Business Profile

Picture Perfect

Two UL grads with a keen eye for perspective took different paths that have them in high demand among the busiest architects in town. By Sue Schleifer

Two graduates of the UL Lafayette School of Architecture and Design. Two unique career paths: one by chance, one intentional. One draws by hand, one draws by computer. Both with a keen eye for perspective.

Michael Wayne Broussard of New Iberia and Chris LeBlanc of Lafayette are architectural renderers - also called architectural delineators, or digital illustrator in LeBlanc's case.

Their drawings help an architect sell his concept to a client before the project is built. They do this by creating 3-dimensional pictures whether by hand or by computer. Most people are not able to visualize a building, home or development by looking at architectural plans. So the architect will give the flat floor plan with elevations to the renderer who makes an architectural drawing that includes perspective. LeBlanc and Broussard add textures and colors that bring the project to life.

Michael Wayne Broussard, the most sought-after hand renderer in the market, brought the Cajundome project to life long before it  was built.

The renderings are then used by the architect or developer to obtain financing for the proposed project and for ensuring that client and architect are sharing the same vision. The renderings facilitate communication and the success of the project.

"If I want to do a hotel downtown, renderers are an effective tool. They bring a lot of life and animation to the project," says architect Kirby Pécot. "They create a wonderful image. It helps to sell the project."

Broussard makes his renderings by hand drawing on illustration board and finishing with Photoshop. LeBlanc makes his illustrations entirely on the computer, generally utilizing 3DStudio Max and Photoshop.

"I see a role for both tools," says architect Steven Oubre of Architects Southwest. "I use about 50 percent hand renderers and 50 percent computer. I hire renderers primarily for urban design projects."

Broussard says he joined a friend during the summer after their high school graduation on an outing to then-USL to "look at the girls." He didn't know his friend was meeting with an adviser to apply for financial aid. When the adviser handed both boys a set of papers, Broussard told her that he was just tagging along. "You're not going to college?" she asked. Broussard told her that he probably would go into the Air Force like his brother because he couldn't afford college.

That's when he was schooled on those financial aid tools called student loans. So jokingly, he took the forms and said that he and his buddy could room together. The adviser asked him what he wanted to study. She handed him a catalog and he started reading off the names of majors starting with "A." He thought advertising and design might be a possibility because his father was a sign painter. He asked her what architecture was and when she said it was the design of buildings and bridges, he said, "I'll start there!" He still thought it was all a joke. "This is a true story," Broussard says today. "Six years later they gave me the David R. Williams award," a prize given annually to one student for excellence in architecture.

In 1972, Broussard graduated with a degree in architecture. "In six years I never built a model. Whenever it was time to make a presentation, I was able to draw my way through. It was the renderings that got me through college." He never made a model because, despite the student loan assistance, he was too poor to afford the materials for the wood, saws and other tools needed. His teachers said if he could explain his design with his drawings then a drawing would be okay. And he did.

One classmate added color to his designs and Broussard noticed that everyone's eyes were drawn to this rendering first. He thought, "I can do that." But he had to borrow three colors - red, blue and yellow - from a friend and used thinner to create additional shades. He was then able to make the kinds of drawings that he visualized.

"The teacher who affected my life more than anyone was Russell Dupuis, a landscape architect who taught at USL. It was Russell who set me free to think way outside of the box. He said, Don't be like everybody else.'"
After graduation Broussard apprenticed for three years with an architectural firm. As soon as the architects discovered that he could do renderings, they would pull him off of the architecture project and have him draw.

Consequently, he never received detailed training in the field of architecture, and at the end of the apprenticeship, he thought he would set up shop as a sign painter. But then his former classmates started calling him to make renderings, just as they did when they asked for his assistance in school. That set him on his path as an architectural delineator.

And they are still calling - only now from throughout the state. Broussard's clients are architects and developers, like Oubre and Cecil D. Trahan, a local developer. "I help an architect sell his concept to a client by drawing a pretty picture and making his idea visible."

Broussard especially enjoys working as a charrette artist. He is often hired by Oubre, for urban design projects like River Ranch, to join a team to create an urban development project in Louisiana, Texas or Arkansas. The team spends a week together coming up with ideas, and Broussard will draw quick sketches to illustrate their vision.

"For land planning projects I prefer hand rendering," says Oubre. "The projects are more historic in quality and nature, and hand rendering parallels that genre."

Broussard is hired when an architect or developer wants a loose look. They want to give their client something that looks like it is an idea rather than a finished project. They want to illustrate the direction that they are envisioning.
"I don't know of anyone else doing renderings by hand in this area," says Broussard, who appreciates the work of the renderers who use 3D but is not worried about losing work to them. "There are still enough architects who want that loose look."

Chris LeBlanc, known for his keen computer rendering skills, is often hired to draw major mixed-use developments, like River Ranch's Main Street project.

Broussard does about 75 percent of his renderings freehand with pen and ink, colored markers, colored pencils and watercolors. Then he scans the picture so that he is able to use Photoshop to add titles, details such as autos, and perhaps a reflection of a building in a pond. He can also make changes on the computer that might be requested by the architect or developer.

