Interview with Willie Watt

Interview with Willie Watt

October 26, 2020

Architect and Masterplanner Willie Watt has always been passionate about drawing. However, after years of utilising drawing as an essential tool for communicating ideas and designs within his practice at Nicoll Russell Studios, drawing for pleasure had begun to fall by the wayside... Until the delight of filling and sharing his sketchbooks was recently reignited. 

We were delighted to catch up with Willie to find out more about the role that drawing plays in his life, and how his relationship with the medium has developed over time.

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Willie Watt.

What does drawing mean to you, and your practice as an architect?

"I believe that drawing is fundamental to the practice of an architect and particularly in my own practice Nicoll Russell Studios. We believe that it is every bit as important as the digital world and that it allows an architect the time to think, to analyse, to consider context, to work on design development, coordination and ultimately the delivery of buildings. Drawings catalyse your cognitive understanding of place, space and detail and they illuminate client discussions and design workshops or the resolution of construction detailing and sequencing on site. From our perspective drawing should complement work on the computer and indeed we encourage those working in the digital modelling of our work to use pens and paper to step back from the model at appropriate times and to consider by hand how key issues should be resolved.

"It is an engaging process where everyone can take part and can be immensely enjoyable for clients.

"Drawings for an architect can be very elegant or evocative, but they can quite often be quite primitive and used as an immediate form of visual communication.

"Each has their place. Analysis, the consideration of the specific on site and the way a design evolves at the tip of the pen gives you time to think, to get under the skin of a particular location, building and requirement, to create an approach which fits and seems right.

"I do a lot of drawings of all kinds at work, that is my job. Much of them are to communicate design intent and to manage the design process, but one of my habitual drawings which I love to undertake are set piece perspectives and aerial perspectives in particular. I always find that projects, particularly master planning or place making projects are best explained in their entirety from the air. In doing so I never tend to use aerial photography but instead construct the view by reading maps and using photographs at ground level thereby spending time immersing myself in the place and the challenge."

What would you say of the role of drawing across multiple disciplines, particularly to someone who believed it was ‘just for artists’? 

"It’s definitely not just for artists.

"At one level it is a means of very pure communication - a picture after all is worth a thousand words. Buildings are created by often vast multi-disciplinary teams and free hand drawing is a vital tool to collaborate during workshops or technical meetings alongside digital solutions. Harnessed properly it can catalyse debate, and identify and refine solutions. We always encourage others around those tables to draw in response and indeed I have offered to promote sketching at many of the consultants we frequently collaborate with.

"The simple act of drawing together makes architects think collaboratively in 3 dimensions, which ultimately positively reinforces the way everyone works together as a team. 

"Buildings also involve arrays of stakeholders because they have an interest in the building as a neighbour, an expert or as a user. Many people find 2D computer drawings confusing or CGI’s sterile, but hand drawings engage people from all walks of life and start a conversation. Stakeholder engagement is key to the success of most developments, so drawing and sketching is therefore a vitally important tool to assist their development."

Have there been any particular projects or pivotal moments in your career that have really stuck with you?

"I didn’t do brilliantly at art at school, I got a C, my interests and drawings didn’t fit in, so I have always felt like an imposter ever since. But there were two things that happened more or less at the same time at the end of my time at University which gave me a boost in confidence with regards to my drawings and art. One was winning the Sir Robert Lorimer award for drawing and the other was illustrating an RIBA architectural ideas competition in pencil and watercolour; it won the competition, it also won the Royal Scottish Academy student award and was exhibited at the RSA. I remember Bob Allies (who was the RIBA judge) loved the watercolours.

"Everyone needs positive reinforcement and that happy coming together did a huge amount for me as I embarked on my professional life, so it is an experience which I will always cherish. Although I am now all of a sudden sharing so much more in terms of what I produce, I am still very unsure of myself. I now think sharing what I create is important, it develops the storyline of what I do as an architect and why drawing is so important to my practice Nicoll Russell Studios. But again as you will learn I probably wouldn’t have started to do that if it had not been for the chance interaction with Kate Mason and The Big Draw."

