August 7, 2012

Tutorial: Learn to Create an Architectural Section Render in Photoshop

Cardiff Bay School Section - David Schnabel

Learning to render in Photoshop starts with Photoshop basics and once you understand them, you can start to learn how to render architectural drawings. It is also important to learn how to use AutoCAD, Revit, Sketchup or other programs that allow you to create architecture drawings to scale. You can also sketch/draft a section and scan into the computer. Once you have a plan, section, perspective or other drawing you can start to render them in Photoshop. In CAD and Revit you can print a pdf to scale, then import it into Photoshop to keep the scale accurate. Double check to make sure it looks to scale when you import it to be sure. I have yet to figure out how to get Sketchup to export to scale. Scale isn't always that important so use your judgement when you start thinking about how you want to do a drawing. The work flow, steps and videos below outlines the the steps to create an architectural section render in Photoshop.

Architectural Section Work Flow

1. Import architectural drawing / sketch
2. Darken Section cut
3. Color materials / Building envelope
4. Color ground (with or without gradient)
5. Add general shading
6. Add direct shading to highlight architectural feature
7. Add Landscaping
8. Add people, furniture, vehicles, etc
9. Add sky (either color, gradient or picture)

The easiest way to learn about how to render is to watch a friend, take a class or watch tutorials. YouTube is teaming with them however there is so much too it so where to start? Understanding the workflow is first step. This post is a compilation of videos and links that I found helping you learn how to render section drawings without wasting time searching online. The following video visually outlines rendering workflow (little different then my workflow, but you get the idea).

1. Section Drawings

You can use many types of drawings in order to do a render, from a simple sketch to a 3D Sketchup section perspective. It is important to realize what you are designing for. Quick design iterations, a quick sketch would suffice, for a final review or presentation, a hard-lined drawing would be best. Drawings to scale help with understanding the scale of a project, yet would probably not matter. Keeping it to scale bods well with teachers, yet don't worry about a scale in your portfolio, just keep things to the same proportions to aid with clarity.

When drawing the section, keep in mind the way you draw things. For example, removing lines in CAD can be way simpler and less time consuming then when it comes to coloring the wall. Keep in mind what lines are important and keep unwanted lines out of the drawing. Also, keep in mind that when rendering, you can always reload a new version of the hard-lined drawing, assuming you don't change the view. For help importing, see Importing a PDF into Photoshop.

Sketchup is a bit more difficult to get into scale. Personally, I put an extra line away from the section so when I put it into Photoshop, I can re-size it so it is roughly to a scale. There is probably a way to print to scale by printing to pdf, yet I am unable to print to pdf with my computer. There are ways, so I suggest Googling it and figure out how you can do it with the software you have on your computer. The following video outlines not only how to create a section and export it in the beginning, but also how to colorize and shade the whole picture to create a section perspective rendering, minimizing detail and highlighting the building envelope.

2. Darken Section Cut

Section cuts are generally black, outlining things cut by your section. It is easier to create a cad section without lines so you can use your magic wand in Photoshop and quickly select it and paint it black or your color of choice. I have seen many sections with red or orange cut lines instead of black. Other ways to highlight your section cut in Photoshop is to use the square selection marque, or the polygonal lasso tool command works well too. You can also use all of those tools together, just be sure to hold the Shift button to add to your selection and the CTRL Button to subtract from your selection.

Perspective Section by CAB Architects - src

3. Color Materials / Building Envelope

When adding color it is always advisable to add subtle colors unless your idea dictates otherwise. Outlining differences in materiality, such as wood, metal or concrete is important. Keep them subtle though, using opacity or by carefully selecting your colors. If you render everything perfectly, in class you can get even more comments about how it is 'too finished' if you can imagine. Its happened to me quite a few times. Think 'suggestion' rather than 'this is the way it will be.'

