Digital age shaping future of architectural illustration | Q&A

As an architectural illustrator, Rick Mullen has spent decades drawing, painting and rendering a host of development proposals, including hotels, airports, housing communities and public-works projects.

Mullen opened his downtown Bellingham office, Presentation Art Studio, in 1983, and since then has ridden the waves of construction booms and busts, as well as the evolving nature of architectural art, a specialized field once done entirely by hand that today is dominated by computers and digitally rendered graphics.

While his medium might have changed, Mullen said his job as an illustrator remains essentially the same: take an arcane set of schematics and transform them into an image of a project’s full potential.

BBJ: How did you find yourself in this profession? Why did you decide to pursue it?  

Mullen: I knew early on that I enjoyed drawing and had some natural talent for it, but it wasn’t until college that I started taking the idea of drawing or illustrating seriously.

Early travels through Europe were also a tremendous eye opener to the wonders of architecture and fine art. With the appreciation I had for architecture and the love of drawing, it seemed to be a logical direction.

There were no freelance illustrators north of Seattle doing this kind of work, so I thought there might be an opportunity. I knew Bellingham was growing, and I hoped to grow my business with it.

BBJ: When you have an illustration job, is there a routine or process you follow? What’s your first step?  

Mullen: The first step is to be sure the scope of work is clearly understood by both parties and a written agreement for services is acknowledged. This kind of work has a way of morphing into much more than the original scope.

The process then, is to build a 3-D computer model from the architect’s design schematics. This is also when colors, materials and sun direction are established, which can be changed if necessary.

When that is all approved, the entourage can be added in the way of cars, people, landscaping, signage and backgrounds. This is what gives the image life, character and a connection that the general public can identify with.

A successful illustration allows others to see the design in the context of the real world, as a tangible part of its environment, imbued with life and activity.

It’s this artistic expression that I love about my work.

BBJ: Technology has obviously changed your job tremendously over the years, but aside from that, what would you say are the greatest differences in how you do your work today versus how you did your work when you first began? 

Mullen: Analog (hand) versus digital (computer)—that is the greatest difference. I produced hundreds of renderings for almost 13 years before ever touching a computer.  Perspective grids, measuring point systems and layers of flimsy tracing paper were required before you could start the actual final pen and ink or colored illustration. It was all done by hand, as were the architects’ designs.

Now all that preliminary work is done on the computer.

The computer graphics industry, or CGI, is the most profound change, but other than that it pretty much remains the same as it has for centuries: to illustrate what a proposed building project will look like when completed.

I will add that the need for line work versus color has also changed. Before color laser copiers and desktop printers were available, color offset printing was your only choice and very expensive for short runs or one-off copies. Probably 70 percent of my drawings in the 8os and 90s were pencil or pen and ink.

Because of the low cost of color reproduction, I rarely do a pencil or pen and ink drawing anymore.

BBJ: Can you explain more about the pros and cons of analog work versus digital?

Mullen: Having worked for almost 30 years in this business, I have seen the transition from hand drawing to computers. I chose to learn and utilize much of the computer graphics technology in order to stay competitive and to offer a broader range of services, and I believe I am one of the few architectural illustrators working today to offer both styles of presentation.

A hand rendering (particularly a very loose style) very often suggests to the client that this is a work in progress of the artist’s or designer’s concept. It’s an expression of an idea, and it gives the viewer the ability to imagine along with the designer and more easily offer input.

It’s a very tactile and individual form of communication.

A photo-realistic digital rendering pretty much says: This is how it is and will be. And it can leave a little less to the imagination.

However, digital renderings do offer a level of credibility associated with marketing a project, because we are so accustomed to assuming that photos are real.

A big limitation of digital rendering is that the design needs to be almost 80 percent complete in order to even start the 3-D modeling. This means a majority of the details need to be worked out and drafted in CAD (computer-aided design) software before the preliminary modeling can begin and before the client has the opportunity to review the progress.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have to ask: what are the colors, finishes, and materials going to be, and do you have a landscape plan?

The response is, usually, “We haven’t gotten that far yet.”

On the other hand, an advantage of computer models is their ability to allow you to alter part of the image without effecting the whole piece. Hand drawn paintings can be extremely difficult to change.

BBJ: What is your biggest professional challenge today? 

Mullen: It’s two things really. Advancements in architectural CAD (computer-aided design) software have made it possible for most architecture firms to produce highly technical perspective drawings, and some CAD programs actually produce a 3-D model while drafting in 2-D.

These renderings used to be reserved for the few architects or drafters who could draw by hand or they would contract these services out to freelance illustrators.  While the computer models are technically accurate they are not the whole picture of how a building will look in its intended environment, and can often lack good composition or any real emotion or connectivity with their target audience. They often focus too much on the technical and less on the aesthetic.

Unfortunately this lower standard of rendering is becoming acceptable to many clients, and they are missing the opportunity to have a more specialized presentation with a much stronger impact.

The other big issue is outsourcing. While it hasn’t been a big problem for me with local clients, in Seattle I often find I’m bidding against global rendering companies from China, India or the Middle East. It’s impossible to compete with their prices and many illustrators have simply been put out of business from it here in the States.

BBJ: How do you think the building industry in Whatcom County is doing right now? Are things picking up? 

Mullen: Compared to the Great Recession, it has obviously picked up, but I think locally it is still a little slow. Three, maybe four new hotels, a new Costco, new medical offices are all good signs, and the housing industry has picked up considerably. I especially see this in the Seattle area.

My understanding is commercial financing is still difficult, but I do know of several big projects in design development that look very promising. Much of my work is coming from other parts of the state and several projects out of state, so it is tough for me to determine other than what I read about locally. I believe the future downtown waterfront development will be a huge boon for construction and general economic growth in our region over the next 10 to 20 years.

BBJ: If you met someone who wanted to pursue architectural illustration, and they were in the same spot you were in when your career first began, what would you tell them?  

Mullen: I believe it would be best to pursue an architecture degree with a strong emphasis on both traditional art and computer graphics. You will have more to offer a larger architectural firms or a larger rendering company.

While there is no question that computer graphics and photo-realistic rendering will be the mainstay of future architectural presentations, it is impossible to match the unique expression of an original, traditional hand-painted rendering. The same really can’t be said for much of the computer modeling generated today, which very often all looks the same.

I would also add that you better love what you do and be ready to change with the industry—be creative.

Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

Rick Mullen Illustrations | Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal
(Click an image to open slideshow)


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