How to design a Cathedral

cathedral design dark black


For the basic shape of this building I drew a large number of simple 2D forms. I made variations and I corrected the forms until I was happy with one form.

cathedral design process 1

What did I do next? I looked for different ways to transform this simple 2D form into a full 3D object. I also added colours and I drew the lines for the windows. One important thing I noticed is that adding colours in the earliest stages of design is crucial for a good end result.

Colours have a strong influence on the composition and the way the different shapes interact with each other. A finished design that looks good in black lines on a white background won’t necessarily look good when you add contrasting colours in a later stage of the design process. I have made this mistake previously and you can lose a lot of time and quality this way.

Don’t forget to set the background colour also to a colour that resembles you final background colour. The way the object interacts with the background colour is as important as the other colour interactions within the building itself. Here I chose a dark grey background because I knew I would make some sort of night scene.

Another mistake I made with this design: I didn’t decide what materials the different colours were going to become. As you can see below I chose a light grey colour for the windows, but I didn’t think about how I would translate this colour to a believable material in the final texturing. So I eventually ended up making these windows much more lighter and contrasting. The end result not too bad, but it is not really the design I was looking for in the first place. The lesson I learned: decide from the beginning what material each colour will become.

cathedral transform 2D to 3D

Next I made some quick sketches so I would have a rough idea on how I would make the environment in Mudbox. I wanted to create a strong foreground-background relationship. I wanted the rocks on the foreground to be pretty black so they would make the sense of depth stronger and so they would also match the building’s darkness and contrast.

design cathedral sketches

I also applied a technique I have never used before. I drew some thick “edges” around the most important forms and I made them black. In the image underneath I gave these edges a red colour so you can see what I mean. It makes the forms more distinctive and more easy to separate from one another.

design cathedral ribs


design cathedral detail

Adding chiaroscuro 2

Hugh Ferriss - Temple


I wanted to do another exercise with chiaroscuro and so I designed another building that is inspired by one of the drawings of Hugh Ferriss.


Drawing by Hugh Ferriss

Drawing by Hugh Ferriss


At first I tried to manage the chiaroscuro the same way I did in the previous image: with square holes in a simple plane. This might work when the camera is at eye-level, but it does not look realistic from above because you get square-shaped light beams that are visible as such.

What I did here is a better method. Below you can find a tutorial.


Chiaroscuro temple tutorial


When most painters paint, or illustrators draw, they tend to move towards and away from their canvas or paper all the time. This is because you can more easily see the composition as a whole when it is visually smaller. I also tend to do this, but recently I had an epiphany. :-) What if in Sketchup I just make 3 different scenes with 3 different distances from the subject I am designing? This way you can switch between them constantly and you don’t have to move backwards from your screen all the time! Below you can find an image that shows this process and below that are some details of the final image.


Chiaroscuro Temple - Designing


Chiaroscuro Temple details 1


Chiaroscuro Temple details 2


Chiaroscuro Temple details 3

Hugh Ferriss – Adding chiaroscuro

Hugh Ferris chiaroscuro


Like the previous illustration, this one is also inspired by the work of Hugh Ferriss. The term chiaroscuro is used to describe the use of strong contrast between light and dark on important parts of the composition. It is a technique that finds its origin in the Renaissance. Ferriss uses this effect with great success on his buildings.

Chiaroscuro works so well because of several reasons. First it makes the image simpler for the eye to dissect because the author has already made some decisions about what is important and what is not. The important parts are highlighted and the things in the periphery are darkened and often merely visible.

Secondly our old human brain experiences a strongly reduced visibility as threatening, in a similar way you would be scared when you would be walking in a dark forest with only the help of a flash light. A dangerous predator could be looming in every corner. Times have changed and our society has become much safer, but our brain is roughly still the same brain as it was 100.000 years ago.


Drawings by Hugh Ferriss

Drawings by Hugh Ferriss – “The Metropolis of Tomorrow”


Hugh Ferriss - Chiaruscuro 2

Drawing by Hugh Ferris – The use of chiaruscuro on buildings.


I created a plane with holes in it to simulate a pack of clouds that are letting only a part of the sunlight to come through. It took me some experimenting to get the sunbeams I wanted. For this purpose I set the viewport in 3ds Max in “realistic” mode. Below you can also see the top view of one building.


Hugh Ferriss chiaroscuro viewport


hugh ferriss chiaroscuro top view

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