Urban Sketching: 20 Dos and Don’ts when Getting Out There

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These are some of the topics I cover in my sketching workshops. They’re a good start…

1. Do enjoy yourself
Your sketches are done primarily for your own pleasure. They’re not usually meant for a gallery, so ease up on yourself, let go and enjoy the process. If you mess up, then don’t show anyone, if it makes you feel better. But try not to fall into the trap of thinking you just can’t make the sketch work. I can’t count the number of times I thought my drawing was getting nowhere, only to be pleasantly surprised in the end.

2. Do draw a preparatory outline
It’s helpful to rough out the outline of a scene in pencil, just so you’re not going to find that all the interesting bits are off the page. You can do this in as detailed or as loose a fashion as
you please – I like to do a rough outline more or less correctly proportioned, and then start drawing more detail on top with one of my waterproof ink pens. However, if you really don’t care what makes it onto your page, then just start drawing and keep going. A preparatory line can make your drawings heavy: I’m really only talking about a boxy shape or two.

3. Do stick to a limited palette
You don’t need much colour – twelve half-pans of your favourite colours are more than enough, and eight is fine. The colours I couldn’t do without are Payne’s Grey, some kind of dark blue (any will do), cerulean (need it for sky), some kind of lemon yellow (for foliage, mixed with dark green), viridian (foliage etc), burnt umber (mixed with lots of things!), yellow ochre and some kind of pink or orange (you’ll need those last four for skin tones). I’ve been deliberately vague because I mix my paints about quite a bit and half the time I don’t know which colours are which – as long as I have something approximating the colours described I’ll be fine. Also, experiment with artists’ quality versus students’ – I often prefer a colour from one range or the other.
On that note – you don’t need any colour at all. You can have a lot of fun with a drawing with nothing but a line, and one of my favourite artists often uses no more than a combination of grey felt-tips, to great effect.
I have my favourite brands but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to use another.

4. Do include lots of objects that move
This is a lot easier said than done – they won’t keep still! – but they are what give your sketches life. Here are some of the things that make a sketch interesting: clouds, people, animals, flags, shadows (especially)…Put them in even if you’ve drawn them a bit wobbly because they’re moving so much. Draw composites – a group of people might not be the actual group, if they’ve moved on before you got to draw them all. Who’s to say they wouldn’t be great friends if they met?
In the same vein, a motorbike can have one bike’s wheel at the front and another at the back. You might try to match the spokes. No one has ever noticed when I’ve done that – they just contribute to the overall fresh feel of a sketch.
Draw anything that moves the second the second you feel they’d make a good addition to the sketch. You can always come back to anything stationary, it will still be there! Shadows make a drawing pop into life – but they move fast. Therefore, draw them all at the same time; the same applies to clouds. You can even draw the outline of the shadows to get their size and shape right, and fill them in later on in the sketch.

5. Do consider your clothing carefully
Get your clothing right. Bring a wide-brimmed hat for the sun and a warm woolly one for the cold. Lots of layers are key. An outfit that you’re comfortable in at 3.00pm might see you roast or freeze to death half an hour later, particularly when the seasons are changing – or when the light is interesting.
Waterproof trousers help to keep your core warm, and a big sunhat stops you overheating. Being bundled up – whether in lots of winter woollies or a large sunhat – can also make you feel a little less exposed if you feel a little unsure of where you are sketching.

6. Do take care when selecting your location
Assuming you’re inspired by the scene you’ve chosen, remember to consider the following points: will someone want to move you in a few minutes? If it starts to rain, is there somewhere you can take shelter? Is it too windy to handle your paper (would a large rubber band around your pad help)? If there will be traffic, are you well lit up in luminous gear?

7. Do start your sketch wearing sunglasses
When you’re sketching in strong sunshine the glare on white paper can be very annoying. Wearing sunglasses until the first wash of colour on your page takes the glare off can make your sketching session a bit more comfortable.

8. Do bring earphones to plug in to your phone
It can be hard to get into the zone when you start a new sketch…sometimes a pair of earphones plugged into your phone can take the edge of any distraction away, and help you slip into the meditative zone, after which it all gets easy. It’s also a great way to drop a hint to onlookers who want to chat, when you need to concentrate. And if the sketch is a disaster…the radio will keep you entertained.

9. Do post your work online
Post your scans on Facebook, Flickr and G+, the good, the bad and the ugly. There’s a huge variety out there and you can learn from other artists who are always so willing to share their techniques, You’ll get lots of commentary from other artists, and people are very kind and encouraging. Join the sketching community and watch your sketches improve before your eyes.

10. Don’t fear the public
Many would-be sketchers are nervous of the public and onlookers. Generally speaking, the public is indifferent at worst, and kind, interested and smiling at best. They’ll usually look over your shoulder for a while and then wander off. They might even offer to buy your sketch. Sometimes you’ll be offered food and drink, especially if you’re there a long time. I’ve had tables of tea and scones, samosas, cartons of juice, sweet treats and fruit offered to me. If they’re really disturbing your concentration, just say “I’m very sorry, but my time is limited, do you mind if I get back to this?” You could even offer a business card with your website details and suggest they might enjoy looking at more of your work. That usually marks the end of an exchange. And remember, if you’re not sure about sitting and drawing somewhere – do it anyway until someone asks you to move on. Sketching is non-threatening to the vast majority of people so you’re very unlikely to encounter any hostility, and, in extreme circumstances, an offer of a gift of a sketch can smooth the most prickly of attitudes.