What is your opinion on the importance of embedding the arts across the curriculum? Why do you think the next generation of makers and creators are so important?

"Virtually everyone who has taken part in the Big Draw’s ‘In Conversation’ series on Instagram Live has said that they had been encouraged not to pursue a career in the arts, despite their talent or passion for it. I believe that it is wrong at a personal level. Everyone should be allowed and encouraged to explore their talents, but it is also really important for society and the wealth of the nation. Intellectual Property is so important to the economy and will become more and more important as the economy evolves, we need thinkers, designers and makers. 

"Everyone needs a grounding in the arts so that we can harness that energy to tackle climate change and all of the other challenges we face, but also to create jobs and opportunities for our children and their children. Alas, STEM is too narrow and we need to pursue STEAM in the curriculum to ensure we are fit for the future."

How has your relationship with drawing changed over time? 

"I have always loved to draw and whilst at times I have shared what I produce, since working as an architect I have tended to view them as strictly project related. I use them for analysis, the communication of design solutions, the development of detail etc, but essentially they serve a purpose and are then put away never to be seen again.

"That wasn’t always the case. Drawing and painting regularly helped pay for things whilst I was at College, with paintings of the fishing boats of my home town of Arbroath proving popular with their Skippers. Upon qualification I worked as an architect in Scotland whilst working as a freelance architectural illustrator in London. Throughout that period starting at school, through college and then in my early years as an architect I voraciously completed sketchbook upon sketchbook alongside taking huge amounts of photographs to dissect buildings and places and to understand how they worked. By spending time using sketches to focus on a given subject, I was able to reach a greater understanding of what I was looking at. My sketchbooks were an essential item to carry about in my pockets, rucksack or luggage. They catalysed reflection and must also have offered huge benefits in terms of health and well-being in what was a busy stage in life. 

"During this period my work was very open; I shared it, gave it away, sold it, exhibited it and at times it was published.

"But gradually, drawing purely for work took over, drawings were related to jobs, specific clients and they were often confidential. Whilst my drawings were still undertaken for the same fundamental reasons (communication, analysis etc), the delight of the sketchbooks as an end result in themselves fell by the wayside and my library of sketchbooks, drawings and paintings languished in drawers and filing cabinets, many of which were at my parents.

"That is not to say that I didn’t draw. I still did, but they were for work and for clients. But that to a large extent has become a private joy because there are fewer opportunities to share them and once drawn they are archived and promptly forgotten.

"And that is where they may have stayed. 

"That though has changed over the course of the last year.

"Back in October my dad died after a long battle with cancer, which had seen me frequently travelling out first to see and help my mum and dad and then out to help just my mum. In the weeks after his death when I visited we began to look over old photographs, books and inevitably some of my paintings, drawings and sketchbooks stored there. 

"It was during one of those evening visits that I casually photographed one of the drawings as it lay on the dining room table, I trimmed it, straightened it and posted it on LinkedIn from my phone. When I logged into my account the next day I was quite amazed by the reaction,  and so the next time I visited my mum I photographed another drawing on the dining room table as we flicked through boxes of memorabilia and my sketches. 

"Inevitably another became another - until it ultimately became a stream of posts that connected me to The Big Draw. 

"Speaking to Kate Mason made me think about why I started to photograph and share my work, which to some extent was nostalgia, but that nostalgia also rekindled a delight in making the image and sharing that publicly.

"My posts started by focusing on the work I uncovered at my mum’s accompanied by the story behind the drawing. This was interesting because despite the passage of time, those minutes standing drawing were very vivid. The act of drawing reinforced memories of the place and the artefact to quite an amazing extent. Which is rather what I hoped would happen when I drew them in the first place focusing on what makes somewhere special and makes even a utilitarian building unique, to underpin my understanding of placemaking and how buildings are built and evolve over generations.

"This has encouraged me afresh to draw once more simply to enjoy it."

How has the lockdown affected your work and practice? Has drawing helped during this difficult time?

