Q&A with drawing professor Frank Ching

During our monthly sketchcrawls in Seattle, Frank Ching is just another drawing enthusiast, passing his sketchbook around, giving feedback, asking questions and sharing the jovial atmosphere. But when you see his work, you realize that Frank is no accidental sketcher. Over 35 years, he has taught generations of architects how to draw and has written numerous best-selling books about architectural drawing and design that have been translated to over 16 languages.

Frank invited me for a cup of coffee in June of 2009 after seeing my Seattle Sketcher column in the Seattle Times. I was flattered by the invitation and really enjoyed the chat at Fremont Café — see the post and sketch I did.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet a few academics of different fields before, but I don’t remember someone as approachable and friendly as professor Ching. After retiring from full-time teaching at the University of Washington, he has been a leading force of the Seattle Urban Sketchers and an inspiration for my own work.

Today I’m posting a quick Q&A interview we did last year prior to the Portland Urban Sketching Symposium, where he was one of the instructors.

How did your career teaching architectural drawing start? What attracted you to it?
Toward the end of my year’s service in VISTA in 1972, I got a call from a former classmate who was teaching at Ohio University, asking me if I were interested in interviewing for a teaching job. Not having any plans or commitments, I agreed to drive down from Cleveland to Athens, Ohio, for the interview. I remember the chair of the department of architecture asking me if I thought I could teach drawing and being young and naive, I of course said yes. So it was a fortuitous set of circumstances that led me to become an “accidental” academic.

How do you get your students to improve their skills? What’s your teaching methodology?
I have come to believe that iteration — constant and repetitive practice — is important to learning visual and drawing skills. We can learn more from doing many smaller sketches rather than one or two larger drawings. I also think that drawing from observation, on location, and developing visual acuity should provide the basis for drawing from the imagination in design. But above all, design students should understand that drawing is a language with which we communicate our ideas and observations.

What tools do you use to sketch?
My palette is very simple: a fountain pen and a sketchbook. While I admire others who handle other media so well — pencils, watercolors, pastels — I have come to really love the tactile feel of an ink nib on paper and the fluidity and incisiveness of the strokes. And the abstract quality of an ink-line drawing is actually very liberating for me.

Some of Professor Ching’s books:
A Visual Dictionary of Architecture
Design Drawing
Sketches from Japan