James Akers is a registered architect, full-time architectural renderer, and a professor of iPad Drawing at UCLAx based in New York. James runs his own online courses, including Procreate for iPad Architects, and Youtube channel iPad For Architects, focussed on using digital art techniques to produce detailed architectural hand renders and designs.
The architectural industry was one of the earliest adopters of Procreate professionally, with Fosters + Partners’ Senior Partner and Art Director Narinder Sagoo collaborating to create the Narinder brush way back in 2017 for Procreate 4. Ever since, requests for tips, tricks and tutorials by architects and architectural renderers have been in high demand. James Akers’ talents are obvious from the moment you first see his richly realized architectural renders. Having honed his craft since 1988, beginning with pencil and watercolors and then transitioning to Procreate with the advent of Apple Pencil, it’s clear that his love of architecture has driven him to experiment with new and different mediums. With over three decades of experience and an astute knowledge of how to combine new technology with traditional techniques, James’ unique insight into the industry shows us how it has evolved.
Starting out as a junior at a leading US architectural firm in the 80s, James had an epiphany that maybe there was more to life than becoming a partner. “I looked around the office and I saw that the person having the most fun was the woman sketching 3D views of one of our important designs for Rockefeller Center. When the client would come in, everyone would gather around her, and she became the most important person in that room.” It wasn’t ego that drove James’ desire for a change of career, but in the hyper-competitive world of architecture, “I realized I would much rather be noticed than ignored. Renderers were compensated at a much higher rate than the typical young architect, so I filed that experience away and a couple of years later became a full-time renderer.”
Making architectural rendering a full-time practice came with its ups and downs however, as 3D technology began to dominate the industry in the late 90s and photorealistic renders started to become the norm. For most clients artistic renders still maintained their allure, but the costly and time-consuming nature of making changes and iterating by hand was giving digital a big edge. “Every time we had to make a change we would have to paint the proposed changes on small patches of paper, then either cut them in with an X-Acto knife and rubber cement. Or as digital became a stronger presence in the office, scan them and reassemble the rendering plus changes in Photoshop in order to make that change.”
Then in 2005 a piece of technology debuted that changed James’ career forever. “When the Apple Pencil came out it was a game changer. I looked around for a digital drawing app that was best suited to my needs, and Procreate was the winner by far. So I made the switch and burned the bridge behind me.” With the combination of Procreate on iPad with Apple Pencil, James found the ingredient he felt was missing when using a mouse or tablet. “It's the directness of it. It's the closest thing to drawing on paper. It really unlocks that other part of your brain that is sometimes dulled by technology.”
Being able to tap into his years of artistic skills using paper, brush and pigment, James was able to take full advantage of all the benefits that digital art on iPad offers to give him a new found edge over other forms of digital rendering. “A skillful renderer can create multiple views of an imaginary building in an afternoon, plus make them engaging enough to actually help an architect get an important job.” It wasn’t just speed that helped give James an advantage over the newer 3D renders. “By tapping into that ancient part of the human brain that will always loves artisanal objects and stories, you can't help but respond to the magic of drawing by hand. Especially the way drawing by hand leaves telltale traces of the process by which a drawing was created. That's something photorealistic rendering will never be able to match.”
The ability for clients to engage in that process is something James has been able to identify as a big advantage professionally. “Every architect’s work looks the same these days because they're all done in the same 3D rendering programs. There is something to the idea that a hand sketch clearly contains within it the process by which it was made. There is something in the lizard brain that knows this, and responds to it. The ability to spontaneously sketch in front of a client, is again something you could never do with a keyboard and mouse, which of course is all related back to the process as well.”
Adopting Procreate early and getting in at the ground floor of Apple Pencil’s revolutionary launch also helped open up new opportunities James hadn’t contemplated. “I became a UCLAx professor essentially because of the Time-lapse feature in Procreate. During a family vacation my more technologically savvy daughter pointed out to me that Time-lapse had been turned on since I began using Procreate. So every one of my 100 or so drawings and renderings were available as video.” This unexpected realization lead to what James calls his ‘full-time hobby’. The ‘iPad for Architects’ YouTube channel was born and “seven years later that trail of YouTube time-lapse videos came across the desk of the Dean of the UCLA school of Interior Design. They were trying to figure out how to incorporate digital drawing into their future curriculum, and after seeing my videos he called and asked me to come teach.”
Combining his new found passion for teaching, James also launched his own website full of educational resources for architects and renderers looking to get into Procreate. On top of his academic and online success, YouTube’s immediacy still offers something special, “…it’s fair to say that as you realize you're actually helping people and they are supporting you in the comments, it's a complete rush. It became a hobby that combined something I loved, and more importantly something I had to do to support myself anyway, with the benefit of positive reinforcement from strangers, so what's not to like?”
Even while juggling two careers James still finds time to take a break and see the world, although it doesn’t take long before his passion for drawing to collide with his love of travel. “I recently discovered the value of Procreate for that famous thing that all of us architects are supposed to do when we travel? Sketch. But instead of sketching in a naturalistic way, I'll look at a building and I'll just do a quick proportional analysis of it. I was in Paris last year and went out to see Corbusier's famous Villa Savoye, which is that house up on stilts, this beautiful thing. It’s one of the most important buildings for most architects. Rather than sketching it in the old fastidious days of pencil, I just said, ‘Well, to hell with this.’ and I got out Procreate.”
“I put it on Drawing Assist and I laid out what I thought were the proportions. And then I did every other detail of the building just with the rectangular selection tool. So it was no longer a drawing as such, but it still had this kind of a beauty to it where I was communing directly with Corbusier through his proportions.” Even though the tools are new, the artistic intent for James remains the same. “That's what drawing used to be for anyway, trying to learn proportions from these artists and these masters. But here I was doing it directly and it really was fun.”
In addition to showcasing Procreate’s many uses to an eager audience of architects, James has also joyfully merged his experience into a series of hand-crafted brushes. “I've only created a dotted line and property line brush that are ‘brushes’ in the conventional sense that you draw with them. But one of the most exciting moments for me came when I realized that I could create brushes to serve as stencils. I got this rush of what the potential of that could be, and just had a ball creating brushes that allowed you to instantly tap out a scale ruler to actual scale, or tap out people, trees, vegetation and cars or any other entourage element I could dream of. I got such a thrill out of the sense that I had hacked Procreate as if it was a kind of open source program, and added these valuable tools for a world of procreate users.”
With a new 16-part online educational series on the horizon, James is taking all his learnings from YouTube and UCLAx and condensing them down to focus on, “how architects can use Procreate for everything they do now. From hatching their quietest new ideas all the way through to developing them to the point where they can hand off to 2D or 3D CAD. So it's really everything from concept design up to CAD.” With Procreate and Apple Pencil central in his teaching, “I want my course to be all about combining the timeless interface of the pencil with modern digital editing tools. That combination together completely renews the idea of drawing for the digital age.”