NYC Central Park bridges. (A lesson in design)

A selection of pencil drawings of bridges in Central Park.

Sketching in Central park is a great way of pursuing two of my outdoor interests: Landscape and architecture. With a limited schedule, and unsure about how many bridges exist, I had to do some homework before my travels. I studied maps, and browsed through wikipedia's central park bridge & arch list.

map of Central Park, with elevation cross-section.

This helped me to get prepared ahead of time, so I could spend my time efficiently. I wanted to be drawing more than aimlessly looking for the next bridge.

With all this planned out, off I went to the park, starting in the south end, where there were plenty of bridges in a small area. this would help me get started, without too much interruption between each study.

Pencil sketching is different to the challenges of painting, and offers an alternative viewing experience. A painting tends to be appreciated best from a distance, as the tones and colours combine to create a convincing atmosphere. A drawing tends to bring the viewer closer, to enjoy the textures and rhythms of the searching lines.

Setting locations of various bridges on my googlemaps.

Each bridge had a very specific character and personality. You can’t just come across one, and hope to understand it immediately. Like any subject, it takes a while to tame it, or maybe it tames you. But whichever it is, it’s worth walking around the bridge, walking under it, walking over it, checking and double checking what angle is most interesting. Some angles are boring, and some angles are dynamic. I am not aiming for a technical architectural study, but more of a “portrait”.

I started in the lower end of the park, and came across the Greyshot arch. This stone arch vehicle bridge carries West Drive over a park path at around 61st Street. I planned my page for 2 sketches, so the pathway leading up the arch could fuse into the sky of the lower drawing. 

GREYSHOT ARCH. built in 1860-1862 by Calvert Vaux. PINE BANK BRIDGE, built in 1861 by J.B. and W.W. Cornell Ironworks

The Pine bank bridge was right around the corner, and had an intricate design suited best for a top view. I choose the angle, based on interesting abstract shapes of light and shadow. Some bridges are more interesting from above, some from below. It is one of the few remaining cast iron bridges, restored in the 1980's.

The Dalewood arch caused some difficulty, as I had no sitting options here, so I had to stand. Holding my sketchbook is not ideal for careful study. I also struggled to connect with an inspiring angle. 

DALEWOOD ARCH. Built 1860 - 1862 by Calvert Vaux. Stone arch vehicle bridge.

So these two studies remain an account of just another interesting arch in the many designs the park has to offer. 

Another cold rock was my seat for the Dipway arch. It features curved granite detail along the abutments, to allow the design to fuse with the land on either end of the arch.

DIPWAY ARCH, built in 1860 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould.

A bridge that caught my eye from the start, is 5th on my list. The Gapstow bridge (Built in 1896) is a classic looking stone structure. And from a particular vantage point, its “old worldy-ness” contrasted beautifully against a backdrop of mega structures such as the skyline of New York.

GAPSTOWE BRIDGE. 12 feet high, spans 44 feet of water, and stretches 76 feet in its full length.

A contrast of two worlds: A medieval bridge trapped between futuristic monoliths. I was quite a distance from the main path, but some still came over to see why I was there. I’m always entertained at how many people make the effort to come and take a photograph from an artist’s vantage point. “That MUST be the best view, someone’s drawing it!”

 Next was the Willowdale bridge, situated near the famous bronze dog sculpture; “Balto” the celebrated Alaskan Husky. I became sketcher/ tourist guide, as I sent people on the right way as everyone was looking for the sculpture.

WILLOWDALE ARCH, built in 1861 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, with iron railing by J.B. & W.W. Cornell Iron Works

This is a drawing that displays the hatching technique. For my tonal areas, I hatch in various directions. But the direction is decided upon the surface I’m translating, and is dependent on the specific contour of the structure, as you can see in the rocks in the foreground. My lines will sometimes be vertical, sometimes horizontal, and pretty much any other angle in-between. In the arch wall my lines are vertical, which translate that particular surface quite well. Sometimes the choice is obvious, and sometimes I have to choose from a few options.

For my next few pages, I decide to make a composition of 4 drawings across 2 pages. I start with the Trefoil arch. Named after the triple-lobed entrance and floral voussoirs on the east-side, this arch is unique for having a different design on both ends, the west-side entrance having just a simple round archway.


TREFOIL ARCH, built in 1862 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. DRIPROCK ARCH

Driprock arch allows pedestrians to bypass Center Drive, which can be quite busy during running or bike races or at rush hour. Here I struggled mostly because of the band that set themselves up under the bridge for the acoustics. They kept practicing the same song over and over. Then the singer began pushing his voice beyond his comfort zone, and after a few half attempts at a song, they packed-up and left. Peace at last.

I headed up to the north end of the park, where things are wilder, hillier, and less populated. I started with the 110th street arch, which was one of the 3rd wave of bridge construction to the upper west side of the park in the 1890's. It is 102 feet long and 48 feet high, with its Tuscan arch 16 feet high and 21 feet wide. Who can spot the squirrel?

Springbank arch is one of the lesser known arches of the park, but one of the most charming. With a small cascade and a red brick underpass, it was completed in 1863 with detailing by Jacob Wrey Mould.  

When I’m painting, I stand and I can choose any angle I want. But here I’m sketching out of a sketchbook, which I rest on my knees. So I need to sit, and I was not carrying a stool. This made my choices a little tricky if there are no benches around. So I had to adapt; at times I would sit on a rock, a step, a convenient tree root, or just sit on the grass. I recommend a cushion, as sitting still for about an hour on a cold rock can get a little uncomfortable.

