Louis Sullivan’s System of Architectural Ornament: Master Copies

I am compiling all of my work on Sullivan’s plates here with the most recent addition at the top. If you would like to purchase a print of any of the plates below please click here.

Plate 6

September 9, 2012: In progress…

Plate 5

May 15, 2012: Finished but needs to be scanned…

Plate 4

March 18, 2011

This plate took 8 months. Only 15 hours of that was actual drawing time while the rest was spent worrying about how in the world I was going to actually do it. There is layer after layer of overlapping details that fit together like puzzle pieces. Keeping up with it all was barely possible on my part even with a photocopy of the original plate in front of me. I can’t imagine how Sullivan just sat down and drew it out in one sitting (which he did).

Here’s the drawing process as I think Sullivan did it:

  1. Overall Wireframe: Gross geometry (pentagon or square, etc), sub-geometries, and axial lines.
  2. Embellishments Wireframe: Leaves, bells, berries, indentions, folds, etc.
  3. Shadows

After steps 1 and 2 the drawing looks 4% done. The remaining 96% takes place in step 3 when the shadows go on. There is no gradual build-up of detail–it all pretty much happens in step 3.

Plate 3

July 25, 2010

Plate 3 continues the morphology theme. As Sullivan refers to “sub-centers of energy” and “sub-axes” as “extending outward and inward indefinitely” in my mind he is referring directly to fractals. I read somewhere that Sullivan would draw the exact same amount of detail for a 15-foot circular window surround as he would a 1.5″ medal–to him the level of detail was the same regardless of the scale of the thing. I’m also starting to get a sense for what Sullivan means by “mechanical” versus “plastic” and “plastic” versus “free”.

GIF animation:

Next, plate 4 will be the first real challenge with a large example of “THE PENTAGON IN ACTION”.

Plate 2

July 17, 2010

Plate 2 came close to kicking my ass, but I finally realized that the “base drawings” for these things are very loose and ill-defined and act more as a reference frame than anything else. Any sign of detail comes at the end with a heavy 2B pencil. Also, strict symmetry is not one of Sullivan’s concerns. It may look absolutely bilaterally symmetric, but it ain’t.
Through my readings I have come to learn that later-Sullivan didn’t draw plant types but instead focused on plant morphology. Plate 2 reveals this. He was looking for the “composition of the universe”–sounds pretty cool to me!

Plate 1

July 10, 2010

One day I decided to go on a hunt to find adequate representations of Louis Sullivan’s “System of Architectural Ornament”–an elegant 20 plates describing Sullivan’s design methodology. I failed. The original book’s printing process was atrocious having rendered Sullivan’s beautifully subtle shades of grey pencil into a cold dot-matrix of pure black and white. The Art Institute of Chicago only offered to send me measly 600×800 digital images of Sullivan’s original plates, but with such low resolution it was impossible to perceive any detail at all. Therefore, I decided to embark on a journey that will prove to last years–to reconstruct all 20 plates with my own hand.