If things get too detached from the present, the images can become unbelievable and fraudulent. It is a knife edge 3D Artists love walking along.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

The most current rendering engines will be your best bet to produce futuristic architectural graphics. VRay, Maxwell, Mental Ray. They all have the capability to produce realistic depictions from your wild imagination. Or you could enlist one of those street fair spray paint artists who somehow paint glossy and realistic scenes in a matter of minutes. Those guys are rad.

6 | The Palimpsest

A palimpsest is a term used to describe a visual layering of information. It is one of those touchy-feely terms architecture and design teachers use to establish the basis for a particular assignment. Imagine a small stack of semi-translucent pages with different parts of information that, when viewed together reveals holistic information about the project. These layers might be circulation, air and water delivery, structure or insulation. Or they can be contributing parts to a larger diagram.

Before computers were used for design and construction drawings, the palimpsest was an invaluable tool not just to communicate information, but to understand internally about the design. Drawings were done on mylar or vellum, both thin, translucent type of paper that allowed architects to lay stacking floor on one another to understand how things worked in three dimensions. We still do this today, although the process has been streamlined by 3D modeling capabilities of digital drawing.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

Well, I kind of just told you! You have probably seen more palimpsest in your life than you realize. Ever sat through a mind numbing PowerPoint presentation where page upon page simply add one or two bullet points or images to a base page? We all have. That is probably the least interesting but most ubiquitous version of a palimpsest. Maps are also good examples, which often have a variety of different types of information that tell the story of a place or region.

7 | The Minimalist

The minimalist is the architect’s best friend. Strip all unnecessary noise out of a drawing so to be able to focus on the one thing that truly matters: space. This is the 3D rendering with more white on the page than on Al Pacino’s face at the end of Scarface!

All forms are represented with almost no materiality so as to reveal the experiential and spatial relationships that make the design a conceptual masterpiece. This is not a real-world rendering, but a kind of diagram that adds to the intrigue of a potential design.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “the shortest distance to a correct solution is a straight line.” This is the driving conceptual force behind the minimalist 3D rendering style. There are no frills or ornaments or added distractions. There is only form, light and space. These are the fundamental tools an architect uses to design with. Mix that with an insatiable ego and a passive aggressive malaise and you have got yourself a world famous designer on your hands.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

Discipline. You can have all the technical knowledge and design capability that a person can have, but it takes a certain kind of restraint to produce design drawings that show only what they need to in order to communicate the idea. Being the minimalist means going beyond the know-how and reaches into the how and why of a design that few other architectural rendering styles begin to approach. Yes, sometimes it melts into the pretentious and elitist, but it always gets to the essence of what could potentially make a project great. You can file it under the “easier said than done” category.

8 | The Game Changer

The game changer is difficult architectural rendering style to explain. It could take on any number of the techniques and architectural rendering styles I have outlined thus far. The game changer takes things up one, two, maybe even three notches. This is the architectural rendering you see in the MOMA or the Guggenheim that speaks not only to the quality of the 3D rendering itself, but to the iconic piece of architecture it represents. These are award worthy depictions that capture the essence and nature of the subject without getting in the way of the object and the space.

There is definitely much technique involved here. But more than that it is the understanding of architecture, space, light and form in general. The game changer must have an intimate knowledge of the design. He cannot just know the what, but must fully be aware of the why and the how in order to depict something that does justice to the design itself. This architectural rendering style is not something picked up by a gun for hire, but is typically crafted by the designer himself. Only someone who has a true connection to the work is able to perfect the digital manifestation with such accuracy and authenticity.

So how do 3D Artists do it?

You know what? They just do it.

The game changer takes on an effortless kind of work ethic that is mirrored by the end result. These 3D renderings and images win international design competitions because they go well beyond simple drawings. They have meaning and competence rarely seen in the design world. This is art in every sense of the word, and cannot be adequately explained in words on a page. You know it when you see it, and that is all you really need to know.