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I'm a theater-trained production designer, with proudly old-school techniques that were borne of long days at the Yale Drama School studying theater set and costume design under the great Ming Cho Lee and Jane Greenwood. My techniques today owe as much to them as to my fellow classmates whose sketching skills I always envied.

Every sketch today starts with a roll of 18" onion skin trace paper from which I tear off a chunk. As I've gotten older, the size of the sheet has grown to 30" or so. I'll surround myself with the pertinent moodboards or location photos or set dec folders and just start scribbling in soft pencil. As soon as I've got the roughest idea of perspective and furniture taking shape on the page I'll lay down a fresh sheet on top.


Now for the hard part: I'll carefully ink in the design as I see it in my mind's eye (with my trusty uniball vision pen), basically starting at left and working my way to the right: every molding, every set dec choice, a suggestion of texture on each wall or floor surface, perhaps a car or two if I'm doing an exterior sketch. I'll rarely use a straight edge because I prefer the human imperfections that come from freehand drawing. I may throw some wall surfaces into shadow with a hatching texture, just to pop some life into the drawing. I'll sometimes fisheye the perspective a bit as if with a super-wide lens, just to include as much info in the sketch as I can. I'll often remove foreground walls and just leave a blueprint of them showing on the floor to keep the layout understandable. Sometimes I'll make foreground walls transparent to show what's beyond them more clearly. Clarity is the goal, but also a certain lightness of touch; it's important to pull back before the sketch gets too overdrawn.

Then I jump in with my prismacolor markers. These markers are great because they lift a bit of the ink off the page as they go which gives life to the drawing as it gains color. Very often I'll start with a teal shadow marker to sculpt the light and shadow in the room, just to get the thrust of the design correct before mapping out the local color of each surface. Some sketches stay best as a monochrome study in greys or sepias or cool blues. Some need the full pallet of the rainbow to express the design fully. But the thing that can kill any sketch is to over-explain the things in the room in full color at the expense of just getting the quality of the room correct. My best sketches usually happen because I run out of time, and thus step away from the coloring-in phase before it gets too literal.


Now for the fun part: adding the highlights! Bic whiteout pens are great for bold shapes like blocks of window light or dramatic blasts of light through an open doorway. White prismacolor pencils work best for subtler glowing shapes: the halo around light fixtures, the soft highlights on wall moldings or floorboards. But here too, I'm prone to highlighter overuse. It's smart to walk away form the drafting board at this point and see how the sketch feels from a distance. It will usually be obvious where the thing needs more deep shadows or highlights to get the main thrust clearer.

Then comes the job of turning the perfect onion skin into a digital file, an essential step in this day and age. I'll often pin the sketch vertically on a wall backed with tan celotex so that the highlights really pop. Nondirectional light is best so the wrinkles in the paper are minimized. Then I'll take a few photos with my trusty I-phone and download them to my laptop. Here's where I can correct minor errors, shift the color story, and always, always pump up the contrast to give the sketch more zing. That sums up the extent of my digital expertise; any more sophisticated effects (like adding beams of theater lighting for instance) and fancy titles get added by the highly skilled set designers or graphics designers on my team.

I live by the gospel of a good sketch telling the story. I know of no more efficient way to get everybody on the same page when proposing a design-- director, d.p., producer, set dec, set designers, construction and paint shop -- than to put a sketch in front of them and say "here's what I'm hoping to do!"

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