The essential guide for urban sketching

Urban sketching is one of the best ways to grow your drawing ability.

Urban sketching can also help you become a better artist.

So, grab your favorite drawing gear. It’s time to adventure outside and fill your sketchbooks.

Urban sketching is a great way to get better at drawing. In fact, I don't even have a classic art studio like most artists. All of my professional illustration, 2D animation, and when I draw animals are mostly done outside.

Sometimes I'll take reference photos if I'm in a safari situation. For example, when I was in Sri Lanka on safari to see wild elephants, I took a ton of reference photos.

When I was on a safari in Ranthambore, India to see tigers in the wild, I definitely took reference photos. As you only get quick glimpses of tigers.

However, when you're in a safer environment. Such as in a city or on a nature walk, you can take your sketchbook with you.

1. Getting ready for urban sketching

Before you go outside, take the time to prepare yourself and your art materials. Make sure you wear comfortable clothing and footwear.

Sketching outdoors can be great fun in all weather. But it’s important to wear the right clothing. Feeling too cold or too hot can distract you from sketching.

Is it sunny? If so, make sure you take a hat and some sunscreen. It's too easy to lose track of the time and get sunburned. Sunglasses can also be useful for those times when the sun is just too bright. Especially if you’re sketching near a body of water.

If it’s going to drop cooler later in the evening, you’re going to need a hoodie or jacket to wrap up when the wind starts up.

Depending on where you're going, bring snacks and water. It's so easy to draw for an hour then become distracted by wanting to go somewhere for food and drinks.

2. Plan your urban sketching route

Rural or urban?

Are you going to head out into nature on a hiking trail?  Or are you going to sit in a busy street? There's no right or wrong, doing both of these can hugely improve your sketching skills.

Once you start drawing outside more, you'll capture a new energy in your sketches. The energy in your sketches that is nearly impossible to achieve when sketching indoors.

3. Create thumbnail sketches

When you're sketching outside, it’s always good to make some quick compositional plans.

These thumbnail sketches also help you figure out if you actually like the scene you're about to draw.

Once you see something that captures your interest. Such as a building, animal, a group of people, a stream of water, or an old tree. Do some quick thumbnail sketches to help you plan your composition.

These quick compositional sketches can create better ideas than if you were to just dive in and fill a sketchbook page.

4. Sketch fast

For artists just starting urban sketching, they make the mistake of trying to draw every single detail.

Avoid sketching too many details.

Instead, focus on how you can capture an entire scene with the least amount of lines. Essentially, you want to focus on drawing all the larger shapes making up a scene and then the medium shapes that make up those larger shapes.

For example, if you're sketching a large crowd, don't draw every individual. Just draw the larger shapes of the crowd and the structures around them. Then draw the medium shape.

I find that drawing the shapes created by negative spaces helps capture a scene in my sketchbook more so than just drawing the shapes created by objects.

5. Revisit drawings

Undoubtedly, you'll find yourself wanting to not finish drawings when you're out in the field. That's okay. you'll always have the feeling to abandon unfinished sketches. There are no rules against this, there are also no rules against going back to revisit drawings.

Such as adding an imaginative element, more thought lines. Enhancing parts of your abandoned drawings.

You can also draw multiple scenes on a page. Mixing and matching different locations and elements you look at.

6. Draw the unpretty things

Always be honest in your drawings. Include the trashcans, litter, aging walls, animals, people, and vehicles. These are the things that add character to the scene.

7. Keep your urban sketching gear minimal

You don't have to take every art supply you own with you. Just because you think you might need it, doesn't mean you have to bring it.

Having creative limitations will spark more creativity in your drawings. Such as only bring one pen and one color marker.

Minimally, I enjoy sketching in pen. Sometimes bringing a small set of watercolors. A watercolor pen with water inside. Two inky pens. One with water-soluble ink and one with permanent ink. And of course, a sketchbook. Typically a Moleskine brand or mixed-media Canson brand sketchbook.

8. Limit your colors

Much as I adore color – in mine and others’ work – it can be very helpful to restrict your palette to a few colors. My favorite is as follows:

  • Indigo
  • Cerulean
  • Burnt Umber
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Sepia
  • Sap Green
  • Black Ink
  • White paper

If you don't use watercolor, maybe you just use color drawing pencils. In this case, just grab no more than five colors before you head outside.

9. Sketch as often as you possibly can

Most artists at the end of their life, have done a minimum of 1,500 – 3,000 drawings.

There isn't a secret to drawing this many drawings. Its a marathon. Where you draw a handful of drawings every week. Never wait for the perfect time or subject matter. Draw everything. From the keys on your desk to what you see outside. Non-stop practice.

10. Avoid perspective rules

If you're looking clearly at a scene. Doing your best to observe how different things like buildings, roads, people and other objects are interacting with each other, you will make an accurate-enough drawing.

The same goes for the human body, plants, and other objects. Forget it what the “right” way to draw is. Sketching isn’t about accuracy. Draw what you see, not the textbook version of it.

11. Experiment with urban sketching tools.

Try different colors of paper. Try different sketchbook sizes. Experiment with different pens and drawing pencils.

12. Draw in unlikely places

Sometimes some of the most interesting places to draw are the ones you don't seek out. Such as drawing on a bus or plane journey. Airports and train stations are other great places to draw.

13. Avoid perfection

Quantity is more important than quality for two reasons.

First, the more you draw the better you’ll be. Second, each drawing is a personal record of a moment. Yours to look back on and remember.

Often, when you urban sketch on vacations, the memories are more vivid later on. Rather than snapping a photo, draw a memory makes you really look and see a place. When you spend a few hours drawing and absorbing scenes on your travels, your mind will have more material to pull from years later.

So when you revisit an old sketchbook, those moments will come rushing back to you.

14. Avoid sketching too many details

It's so easy to catch yourself drawing repetitive things like leaves and brickwork. While it looks beautiful, it simply doesn't create a dynamic drawing.

Instead, try to draw loose suggestions of repetitive objects. Instead of drawing every leaf, draw the overall shape of the plant as a whole, draw leaves repetitively in some areas, but then leave the majority of the plant empty. Your viewer's brains will fill in the rest. Pulling your viewers into the drawing more.

It’s about enjoying yourself, not giving yourself a pain in the head.

15. Drawing life will help your urban sketching skills

Life drawing challenges every aspect of your drawing abilities. Understanding how to draw light, shadow, line, negative space, and proportion. All of these elements of understanding are applicable to urban sketching as well.

16. Create an urban sketching habit

Bring your urban sketching gear whenever you go out.

I never leave the house without my urban sketching gear. If I’m going further than the coffee shop down the street,  I have my urban sketching gear with me. No matter how if I'm in the mood to draw, I bring it.

Final thoughts on urban sketching

You are not trying to produce perfect, photorealistic art. You’re just trying to exercise your drawing muscles. While getting out and enjoying the process.

That has been the way I have sketched since the start, and I have not changed.

If you're just starting out, check out these sketching books. To this day I still reference these books when I feel like I'm in a drawing slump.

To me, sketching what I see is like solving a puzzle on paper.

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