Multi-plane Drawing

For a long time I’ve had this idea of a type of architectural rendering that utilized transparency paper to create depth. Its inspiration came from many types of media I had seen in the past:

  • I had seen 3D models that were essentially a series of planes. Each plane was the profile of something like a tree in the foreground, building in the mid, and skyline in the back. Put together like a hollywood set.
  • I once saw a really great section drawing in a portfolio printed on transparency papers. Each layer of transparency had different information (lines, entourage, cut plane, etc) and they merged together to create one 2D section drawing. As you flipped through the portfolio, you flipped through layers of the drawing.



  • I have gotten a reputation as “the graphics guy” and have used Photoshop for many years to put together architectural renderings and diagrams. I’ve developed my own unique style that sort of runs between realistic and dreamy, and have learned that the layers are what makes a rendering rich. What is interesting however is that often times people don’t ever see the individual layers of a rendering and only see the finished product. The mash up of all the layers.

With all of these influences and experiences I decided to experiment. The premise was simple:

Could you de-laminate a perspective into layers and stack them together to create depth?


Mark I:

Each experiment varied slightly and a lot was learned from each. The first, this very lazy mock-up, functioned as a proof of concept but not much more. The major flaw was that there was no continuous frame to contain the image. The transparency paper naturally wanted to bend and break from the two bars sloppily holding it together. Still, the intent was good and was enough to show that what I was proposing was possible.


Mark II:

Version 2 of this same image was significantly more successful (and more expensive). Going to the local craft store I collected a series of matte boards for picture framing. Using this as the frame for each transparency sheet, I used small pieces of foam core to space the planes farther apart. The effect of this is difficult to capture in photos, but below is a series that attempts to do so.


Mark III:

Marks I + II both utilized a fully rendered image, meaning it was entirely computer generated. Mark III was different in that it utilized a landscape photograph with lots of depth. Starting there I was able to split the image into foreground, middle ground and background layers.


Mark IV:

This version very closely resembled the section drawing I described above, but was created using a section perspective drawing. The cut plane, edge lines, entourage, and shading were all separated onto different layers. The result was at times confusing and highly conceptual, but the sense of depth was achieved. This time, rather than using matte boards I used $1 wood frames.


Mark V:

Up until this point the experiments were kept rather small, all around a 4″x6″ framed opening. Mark V was an attempt at an 8″x10″ drawing that very quickly turned messy. At smaller scales the transparency paper maintains rigidity and is easy to work with and glue to the frame. At a larger scale the transparency sheets bow under their own weight making the framing process very difficult and frustrating. From this point on I learned to keep things small (or get a friend or two to help you glue sheets down). Another downfall was my ambitious layering. Though 6 layers doesn’t seem like a lot, the image probably could have handled 2-3 max to keep it legible.


Mark VI:

Mark VI was another challenging idea that in concept was interesting. The idea was instead of framing a perspective, you could frame a layered topographic map, and, if there were enough contours, you could start to perceive space. This was made of 24 layers. I quickly learned that transparency paper isn’t as clear as 4-5 stacked sheets seem. By the time you get to 10 or 15 sheets, the transparency wears away and the very far back sheets become cloudy and obscured.


It is impossible to capture the effect this one has when properly backlit using a camera. But generally the concept worked. If held up to the light in the right way, you can read a hillside form with a series of volumes staggered across the landscape. The main issues with this, aside from the clarity of the transparencies, was the necessity for perfect alignment. The more precise and crisp the lines you draw are, the more imperative it is that the sheets stack perfectly. And when they don’t it is immediately evident and spoils the illusion.


Mark VII:

Mark VII represents a final strategy attempt for the layering of the images. Rather than trimming edges with sharp, straight lines, the layers are separated in a softer way that allows them to bleed together more.


In this way the contrast between printed image and transparency is much less and allows for more movement in the image before the layering fails and reveals blank spots in the image.


In concept, this idea works. It isn’t the best way to portray all buildings and requires a bit of fine-tuning to create the most convincing image. But my next instinct went to pushing the idea further.

What about Shadows? 

I found a portable projector in the office and attempted to create my own overhead projector (the kind your teacher used in high school).


As expected, Mark VI (the topo experiment) was too layered to create any meaningful shadow. However, other simpler experiments were much more successful.




I’ll definitely be experimenting more with this technique. It would be really great to create a large, more immersive version of these, but for now the small pocket versions are really fun to play with. Also, since these are so difficult to understand as still images, I posted some videos on my instagram which you can see here. 

Got any suggestions for what I should try next with this technique? 

Have you seen anything similar to this before that I can reference for future experiments? 

And if you’re wondering, yes I miss school and all the freedom and fun that came with it. 


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