Drawings and Visuals

One must bear in mind here that a designer is ‘just that’ and we should not necessarily be expected to be able to draw and paint to an exceptionally high standard. It helps to be able to draw, and our skills should ideally be adequate to portray information to others but there is rarely enough time to complete masterpieces suitable for a gallery, in fact I know of many successful designers who claim to be incapable of drawing.

If drawing skills are below par there are many other ways of achieving a suitable design for clients and crew. For the un-initiated I would highly recommend doing a Photoshop course and possibly a few tutorials in Sketch-up. This could be time ‘very well spent’ to make your life easier in your future career.

Photo Montage:

Quite often we are required to mock up a location to show how a scene might look when finished. I often use one of my ‘clean’ location photos. Create new layers in photo-shop and simply draw or paste on top. This is where your initial location and reference photos become invaluable.

The images show one of my initial location photos. The director was very specific about the design of a Santa’s Grotto within, so this is first sketched, at a rough camera height, for approval, then rendered in colour against black (for easy selection, copying and pasting within Photoshop). A montage showing other selected references is then added to represent the Christmas fair. These reference stills are often resized, flipped or distorted in photo-shop so as to fit into the desired location photo. Once complete, the image can be ‘flattened’ to reduce file size, then sent to client. Keep the un-flattened version though, in case more editing is required, it’s often more than the director, who needs satisfying.


Time is valuable, and much as I love the traditional mediums like watercolours, crayons or marker pen drawings I’m afraid they are now superseded by computer graphics in our industry. The one major advantage is that CG is ultimately editable and e-mail able. Computer graphics do bring certain disadvantages, providing a near photo realistic result, if one is anal enough. It is sometimes wise to leave certain items like wall colours and floor surfaces ‘vague’ so one doesn’t tie oneself down to specifics, but instead gives ‘just an impression’ with room for adjustment. At this stage all materials and props research is not yet complete and decisions haven’t been finalised. One then can’t be accused of not being able to produce a set like the visual. I find that visuals or concept sketches are often used to sell the job, and to impress the clients enough to allow final release of funds, important though that is. If one of those moneymen doesn’t want that ‘ornate chair’ that took 2 hours for you to draw, you have to replace it. Worse still, if someone really likes that ornate chair and it’s not available for your shoot! A looser design is often preferable; this can then be scanned for rendering in colour. Knowledge of perspective is an advantage but try to keep it simple, as it can be time consuming. There are various options to choose from regarding a finished visual.

A simple perspective sketch:

Coloured later by hand or rendered on computer. This is good for keeping your ideas flexible but can be time consuming later when scaling up accurately for the construction drawings. A sketch is useful if alternative ideas are required or just suggestions. Once the final sketch is agreed it can either be developed directly or re made in basic 3D as shown. I sometimes recreate the basic shapes in the 3D model, then rotate the model to the desired viewpoint, print it out and trace over in pencil to add small details. I then re-scan and send to clients. This process is not only quick, but secure in that you know and can relate back to the 3D model for scaling and later development.

A 2D computer mock-up:

This can be good for those not proficient at drawing or 3D programs but can look clinical and lack emotion and atmosphere. Shapes created initially on computer are easy to create then rendered in colour. It’s worthwhile incorporating as many photographic references here to enhance the overall look.

A 3D design:

This takes a lot longer to initiate but saves considerable time later in the process as all your initial work can be used for the scale drawings. The drawback here is the time to construct, as the job may not be confirmed and some items may take considerable effort to produce (often the simplest ones to draw by hand!). It’s also worth remembering that this design will often just be seen in 2D, as it may be e-mailed to numerous people, so it does want to look fairly proficient. The time taken here can often be wasted, as your client may have radical new thoughts upon seeing it for the first time and ask for changes. This could mean a complete rebuild of the 3D model.

Final note on visuals: Try to avoid sending anything other than a simple 2D jpeg to the clients because; as with all drawings, the person at the other end may be a ‘non techi’ with a bad Internet connection and a black and white printer!’ So the whole operation must be geared towards the end user. Construction drawings will be covered later in this book.

Mood Boards:

Mood boards are basically a selection of props, colours and materials presented in such a way as to suggest the overall look of the set. Here your stylist is crucial as props, when out of context, namely not on set, can be deceptive and often not seen for real by the designer until the dress day. An experienced stylist will probably whizz around the prop houses in record time accumulating hundreds of photos of ‘might do’s’ in the eternal hunt for a specially requested item. It’s often the easiest item that proves the most difficult to find because it’s either ‘out of season’ or ‘sold out, expecting more soon’. I do not envy their job. It’s also very handy to have a scale reference taken with any unusually small or large props. This can be achieved by including a tape measure or ruler positioned next to the prop being photographed.

I once ordered what I thought was a small conch shell from photos supplied for dressing a window alcove only to find it requiring 4 people to lift off the truck as it was huge!

Broadly speaking, art directors would like as many choices as possible of all props, yet too many can lead to confusion.

Sometimes just one prop can set the whole thing off. Having said this, some of my most challenging jobs have been where the client has insisted it’s simple and should be cheap because it only requires one prop!

After a few days research we should be in possession of many possibilities. It is important to file these correctly as most communication is on the phone and your file names should be consistent. I tend to create a file for each prop house, import the photos, and then create a file within this named ‘I Like’. The good ones are then ‘copied’ as opposed to ‘moved’ into this file. This way makes it easier to locate the original prop and where it came from. It would be relatively easy just to e-mail the photos direct to the client. But presenting it in an orderly way makes it much simpler and more professional for all concerned; mood boards are an excellent communication, tool especially in meetings. An evening spent creating A4 sheets for each set and pasting the props up creatively in Photoshop soon follows. Place numbers on all the photos so the client can remotely discuss individual props and attach any other samples or colour swatches accordingly.