Architect Michael G. Imber’s rendering of a newly designed Texas ranch house evokes the 1940s era of the original compound, which burned down in a fire.

The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.

How Artist and Architect Michael G. Imber Creates a Sense of Place in Design

Rebecca Birdwell sits down with the multitalented creative.

May 20, 2024

There is only one person who could inspire me take up watercoloring—architect Michael Imber. This holds true for many who have witnessed his sketches and paintings over the years through his travels, on various jobsites, and on Instagram. I see it as a course correction and a reinvigoration of the idea that one cannot truly understand the landscapes on which architects build unless they employ the invaluable tools of painting and drawing.  I am fortunate that Michael was my first true architect friend, and I learned to think of architecture through his soulful perspective. At Michael’s core, wayfinding through a project via drawing and painting is why clients are fortunate to have found him in the first place.

I sat down with Michael in London to discuss his new book, The Art of the Architect, and why “seeing through drawing” is infinitely important to architecture and design.

The watercolor study of this artist studio in Texas was meant to have a more artistic expression reflective of the client. Michael G. Imber, Classical Artist Studio, Austin, Texas.


The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.

Rebecca Birdwell: Can you summarize the importance of drawing and painting in your practice?

Michael Imber: As an architect, drawing and painting are at the center of who I am and what I do. I must paint in order to see, and I must draw in order to convey thought. It is how I understand shape, form, color, composition, scale, shadow, light, and it is how I describe it to the world.

RB: With incredible tools for digitally produced architecture, why is art and drawing so important?

MI: I find the art of drawing and painting to be as important today as it ever was. It is how architects have always seen and observed the world, how we process who and where we are, and how we form ideas.

A watercolor presentation for a project in Montecito, California.

The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.

RB: How does that process begin?

MI: Drawing is a language used since the beginning of time. It’s the first tool we are given to communicate. This childlike language is how architects communicated ideas from the start. Visual language is universal.

RB: Can you explain the idea of this type of language?

MI: Drawing is an unencumbered translation between our minds and the rest of the world. Computers do not possess an innate perception of scale and dimension—or humanity and spirituality, for that matter. Nor do they understand our wants, desires, or dreams. They have no soul, and thus can’t convey how we feel about a particular shade of color or shape of space—computers can’t replace the artist’s touch.

Furthermore, drawing a building in person is different from seeing one through a photograph. We experience light differently when engaging with our environment: the way light strikes the surface of a wall, the refractions in a shadow, the transformation of light through old glass, and the illuminated textures all imprint on our mind a more holistic picture. But it is even more than that—we also sense how a building belongs in its environment: its surroundings, the smell of the air, the sound of footsteps echoing through its chambers, the perceived warmth as you pass from a corridor into a courtyard: simply put, the space leaves an indelible mark.

  • Imber used a test watercolor to work out the palette for a project before executing the formal rendering.

    The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.
  • A travel sketch of Qutb Minar in Dehli was done with two different mediums—brown sepia pen and blue watercolor paint—to achieve the desired effect.

    The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.

RB: Architects love talking about the act of being contextual. What’s that about?

MI: When it comes to placemaking, the best tool is to sit and draw it. From that moment, the client gets all of these observances, and it is similar to looking through a microscope. They understand the world better and in a deeper way. The bottom line is that this is a mnemonic tool. It is the act of using your hands to commit to memory. Today, visual language is informed by thousands of images—images we don’t truly “see.” Drawing helps us see everything more deeply. When architects see through the artist’s eye, they experience more than one sense simultaneously. When I sit at the site of a future building or home and draw or paint, I am observing all that’s around me—the crickets, the sun radiating heat, the scent of lavender, the rock I’m sitting on. It’s not just about the site on which you build, it’s about absorbing the moment of time. It humanizes architecture and our environment.

A private island where N.C. Wyeth, his son, and grandson, would often paint. With Linda L. Bean’s dory in the foreground. Michael G. Imber, Teel Island.

The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.

RB: Why is travel so important to the practice of architecture or craft?

MI: If I had been simply born in West Texas, lived, and died there my entire life, we’d be left with one book, one story. Travel improves your mind’s library. Architects draw from this library to bring ideas into fruition.

RB: Tell me about the Whiskey Watercolor Club and how it came to be?

MI: We are five architects who began watercoloring together in England. We were in India together at the onset of the pandemic, and after we each found safe routes home on some of the last flights back to the States, we vowed to continue painting together weekly while our offices went remote. The community we created was so important during the isolation of the pandemic, and our weekly exercises improved our skills of observation and control over capturing natural effects with brush and watercolor.

  • A rendering on the smooth surface of hot press paper. Michael G. Imber, Carver’s Harbor, Working Waterfront.

    The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.
  • A hut deep in the forest of the Adirondack Mountains. Michael G. Imber, Hagrid’s Hut.

    The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber. Published by Triglyph Books.

RB: Who inspired you to approach architecture in this way?

MI: Discovering Bertram Goodhue was a major turning point. Goodhue didn’t simply create renderings, his were art: They carried the eye to what he needed you to see—a shadow over a steeple, a sweeping lawn leading your eye to a particular element, or a heavy line lending importance to a detail. Composition played a large role in these drawings; the eye never rests on one detail in his work but pauses at important moments. Through drawing, he helped you experience the structure. That’s what art can do.

The Art of the Architect by Michael G. Imber, $68, us.triglyphbooks.com