The Lost art of watercolour Renderings

The lost art of watercolour renderings

Michael McCann is one of the few remaining architectural renderers who works in watercolour. He’s also a world renowned artist who insists on being at the design table from Day 1. And that’s just what Urban Capital wanted for its multi-phase Ravine development in Toronto’s York Mills neighbourhood. By Steven Barr.

Watercolour is dead. It didn’t stand a chance.

At a certain point architectural renderings, like all things on planet earth, entered the digital age. And for all the logical reasons. Computer generated images are cheaper, easier, and faster to produce, and way more flexible for client revisions, changes to building plans, and so on. Digital opened the door for a whole new set of rendering artists, and with it increased competition and ever decreasing prices.

One quick Google search illustrates the point: search “cheapest architectural renderings” and about halfway down the first page you can get a 3D computer image for $150. They are terrible renderings. However, keep scrolling because there’s a company doing them for $250 – and they’re not completely awful. They’re somewhat photorealistic, and although they may lack depth, lighting, composition, and mood, they are efficient representations of proposed projects. Are they bland and boring? Yes, but who cares, they serve their purpose and you move on. 

But for developments that need to tell a story or express something beyond the basic massing of a building, the architectural rendering takes on a different role. It becomes about emotion. And while there are very talented, experienced digital renderers fit for the task, often there is no match for the romance of the hand-drawn watercolour. 

The romancer

World-renowned architectural renderer Michael McCann will tell you that watercolours aren’t dead; it’s the cold, lifeless computer generated renderings that are the dead ones. 

McCann explains: “watercolour is an exercise of pure design, whereas the computer gives you details where you don’t necessarily want to see them yet.” The impressionist qualities of watercolour force the viewer’s imagination to complete the image, thereby creating an active relationship between image and viewer. Digital imaging, by virtue of its unwavering precision, is about objectivity of materials, and struggles to create that same active relationship. McCann argues that architectural renderings, as vehicles for storytelling, are stunted by the new technology. In his view, regardless of your personal preference, categorically one medium is better at activating audiences. 

Design by watercolour

For McCann the core issue isn’t just that one is better than the other. His bigger point is that digital technology has killed the most valuable part of design – the concept stage. 

In the olden days the concept stage was a chance for architects, designers and rendering artists to sit together in a room, sketch ideas and solve design problems. McCann and others before him have argued in the digital age people don’t actually know how to draw anymore, and use computers to jump right into the finished product. In a 2012 New York Times piece, architect Michael Graves concurs: “Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets. Drawings are not just end products, they are part of the thought process of architectural design.” 

With over 40 years of working with top names in architecture and urban planning, Michael McCann’s strength is his ability to come to the table in early concept stage to help clarify and stimulate the design process. In a sense, his watercolour paintings are a bi-product of this. His portfolio includes commissions for New York’s East River Master Plan, Euro Disney, Harvard Law School, Washington DC’s 100 Year Master Plan, Chicago’s Millennium Park, the World Trade Centre Master Plan, the Palace of Prince Satam of Saudi Arabia, and Pearson International Airport. He’s worked alongside globally renowned architects including James Sterling, Robert Stern, Michael Graves, and Philip Johnson. 

McCann’s watercolour style (not to mention the associated cost) is not necessarily suited for every condo project. Nor does every little infill project need its own laborious concept stage. 

But sites of a particular scale or unique location can offer a canvas befitting only a watercolour painting and the conceptual strength that McCann brings. 

A perfect match

Urban Capital has worked with McCann on a number of past projects, including the recently completed Nicholas tower (see page 18) and a proposed 16 acre mixed-use development in downtown Mississauga (profiled in 2012’s Urban Capital Magazine). 

The latest collaboration is a new master-planned community called The Ravine, a joint development between Urban Capital and Alit Developments. A 14 acre site at the intersection of York Mills and Valley Woods Roads, adjacent to the Don Valley Parkway, The Ravine cradles the north and west boundaries of Brookbanks Park and ravine. 

The development consists of eight buildings carefully placed around the natural parklands. It represents a new, modern vision for a community initially developed in the 1960s as part of the Don Mills Master Plan. Work on The Ravine began with McCann painting the initial rendering seen above (first at left). This is what the actual river running through Brookbanks Park looks like. And that painting became the beginning of The Ravine’s story. It informed how integral the ravine would be to the development, and how the architecture – and the overall approach – would fit within the ravine setting. 

McCann continued working closely with the design team to develop the whole concept, from the building exterior to the lobby and the outdoor amenity spaces. His involvement continues today with input on the marketing and communications program. 

Michael McCann’s paintings will be centre stage in the sales pavilion when the Ravine’s launch takes place in early 2015. And will establish that watercolour rendering is indeed alive and well. UC


<< Site Magazines  |  << Previous Article  |  >> Next Article