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How to Create an Attractive Site Plan Using Hand Drawing and Photoshop – PART 1

Mar 24, 2011

by Brian O’Reilly, Super Designer for VIA Architecture

In this series of tutorials I’ll be going through a few techniques you can use to enhance both hand and digital drawings. In this case, I was given hand drawn site plans for a local farm from our Director of Community Sustainability, and asked to take them from a sketch to a full color plan:

(click image to view larger)

To begin, I used trace paper to redraw certain portions of the original drawing to simplify the overlays that will be used in the Photoshop portion of the exercise. It seemed to make sense to draw the trees and vegetation (Figure 3), the rock walls (Figure 4), the paths and buildings (Figure 5), and the shadows (Figure 6) each separately. This is a pretty flexible part of the process – you need to consider what elements you want to have individual control over in terms of brightness, contrast, color, etc. Also, one of the most important considerations is selection, that is, what portions of your drawing you’ll want to be able to easily select in Photoshop with, for instance, the magic wand tool (more on that later…

Another important thing to remember when combining a number of drawings into one is to establish reference points. You’ll notice that in each of the separate layers I drew, I’ve included four crosshairs (see Figure 7) – one at each corner of the property line. This will make it much easier to align the drawings when combining them in Photoshop.

Once I have all my linework drawn and scanned (all with the same resolution and file type), I’ll begin combining them into a Photoshop file, again using the crosshairs to align them. With each layer, I use ‘Free Transform’ (ctrl-t) to move and rotate the layer into the correct alignment. However, DO NOT rescale the drawing. Because each drawing was scanned at the same resolution, they should all be at a consistent scale, and therefore no resizing is necessary.

Also, when these drawings are brought into PS, they are opaque, and you can’t see one through the other. The method for dealing with this will be, most typically, to go into the ‘Layers’ window to the ‘Blending Mode’ drop down menu, and select ‘Multiply’ for each of your layers (see Figure 8).

Figure 8

‘Multiply’ causes anything in the layer that is white to have 0% opacity (completely transparent), and anything that is black to have 100% opacity (completely opaque). Anything in between (gray tones or color) will have an opacity somewhere between – e.g. a gray tone with a K value of 50% will have 50% opacity. It is extremely useful when overlaying linework on a drawing. Once all my layers have their Blending Mode set to Multiply, this is what it looks like (Figure 9).

Figure 9

Now, you may have noticed that we have some artifacts from the scanning, not to mention that it’s looking a little of kilter. To eliminate unwanted pencil lines and shading from scanning you’ll need to go to each layer in remove them, either with the eraser tool, a white brush, or my preferred method, the clipping mask.

The clipping mask is an excellent, and most importantly, non-destructive tool for modifying a layer in Photoshop. Here’s how it works:

I’ll start by turning off all of the layers but the one I’m working on, in this case the Trees layer. With the Trees layer selected, I click on the ‘Clipping Mask’ button at the bottom of the Layers window (see Figure 10), creating a clipping mask for that layer (see Figure 11).

Figure 10

Figure 11

The clipping mask does what you might expect – it creates a mask that hides parts of the layer and reveals others. Parts of a clipping mask painted black will hide that portion of the layer, those painted white will reveal that portion of the layer (gray tones will have an opacity equal to their K-value). Unless you have something selected, the clipping mask will start out white, so we’ll want to select a brush and set our foreground color to black so we can start eliminating parts of the drawing. As we paint over these parts of our drawing, it will disappear. However, what is convenient about the clipping mask is that it does not directly affect the original (hence the ‘non-destructive’). If we make a mistake, simply switch the foreground color to white and you can reveal parts of your drawing you may have accidentally hidden. (more on clipping masks later…)

Figure 12 shows our drawing with the clipping done to all the layers, as well as a background layer with a white fill that covers up any holes we might end up with. I’ve also moved the drawing into the center of the artboard.

Figure 12

Now, it looks to me like the drawing is a little off kilter, and I’d like to straighten it out. Select the ‘Ruler’ tool by clicking and holding the ‘Eyedropper’ on the toolbar (Figure 13). Then use the ruler tool to delineate a horizontal or vertical line on your drawing (Figure 14). Then, on the Menu bar click Image -> Image Rotation ->Arbitrary (Figure 15). This will bring up a dialogue box that is already filled in with the necessary value of rotation to make your ruler line perfectly orthogonal.

Figure 14

Figure 15

So that’s all for this week. Next time we’ll get into adding color, Photoshop brushes, more on clipping masks, and more!


  1. This has been absolutely useful. Given me lots of ideas. Genuine appreciation on the work…doral real estate

  2. Great post. For anyone who’s interested, much of this process (and more) is well delineated in Bradley Cantrell’s “Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture”, an excellent (and easily understood) resource for melding analog and digital graphics.

  3. Even s a non photo-shop user I found this fascinating. In particular it highlights the use of a very controlled logic system to get to end results that I know can be very emotive in their impact.