If your goal is to provide an interior elevation within your section you can add textures to the walls, furniture and people. The following video outlines how to add textures into the walls and windows providing depth to your render. Keep in mind this can be time consuming so I suggest you figure out how much time you want to spend before you commit to textures. The best place I have found to find textures for Photoshop is Free to join and they have plenty of free textures and pictures to use in your renderings.

4. Color Ground

The ground can be solid, opaque or have a gradient. Gradients are easier on your printer and the eye, I recommend using layer opacity to help with toning down the intensity of black. Another good way to complete the ground line is using the brush with a 100% opacity and a hardness of 0 and draw over your ground line. You can either select the area where you want the color to go, or after you are done mask out what you don't need on the ground layer.

Another way to adjust the ground intensity is to either put the picture in an Indesign or Illustrator board and put the opacity between 80 and 95. Where you print and with what will dictate the settings. I typically create a png of what I consider 'final' then put it into a InDesign document to print or create a pdf. This way if I need to revise my final section, I just re-save the Photoshop picture version over of the previous version and update the link. You can also save different versions if you like, you will need to redo the link in your Indesign layout every time.

You can also print a pdf or picture with a % screening in your print properties window. By changing the opacity or screening of a printed picture, you keep all the black of the render at the same intensity making your render consistent. I have found even if your blacks are dark dark grey, it is much better on the eye than complete black.

5. Add General Shading

Simple shading with the brush with a low opacity will allow you to show how light enters your building, structure, etc. It will also help you to accentuate any daylighting, skylight or atrium features. Interior rooms will be darker than exterior rooms (assuming they have windows) so the premise is to show how light penetrates the building envelope. For this step paint in generic lighting and for the next step, go back and add direct shading. If you aim to add lighting in the space, add them in.

Shading - src

6. Add Direct Shading

Add hard shading to windows to highlight architectural features providing a hard shadow-line in areas where clerestory windows, skylights or atrium's are. You understand your design so provide direct or crisp shade lines in these areas and shade accordingly. In Photoshop, use the polygonal lasso tool to select the area where your direct shadows will be.

7. Add Landscaping (background / building shading)

One of the best places to find landscape materials is I recently found it has been a lifesaver, membership is free and the website has a ton of stuff on it. It is usually best (unless your concept suggests otherwise) to use black and white landscaping with a high opacity. You can also create a subtle green hue on your black and white landscape using a green layer set on overlay. To do this set the green layer to overlay and brush green at a low opacity using a soft brush over your landscape so you can see what it looks like as you work. The opacity of the green overlay will also help you get the hue intensity subtle.

8. Add People / Furniture / Vehicles

Adding people to your drawings and renders is very important to help viewers understand their scale and use. Always add people to your renders at the very least. You have options as to how detailed they might be. You can use free CAD files to create ghost or solid people to add to your renders or even your CAD files. Adding people in Photoshop is generally easier than CAD. You can find free CAD blocks at.
Person Pic from 
NRCS CAD Standard - Metal Hanger Drawings - Subway Tiles Only - Anderson Windows

Photos of people can be found at which is a free render material website. I have always found that pictures to supplement your renders can be difficult to find. Use the above sites to help add interest to your renderings or CAD files.

9.Color Sky

When coloring the sky you can either use a picture of a sky, a color, without or without a gradient, and you can add clouds if so inclined. You can find free license pics on Free to join, and you can even use them for any articles or blogs online for free. There is a bit of everything on the site, so check it out. It has saved me in the past.

Free use sky pic from

Additional Information

If you are looking to buy a book on computer rendering, Bradley Cantrell and Wes Michaels' book, Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture: Contemporary Techniques and Tools for Digital Representation in Site Design, even though it is for landscaping outlines the requirements and techniques for Photoshop rendering. I usually buy books from an amazon seller for cheaper. Always be sure check seller reviews!

Also check this book on Architectural Sections, Manual of Section by Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, and David J. Lewis. Debates about a project and its  section are common and can often be intense. Every project needs Sections in order to explore relationships. Until now, however, there has been no framework to describe or evaluate the art of Section making until this book.


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