Earlier this year I interviewed Al Forster at The Sea Ranch Lodge. I have edited the tape and divided it into two parts. This is part one:
O: Al is a fantastic architectural illustrator. Give me some background on who you are and where you come from.
A. I was born on the east coast but lived most of my life in California. Had a Navy father in WWII but his profession later was being a lawyer…moved to the Bay Area when I was in grammar school. I think as far as getting me to where I am now you probably need to know I was the child of a crazy alcoholic parent –it was difficult to study and I wasn’t a very good student – I didn’t pay very much attention to school and then I took a mechanical drawing class and it made a huge difference in the course of my life up until this point – all of a sudden it made sense to me. I liked the act of drawing always, but solving and ordering mechanical drawings really gave me direction. The instructor would call people around the board and say look at how Al did it – and I’d never had any praise for anything I’d done and he set me some tasks – I didn’t even have to finish the class – he gave me the task of going out and measuring for remodeling the school – it was all new to me to find some importance in what I did and what I could do – that headed me towards the study of architecture. I was pushed by my grandfather – he knew I was more artistic than mechanical so he pushed me towards architecture. I was going to join the Navy after high school because my grades weren’t very good but my dad applied to some colleges for me and I was eventually accepted by the University of Houston who had a good architecture program and that headed me in the right direction. I remember being at college for the first day or two and I walked into the lobby of the architecture building and there was a presentation with models and illustration boards full of plans and sections with trees – I saw that and I knew I had arrived – I was in heaven – it was just the coolest thing to see and know that was where I was headed.
O. So what did you do right out of school – or maybe you worked while you were in school?
A. I worked while I was in school for a couple different firms. My old habits came back. I partied too much – so after third year I dropped out. I lost my student deferment and went into the Navy and spent 2 years. I had wanted to get into a computer drafting school, which I probably could have but wound up on a ship and did two tours in Vietnam. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I got out in San Diego and I came up to Sea Ranch because I’d known about it – I wanted to live here but I stayed in San Diego and worked to try to come up here and 27 years went by. I started out doing design and super graphics, a lot of architectural remodels and additions and more and more I found that rendering was the niche I wanted to pursue.
O. So the rendering started once you were on your own rather than when working in an office?
A. Yes, more when I was on my own because that’s what I wanted to get after. I did drafting and rendering in offices, but once I was on my own I needed to develop some skills that were marketable and worthy.
O. When you were working in an office were you not working as a designer so much?
A. When I started in San Diego I got a job for a large interior design firm and I was the main presentation draftsman and renderer for 6 designers all on different projects and they would come to me and we were doing restaurants, malls, offices, and residential projects – I learned a lot – I had to do presentation drawings, technical drafting, renderings – I honed my skills there and then I broke away from them and started doing rendering, residential and commercial design, super graphics, advertising art illustration on my own – anything and everything.
O. A quick little aside here – you mentioned your father being an alcoholic and…
A. It was my mother, not my father.
O. I have noticed a number of architects who have had alcoholic parents and I wonder if you have any thoughts about that? Is there any kind of link?
A. I had to go inside myself for entertainment. I couldn’t bring any friends by the house – it was just too risky and embarrassing…so I learned to make decisions and play and satisfy my own needs and I became pretty self-sufficient. I’m not one to take lessons – I’m one to figure out for myself and I think I end up knowing things more thoroughly than if I’d taken a lesson. I was never very good at that…sitting in a classroom. I usually like to figure things out for myself – and being self-sufficient I don’t believe in practicing watercolor – you sit down and you learn from your mistakes – it’s always been hollow to me when you practice – there’s no pay off, there’s no risk.
O. I want to jump in with a few questions here. I was commenting about that rendering that was in your office that was so unusual. It had a gold sky on one side and an almost indigo blue sky on the other and had a definite quality about it that strikes one above and beyond the imagery that the drawing or painting is trying to communicate. It raises the question about illustration that are impressionistic or have an emotional quality – like certain Hugh Ferris drawings – does that kind of work have a place in architectural illustration – and for that matter were those Hugh Ferris drawings actually shown to a client or were they just done off in the studio for himself?
A. I don’t know – I think one of the things I learned about rendering is that renderings are art – a painted art form – and once I got that in my head I realized that I could take some liberties and be a little more …I tend to be too tight – I think it loosens me up a bit and allows me to get away from that technical perfection, although I’m still sometimes a lot tighter than I want to be – so I think architectural rendering – as opposed to art for art’s sake, you have a goal in mind – and a set of conditions it has to satisfy – so it has to pass muster first and then it can explore the artistic and the artistic side can began to explain some of the technical pieces that have to be sorted out.
O. Just as you asked me about my processes out on a site – will you take me through your processes – they seem quite precise although when you focus in on any one piece it begins to dissolve and becomes impressionistic.
A. These days I’m usually sent a sketch-up model with perhaps 2 or 3 views or versions.
O. Excuse me, are you talking about a computer program? Ha, Ha, Ha…
A. Mostly it has massing, not a lot of detail and if they allow me to add my input and say that I think this one would make a better rendering than that one – it becomes a base for the drawing. I have in my mind a vision of what I want the final drawing to be and then I start to stage it – the entourage, the detail, the back grounds, and so at that point my vision jumps ahead as to what I want the color to look like – it’s not something I put into words…
O. What do you mean “what you want the color to look like”?
A. I begin to see how I want to paint the drawing and it’s not a script – it’s more of a fuzzy vision in my head – when I want and how I want the building to jump and to resolve – where I want the lights and the darks…
O. Do you ever do value studies?
A. No, I don’t do any value studies.
O. All in your head?
A. That tends to be a pretty solid guide for me – although foggy and hazy, it still works for
me – I just jump in and go for it and if I run into trouble – which I usually do – which all artists do – I hit the wall and work through it. – you just find a way – you make it work. That sky you like is a case in point – there was something in the sky I didn’t like and I sat and stared and then picked up this brush and did some bold color and you know you wouldn’t do something like that if the sky was going well so it’s a much better drawing for it. That sky is one of my favorite skies, but it’s not something I would do if things were going well – I wouldn’t dream of going there – there was no reason to have to have the cojones to pick up that brush and make that bold move and hope it works – that drawing was done and if I’d really made a mess of it I may have had to start over – and it’s not something I wanted to do.