"Design and architecture is a collaborative process so designing together, collaborating with other consultants and engaging with clients across the internet has been a challenge for many. But equally it has been quite liberating, it has encouraged me to draw in mixed media using analogue and digital means, which is something that I have found to be great fun. So, I have jumped straight in. That has been helped by the fact that I have been using a graphic display tablet which has been a stunningly good collaborative tool to exchange information virtually.

"It has also aligned with The Big Draw encouraging me to share my work, which I have done and I have found rather addictive. 

"Whilst I have been doing long hours on my day job, I have found that drawing for drawing’s sake has been a great foil. I am a Type 1 Diabetic and I am also a voluntary Mountainbike Leader, which would normally mean that at weekends I would be enjoying the outdoors. As a Type 1 I am in a vulnerable category so I really haven’t been going out to the same extent and when I do I am generally staying well away from other people. That could have been a great loss, but sketching and drawing fortuitously intertwined with virtual visits via Google or old photos, then bike rides for exercise along the coast, firstly based on hurried photographs and then as pandemic restrictions eased sit down drawings. That has allowed me to focus on the places and things which I enjoy and to savour the moment, heightening the enjoyment of the hour or so outside.   

"But in doing so I have started drawing what is around me, looking over the hedge at the world in lockdown, drawing things I see when I have been out exercising on my bike (when I get home) so that I savour the moments outside. I am beginning to draw current day views of scenes from a 1929 sketchbook of East Coast Fishing Villages and ultimately with me sharing drawings with neighbours and socially distanced discussions with passers by on the other side of my hedge. All of this has been a Lockdown revelation and I am eagerly looking forward to the weekend or the evenings to concentrate on the joy of purely drawing for drawings sake again."

Do you think these past few months have highlighted an innate need for creativity?

"Lockdown has been an intensely creative and productive time for me both in terms of my practice and personally. Sharing my personal work I think has allowed other people to tap into that same experience, to reflect, to consider what makes places special and also to recognise why drawing is such an important skill for architects to hone. And I in turn have definitely fed off their reaction.

"This period of Lockdown has seen me very busy with my work but as a release from that, to keep up morale within our team and to communicate design intent I have drawn more and more. That and the need to communicate digitally with colleagues has also seen me acquiring the digital display tablet I mentioned earlier and experimenting with different techniques, mixed media and digital artworks, which has been a revelation.

"It has imbued in me a real joy and delight in making a mark, which ultimately will feed back into my work drawings. In terms of spontaneity, technique but also the library in my head of things I have seen and understood in much greater depth, which undoubtedly makes drawing and indeed design all the easier.

"I am still posting sketches and drawings on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. I will continue to do that more and more regularly and I will to a greater extent weave in my work drawings where possible. The drawings appear to have offered a little perspective in what is an otherwise challenging time. It also seems to have encouraged others on LinkedIn to reach for their Sketchbooks with a number of people stating that they started to experiment because they saw my posts. I am delighted if I have managed to achieve something positive for others during this current upheaval. It has also struck me that in a world where computers are king, it has allowed many others to more fundamentally understand what an architect can do, the steps we may take to progress the design process and that architecture continues to be a scientific art."


Do you have any words of wisdom for those interested in architecture? What sort of challenges and opportunities await the industry’s future generation of architects?

"It’s an incredibly exciting process to be part of, because you are exposed to so many interesting people, places, challenges and technologies. So, it’s well worth considering as a career. 

"Architecture and the other creative industries are all going through a tremendous period of change, so the profession which you enter will be very different to what it is today and who’s to say how we will be building buildings by the time you retire. The way we use computers to design and build is going to take great leaps forward in the coming decades.

"The one constant is making a considered mark. So whatever you do, pick up a pencil, pen or brush, because it is good to draw and the more you do the better and better you will become. Don’t be shy about it, share it and enjoy that experience, engage with people, collaborate and harness that creative spirit."

Thank you Willie!

If you were inspired by this interview with Willie and would like to find out more about his work, click here. To find out more about at Nicoll Russell Studios, click here. You can also follow Willie on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with his beautiful sketchbook works.

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