11. Don’t draw something because you feel you should
There’s nothing worse than being given a topic to draw and not feeling enthused about it when you get there, but sometimes you can’t get out of it. On the whole though, make sure there is something that interests you or makes you want to draw it. Alternatively, you could just draw what’s in front of you, such as when waiting for someone or something. It’s astonishing how enjoyable drawing a building which is basically hideous can be.
Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time you have available. You could concentrate on a small area and do it well, rather than get frustrated at not finishing a complete scene.

12. Don’t overlook the possibility that someone might like to buy your sketch
Have an answer ready: it can be disconcerting to have a stranger ask to buy a piece when you are lost in the meditative zone of drawing. Have a price in mind – or a good reason why you don’t want to part with it (eg. someone has their name on it etc.,). If you don’t mind parting with it just ask the recipient if they wouldn’t mind scanning it for you.

13. Don’t forget to bring a mini sketch kit everywhere
You should bring your sketch kit everywhere you go. Have it in your handbag or jacket pocket. All you need is a tiny box of watercolours with a brush and a tiny water container and an A5 pad. There are all sorts of ideas out there for handy ways to make a miniature sketch kit.

14. Don’t be afraid to experiment with lots of different materials
Be brave. Go for tinted paper, huge brushes, scratchy pens, strong colours. Take risks. Leave your comfort zone, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

15. Don’t be precious about “wasting” paper
One or two sheets won’t make much difference to the cost of your hobby. You can always use them again for something else if you mess up. And even if you keep going, if your page is a bit messed up, it takes the pressure off you for the rest of the drawing.

16. Don’t overlook your car as a drawing shelter
Your car will keep you safe from all the elements…but it means you can’t choose your scene as you might like, and you might be limited with parking times. I know the next car I buy will have a large front windscreen as it can be an invaluable asset for sketching in the inclement months.

17. Don’t draw what you know, draw what you see
This is drummed into all of us, but it can’t be overemphasised. The only way to make a believable drawing is to draw what’s there, not what you think should be there. A handy way to achieve this is to ask yourself questions as you draw: does that lamppost appear one third of the way across the roofline, or one half? I call it cross-calibrating and it means that if you do it throughout your sketch you’re unlikely to make too many errors.

18. Don’t ask for permission, only forgiveness
This is a funny one – but often your nearest and dearest will groan as you whip out your sketch kit at a bar or restaurant, or at the top of a mountain. But they’ll be thrilled to have the sketch when the family fun is a distant memory. You might even find that some of them will want to join in – now that’s win-win.

19. Don’t think you have to go far to find inspiration
The most wonderful subjects are right on your doorstep: looking out of the window, or into your kitchen or bathroom.

20. Don’t forget that practice makes perfect
After a lot of drawing, one day you’ll wake up and find that you don’t make mistakes. You’ll ask yourself how on earth that happened. It’s no secret: practice really does make perfect.

Have a look through my website and see if you can spot where I’ve applied these techniques. They’re all things I’ve picked up in the time I’ve been a sketcher. What are your tips? Whatever lessons you’ve learned, I would be delighted to hear them, and I bet I’ll use some of them the next time I’m out sketching in the field. Please don’t hold back!

P.S. I wrote this article a good while ago and you may like to see how my work has developed and my latest take on urban sketching tips here.

4 Comments

  1. Roisin Cure

    September 17, 2013 at 9:08 am

    When I was a tricky teenager, I used to walk home occasionally. The walk was three miles along a country road in the pitch dark, with no streetlights, high walls and huge trees looming overhead. It was terrifying for anyone with an imagination. Once, I brought my new Sony Walkman with me, thinking that the noise of the headphones would comfort me. It was even worse with the headphones on, and after a few paces I took them off. I suddenly became conscious of the sound of trickling water in a stream and night birds making gentle sounds, and I proceeded along my way with a new appreciation of my environment.

    What’s the point of this story?

    The ambient sounds when sketching are wonderful, but sometimes you need a little bit of “armour” when you’re starting off – the public is indeed kind and helpful, but sometimes it’s a bit scary to be out there before your experience has yet let you know that there is nothing to fear. So do whatever works for you: pop in the earphones, leave them at home – just sketch.

  2. Roisin Cure

    September 16, 2013 at 8:51 am

    Thanks for your comments. Richard, I think that’s an excellent tip. It’s too easy to get hung up on something small and detailed, and you’re absolutely right about the detail happening – once the broad sketch is in the bag, you’re usually much more relaxed and will make a much better job of the detail.

  3. Jayashree

    September 15, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Great tips. Thank you for sharing them. I am self taught and only recently have I ventured outside, painting what I see.If you get a chance to see my recent work in the website, tell me what you think of it.
    Cheers,
    Jayashree

  4. Richard Schubert

    September 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Don’t narrow your focus on one small area.
    Interesting or detailed architecture, foliage etc. can pull our attention away from the larger composition. Jump around to different areas without finishing one area before moving to the next. Try to see the scene as a whole. The details will happen

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