"I like the texture of paper, the smell of the felt pens, the way watercolors bleed. Sometimes I get nice surprises that I wouldn't using a computer," continues Broussard. "I don't feel like an artist when I use the computer. However, computers make my life easier."

Broussard's favorite projects involve renderings of landscapes. "If I could afford it, I would like to do watercolors all the time." Many of his landscape paintings are framed and hanging on the walls at his home. He has never tried to sell his paintings and doesn't have much time to devote to his own work.

Chris LeBlanc was a different kind of trail blazer at UL. In 1995, computer rendering was a very new tool and not a part of the architecture curriculum. He sought out classes in the visual arts and computer studies departments and did a lot of self-learning. "I was like a kid in a candy story. For an architect, perspective is important. Computer modeling was eye opening. The 3D models allowed me to see what the building would look like before it was built," though the computer renderings at the time were not very realistic.

During his thesis year, 1997, he did a computer rendering of essentially what is today LITE. He designed a center for visualization, downtown, where people could explore ideas with cutting edge visualization tools. LeBlanc says he owes a big debt to professors Gordon Brooks and Tom Sammons, both of whom allowed and encouraged him to pursue his interest in computer modeling.

LeBlanc's wife suggested he pursue what he most loved, the presentation of projects using computer modeling. So they packed up their bags after graduation and headed for California, where computer modeling was being utilized in both architecture and computer games. His idea was to get further training in this new art form and eventually make his way back to Louisiana with a portfolio of computer renderings. That is precisely what he did.

In California LeBlanc worked 60-hour plus weeks for Michael Sechman, an illustrator. "It was an amazing learning experience and very intense. We worked on large projects for international architectural firms," LeBlanc says. "We did three years' worth of work in a year and a half."

The talented renderer then moved to a start-up firm, where he headed up the rendering division. "I enjoyed sitting in on business meetings with developers. While we didn't have the high profile projects, the process was more enjoyable." In 2000 came the bust, and his firm closed shop but allowed him to take along two clients. That convinced him it was time to return to Lafayette to start his own firm. He still works occasionally with one of his California clients and now also does work for a former classmate with an office in New York. Like Broussard, most of his clients are in Louisiana.

When he first showed his portfolio to Louisiana architects and developers, they thought his renderings would be too expensive because they were not familiar with 3D drawings. Some were taken by surprise with his portfolio. In 10 years that has all changed. Now UL students are trained to use computers at all phases of the design process. They use a variety of different programs for different purposes. For example, Google SketchUp is a computer modeling tool that is often used in the early design phase. These computer drawings may be handed over to LeBlanc who builds on them to create his renderings.

"The greatest strength of computers is to easily make changes to color, design, texture, people or sky," LeBlanc says. "That way I can provide different views of a project."

LeBlanc works primarily on exterior commercial building projects. "What I really like about the field is being a part of the final stages of the project, getting the project done; 3D images are brought in when the developer is pretty sure the project is going to happen," LeBlanc says. "These same images can then also be used to market the project to the public or to resell or pre-lease space. So the 3D renderings need to be at a high level of quality and finish."
LeBlanc also offers quick design visualization in addition to final renderings.  "They are useful for seeing a design early on and making decisions about the design. These either look like hand renderings or are rendered to look like photographs of physical models," he says. "I can provide the drawings in an interactive format which allows the client to see the project from all angles."

LeBlanc does some hand rendering, but just for fun. "I learn from hand renderers and look to them for inspiration," he says. "I never look to computer renderers for inspiration."

LeBlanc has twice been selected by the American Society of Architectural Illustrators in its international competition, Architecture in Perspective. "I enjoy working on projects in Acadiana like The Banks in River Ranch where I can drive by and know that I was a part of something that touches the community," he says.

While many architectural firms today hire graduates who have computer modeling skills, many still often turn to contract renderers like LeBlanc and Broussard when a project requires approval from a board or from the public. They're good, they're fast, and they're reasonably priced. "The most expensive rendering is one that delays or kills the project," says LeBlanc. "If it is a project that could fall into that category, architects and developers don't want to take chances. That is when they will hire a professional renderer."

LeBlanc and Broussard both appear to have strong job security - at least that's what their current roster of clients believes. Pécot and Company Architects designs projects utilizing computer aided design but it is "more for construction documents," Pécot says. "Broussard and LeBlanc create pretty pictures. We don't specialize in that."

And even though LeBlanc's skills come to life with a computer, learning the craft of architecture still means putting pen to paper.

"When people are trained to work by hand and express thoughts by hand, the design process is a stronger process," adds Oubre.

In fact, all first year students in UL's School of Architecture and Design are trained in hand drawing and hand modeling. "We don't introduce computer course work until the second year," says Gordon Brooks, dean of the College of the Arts at UL. "If you draw something by hand, you really have to look and see it."

Sue Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Lafayette. Contact her at [email protected]