Staying in the north end, next to the ice skating rink is the “hobbit” looking Huddlestone arch. It is one of the most heavy-set and wild looking arches, built entirely of huge, uncut Manhattan schist boulders, without the use of mortar or other binding material.

HUDDLESTONE ARCH. Built in 1866 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould.

This arch supports traffic. The boulders, one of which weighs up to 100 tons, are held together just by gravity and pressure. I was greeted by a curious raccoon, which seemed to terrify most walkers. With a little stream passing through, it was a bathing spot for birds. 

Back to midway down the park, is the imposing double arch of the Eaglevale bridge, on the west side of the park at 77th St. Over 120 years old, it is actually one of the newer arches in Central Park. The path leads to what was once the Ladies’ Pond reserved for ladies-only ice skating in the 1890s. Even today, the water, which lurks underground, floods the area after a heavy rain.

EAGLEVALE BRIDGE. Built 1890, out of Gneiss rock.

The double arch created an imposing mass, and eventually after rambling over some rocks, I found an angle that could honour the character of this arch, and the great brick textures. I had spotted this one earlier, but hadn’t started drawing it, because I couldn’t find a view that would quite capture what I felt about it. It was by getting unusually close that I could capture what I wanted. 

None of this process involves sight-size, because my sketchbook is down on my knees, and I have to look up at my subject. And because I’m not using sight-size, my drawing is not constrained to fitting a “viewing window”, or a vignette. I aim to capture a wide view of my scene, whether up and down, or left and right. I attempt to cram in as much as I can within my line of sight. When I turn my head, I change my vanishing point, and this causes some of the perspective to “distort” the solid structures.

I want to convey as much of the viewing experience as I can, without making the scene so distorted that people can’t connect with it. I have no system other than just seeing what works, and what doesn’t. And this starts at the initial stage of the drawing, with just a few lines indicating where the drawing will fill out the page.

Back to the familiar elegant spanning arches of Central Park, Winterdale arch is the widest spanning stone-and-brick bridge in the park.  In 1993, the Conservancy restored Winterdale and reconstructed the railings, which had been missing for 50 years.

WINTERDALE ARCH Built in 1860-1861 by Calvert Vaux.

A tree root was my seat here, in an area of the park filled with walkers, joggers, families with picnics, and tourists.The lower half of the page was suitable to leave empty, so as to stretch out the effect of the pathway.

One of the more curious arches, and probably one of my favourite is the Ramble arch. Like a back entrance to a hidden castle, wide enough for just one person, it is flanked by rocks on either side, and trees above. Made of rock-face Ashlar, it is the narrowest of Central Park's arches.


RAMBLE ARCH. Built in 1863 by Calvert Vaux.

Its organised brickwork contrasts beautifully with nature’s surrounding chaos. The regularity of its design is so conspicuous against the lyrical lines of the land around it. Something I would ordinarily find jarring, but I probably find its beauty here because Nature seems to overwhelm a man-made presence.

Behind the Metropolitan museum, you will find the Greywacke Arch. I was lucky to have a convenient bench here. It is named after the Greywacke sandstone quarried in the Hudson River Valley and used in its construction. The "Sarecenic" pointed arch echoes Spanish and Moorish architecture.

GREYWACKE ARCH. Built in 1861-1863 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould

When choosing my hatching direction, I react to what’s already on the page. If too many parts of the drawing have lines going the same way, I feel the drawing has become too mechanical, and predictable.

The variation of hatch marks must reflect the variety of textures and planes that Nature presents. The darker areas are layered cross hatching, with every layer gradually darkening the area. This allows a clean finish, as opposed to one single heavy passage of tone. The thickness of the lines varies depending on perspective. So it’s important to keep your pencil sharp for the hatching, and for those thinner distant lines.

There was only one rainy session I had to deal with, and this led me to sit under the bridge I planned to draw. And luckily, this was the Gothic bridge, which had a convenient design that looked interesting from underneath too. Wouldn’t have been quite the same with an ordinary arch.

GOTHIC BRIDGE: designed in 1864 by Calvert Vaux and the Cornell Ironworks.

In the first decades of the Park, recreational equestrian traffic was much more common, so many bridges were built over the Bridle path for the convenience of pedestrians.

When I get to do a double page drawing, this is where I can start pulling more peripheral information into my line of sight. The smaller the drawing, the simpler the perspective. 

I am not so concerned with tonal relationships between all the different parts of the scene, and atmosphere is not the priority here either. What I’m focused on is design, structure, surface texture. I use light and shadows zones purely for the purpose of delineating a chosen structure.

I try to set myself a time limit, so that the drawing doesn’t become too fussy: 45mn-1 hour. The time pressure imposes a natural selection process. It allows you to commit to priorities, and ignore the superficial, helping you to focus on the character and personality of your scene. With an indefinite time on a sketch, you run the risk of drowning out the character that initially sparked off your interest, with too much peripheral information. The best drawings you’ll come across, are those where the artist has committed to honouring that first flash of inspiration for a scene. That flash that made them stop and think “I want to draw that!”

To know “what” we draw is one thing. To know “why” we draw it, is another thing altogether.  The more practice you get at drawing in this way, the more aware you will become to “why” you are attracted to certain designs, lines, shapes. You will begin to consciously develop your taste for design.

toby wright