Planning an Urban Sketch: 10 Tricks for your Toolbox (Part One)

Planning an Urban Sketch: 10 Tricks for your Toolbox (Part One)

This is one of a series of tutorials on urban sketching. If you are a keen urban sketcher, subscribe to my YouTube channel, Roisin Cure, for more.

Whether you’re sketching in your sketchbook just for the sheer pleasure of it, or drawing something more formal, you always want to make the best sketch possible. Sometimes, though, you have a special reason for wanting to get a sketch just right. The scene might be somewhere you won’t be seeing again, it might be a gift for a friend whose birthday is around the corner, or you might even have been asked to sketch somewhere as a commission. I’ve been known to abandon two, even three sketches before getting it right for a client. This eats into your precious sketching time and is very frustrating – not to mention wasteful of paper – and if you have an audience, it can also be embarrassing!

So how do I avoid mistakes in the first place?

Planning an Urban Sketch

I’m going to share with you 10 things I like to consider when I’m thinking how to go about my sketch. By planning an urban sketch with a few minutes’ thought before I start, I can avoid lots of trouble once I’m past the point of no return. I’m not a planner by nature, but I have found it saves me a lot of grief when it comes to a sketch to plan in advance, even if only a little. Sure, you can go with the flow and let it happen organically – and that’s great fun too – but my 10 Tricks for your Toolbox are for those times when you’re looking for a certain look and feel.

Over a few weeks I’ll describe in detail how and why I look for elements that will make my urban sketch burst with life and colour. We’ll start with the first three tricks for your toolbox, as more than that might be too much to take in, and I’d love to see the tricks sink in over time. The next post will have three more, and finally the last four. If you want to reduce your urban sketching headaches with a bit of forward planning, then stay tuned.

Alternatively you can access the post by topping up your web wallet with 20 lumens (~$8) if you haven’t already done so and then making a micropayment of 2 lumens (<$0.80) here

So, let’s jump into the lesson!


Elements of a Composition

I’m going to discuss two sketches and the elements that contributed to their lively atmospheres. They have lots in common: they are both restaurants serving great food and they are both well-known eateries in Galway City. They are both buzzy places full of life, colour and atmosphere and they are both very hard to get a table in!

My list of 10 Tricks in your Toolbox can be applied to both.

The first was done in Cava Bodega, a Spanish restaurant in Galway City. I wanted to sketch it for my friend Lorraine, who had had a recent birthday.

I arrived on a Friday evening at the restaurant’s busiest period, when it was completely packed. Although I had phoned in advance, all the manager could offer me was a seat at the bar. (I didn’t book a table as I didn’t want to eat, but if possible a recce in advance would be a good idea.)

I looked around, trying to find the scene that would adequately capture the buzz of this really popular restaurant. It began to dawn on me that there was no obvious viewpoint, and that I would have to think very carefully in order not to waste my evening. I looked around, drinking in the scene, working on a plan in my mind. After a good ten minutes of careful thought, I was ready to begin (I don’t normally take more than a minute or two planning a sketch, but those ten minutes were well spent).

Finally I got to work, and didn’t stop until I was done, some two hours later. I was pleased, knowing that I had made a sketch that conveyed the lively, colourful atmosphere of Cava Bodega.

Cava Bodega, watercolour by Róisín Curé

The second sketch was done for the same reason, as a gift for my niece. McCambridge’s is a delicatessen on Galway’s main street that’s been in business for over a hundred years. A few years ago they opened a restaurant upstairs and it serves well-prepared seasonal food. I had a free afternoon set aside for the sketch, but when I arrived at McCambridge’s I found a queue snaking down the spiral staircase up to the restaurant, as it was the height of the pre-Christmas shopping period. I left in annoyance, but I hate having my plans thwarted, so I went back, took my place in the line and accepted the first table I was offered, and the view it gave me. Luckily, I could see across the whole restaurant (with a bit of body contortion) and I got going.

McCambridge's colour sketch, line drawing by Róisín Curé

Because the two restaurants have a lot in common, it’s no surprise that they share lots of visual elements too. I have made schematics of each, identifying with a number each element of the sketch that contributed to the overall atmosphere.

Here are the two sketches again, this time with schematic diagram of the different elements added.

First Cava Bodega again:

Cava Bodega schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

…and here’s McCambridge’s:

McCambridge's schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

The first three elements I’d like to discuss are
– Place-specific features
– Lights
– Stars

As I discuss each of the tricks in the toolbox, I’ll show you a highlighted section of each schematic to illustrate the bit I’m talking about, and why I chose to include it.

1. Location, Location, Location

Consider including place-specific features

A plein air painting is about atmosphere, the beauty of nature and, well, being outdoors.
Botanical art is about the beauty of the plant, and portraits are about a character.

An urban sketch is all about where you are. It’s about giving the viewer a strong sense of place. Therefore I believe you should look for a place-specific identifier and include it. Ask yourself if the viewer could pick out the location from the sketch alone.

The most obvious of these is a street sign, but it could be anything unique to where you are. A statue is a good one, or a monument. An iconic building is good too, but if it’s in a style common to the area, consider including a temporary banner, billboard or other feature that will pin it down. Maybe a shop with a distinctive awning or fascia? Look around and see what is unique to the scene you are looking at.

If you’re indoors, what feature is the place you’re in well-known for? A special staircase? Some interesting light fixtures? Something on the wall? If you’re in a museum, there might be a special exhibit that’s known to be part of the collection, or if a church, an architectural feature, or some special stained glass.

It could be more subtle. In the sketch of Cava Bodega, I included the great hams hanging from metal hooks over the bar. Only a Spanish bar or restaurant has those, and there’s only one Spanish restaurant in Galway. And in the sketch of McCambridge’s, I made sure to include the three chimney-pot lights over the bar, which are very distinctive.

Cava Bodega schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

In the sketch of McCambridge’s I drew the three chimneys over the bar. At least they look like chimneys!

McCambridges schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

2. Let There Be Light

Use the artificial lights to good advantage

Most places that are open to the public will have put effort into making a dramatic lighting system. In my local town I can think of lots of places with great feature lighting. They might be lamps lighting up a gloomy corner or low-hanging pendant lights on chains. Use the fact that they emit light well: I always maximise the contrast between the light fitting (I darken it) and the light source (I keep it very bright). I also find darkening the area immediately outside the light source will serve to brighten it. Using lights will also direct the gaze down to whatever is being illuminated, just like spotlights.

I usually paint a very clean, light yellow for the lights, even though as a rule I leave “light” unpainted.

If you are outdoors, artificial lights are great if it’s dark for the above reasons, but if it’s daylight they serve a different purpose – all they can do is add interest.

Lights are often hung in rows so they are also a useful device by which to convey distance and perspective, without too much effort. Just make sure to get the respective sizes correct. If they are made of a reflective material, you’re in luck – atmosphere is a given.

Here are lights in Cava Bodega –

Cava Bodega schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

The lights provided a good anchor point, “spelling out” the shape of the room.

and in McCambridge’s…

McCambridge's schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

I found that the lights really contributed to the feel of the room. The large ones have shiny aluminium industrial shades that were easy to pick out in indigo.

3. Reach for the Stars

Indulge yourself sketching the stars!

The “stars” are always my favourite things to draw and paint. Stars are a row of spotty teapots on a dresser. Stars are a selection of cakes on a stand, and a row of bright baby clothes in a shop window. Everyone has their favourite things to sketch but I love colourful shapes, especially when they are carefully displayed by the person behind the décor.

I make the most of stars, and give them room to breathe. I’ll give a stand of cakes prominence – even moving them slightly (visually) to feature in my sketch better. I’ll draw the motifs on a mug really carefully. One of my favourite “stars” to sketch is bunting, or flags fluttering in the wind.

Stars can add a pop of colour, if you choose to highlight them and keep the rest of the scene simple.

Stars are those indulgent things that make urban sketching so much fun.

In Cava Bodega, I loved the row of painted tortilla pans hung on the wall. The colours were primary – always a favourite of mine – and even though they were not on the wall facing me (a trick which I’ll discuss next time), they had to be included. I gave them a position right in the centre because they were too nice to leave to one side.

Cava schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

In McCambridge’s, it was easy. There were two lovely things I wanted to capture – the heavy butcher’s block laden with cakes and biscuits and the carefully-stacked pyramid of tins of Campbell’s tea. Here are the cakes.

McCambridge's schematic, line drawing by Róisín Curé

As an exercise, why not go to a busy café or restaurant and, just for fun, see if you can identify and include the three tricks in the toolbox we’ve just talked about? Something place-specific, some nice dramatic lights and of course a few colourful stars!

Next, I will discuss three more tricks for your toolbox: how to treat the foreground, adding non-sequential planes and reference objects.

See you then!



  1. patreon_9681181

    February 8, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    Very informative!!! I did a sketch of my kitchen counter with tips in mind and it was a fun 2 hours – I think I am slow haha, or maybe it was the wine, but I am quite happy with my work. I find I am comfortable with objects (in my art world) but urban sketching still gives me nerves – I’m glad for your knowledge 🙂 Now, when the rain stops I’ll scooter out to my cafe and give it a go…

    • Róisín Curé

      February 8, 2018 at 5:28 pm

      I’m so pleased. Your sketch sounds like a lot of fun! I’m a big believer in wine as a means to relax about sketching. Great that the tips were useful and I admit I’m looking forward to my next sketch too!!

  2. Steven Wayne

    February 7, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Nice article, I’m looking forward to the rest!

    • Róisín Curé

      February 8, 2018 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks Steven. Hope the next is informative too.

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