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Urban sketching is a wonderful hobby, one you can take anywhere and everywhere. All you need is the most minimal of kit, and you’re away on a journey of enjoyment and pleasure. It’s such a creative alternative to fiddling on your phone. But sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.
Enjoyment Is Key!
You are not trying to produce great art. You’re just trying to pass the time creatively, and have a bit of fun along the way. Think enjoyment above all!
I am a very literal sketcher – I try to copy what I see exactly. That has been the way I have sketched since the start, and I have not changed. To me, sketching what I see is like attempting a puzzle, but one I approach with a pen, ink and some watercolour. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
DO remember your kit whenever you go out. I never leave the house without my kit – or almost never. If I’m going further than the corner shop I have my gear with me. That means that whatever I’m doing, no matter how tedious, I’ve always got something to entertain myself.
I did this while I waited with my teenager for a hospital appointment in University Hospital, Galway, recently. I became utterly absorbed in the twists and turns of the wires in this sketch and my impatience dissolved. I told her to sketch too, to which she replied, “You’re so weird.”
DO have two kits at the ready – one for ad hoc sketching and one for more planned sessions. For ad hoc sketching I just throw my pencil case and sketchbook into my bag, whereas if I’m on a mission I pack a few extra things (see below) – but both are easy to put my hands on.
DO dress appropriately. All of us poor sketching souls in Ireland and England and, I don’t know, Nova Scotia, have to fight the cold for at least six months of the year. As I get older I feel it more and more, despite feeling my blubber layer growing thicker and thicker. Why can’t I grow a little blubber on my hands? I try not to let the wrong clothing hinder my enjoyment of sketching.
This is my November – April kit:
Prepare Before You Start Sketching
DO think about the scene you’re going to try to capture for a minute before you start. Do you actually like it – ie. are you inspired? If not, you’re not going to enjoy yourself. You can choose a small part of it to paint if you want – it’s up to you. If you are going to draw a person, start the second you see them. If they’re browsing in a shop or a market stall you may just have long enough to get them down before they move on. And if they do move on, remember the special urban sketching trick of attaching one person’s torso to another pair of legs (at the very least you should match the sexes).
DO fill each bit in as you go. I’ve come up with a solution to the frustration I feel when I have to abandon my sketch unfinished, as often happens. I finish each little bit as I go – at least that way I’ll have something satisfying to look at later. Plus, it’s often the finishing touches that make your sketch really sing, like darkening up your shadows, throwing on a few highlights or doing some fiddly details. Furthermore, if you want to go back to finish something, the bits you’ve started may have changed – or worse, have gone – and you can start fresh with the next bit.
Don’t Work Off-Location
DO try to finish everything on the spot, if you can. I don’t touch my sketches at home, whether that’s line work or colouring. This is because I’m not doing them in order to have a polished piece, but simply to be in the zen moment of producing a sketch on the spot, and to avoid boredom! That’s why I urban sketch! Others will do all sorts of things later, from fine-tuning line work to colouring by hand or digitally. The choice is yours but “developing” a sketch after the event is not for me: for me, the enjoyment is in being there, in all nature’s glory.
DO try to represent your scene faithfully. You will develop your own unique style in time, and it will have “you” written all over it. Keep practicing drawing from life and you will be amazed at your improvement. I looked at a drawing recently that I did two years ago: I’m drawing the same thing again, and the improvement in my line is very evident. But both are unmistakably mine.
Here’s a few tips to help you represent your subject faithfully.
– Remember that watercolour dries very much lighter than it goes on. You’ll nearly always need many layers to get a good depth of colour. It also means you don’t need to panic if you put on a wash of colour that looks too dark – let it dry, then wait and see what happens. Chances are it will look confident rather than stark. One of the biggest issues I see is when watercolour has not been applied in enough layers. It can result in a bland painting that can look as if it has faded.
– Remember your values. Be conscious of the difference in strength of adjacent colours. Imagine you were looking at the same scene in black and white – which area would stand out more? As a sketcher it’s fine to exaggerate that a bit if you think it will represent your scene more faithfully. Squinting or looking through half-closed eyes can bring values into immediate clarity.
– Be accurate. Watch carefully where each line begins and ends. Think of it as a jigsaw – a line in the wrong place will throw out the whole thing. If you have made a mistake, do NOT try and adjust everything else to fit the wrong line – just accept the wrong line and draw the right one on top. No one – not even you – will notice the incorrect line, as (I think) the brain wants to make sense of an image.
– Practice the skill of seeing well: seek out negative spaces (the air between shapes) as you don’t have a preconceived idea of what they should look like, and so will be much more likely to draw them correctly. It’s excellent training for your drawing practice.
– Always be honest. Include the bin, or the rubbish, or the peeling or mildewy paint. In my experience these are the things that catch the eye. I think it’s because people sense this is real life as they know it and which they register every time they step outdoors. Having said that, I have “moved” a tree a little to the side to show a hidden island in the distance…but I’ve felt bad about it, and frankly making a conscious decision like that tends to jolt me out of the meditative place that drawing seems to bring. Better to accept what’s there, in my opinion.
Here’s the main street in my local town of Galway, complete with trainers on the overhead wires –
DO restrict your palette to save time. Much as I adore colour – in mine and others’ work – it can be very helpful to restrict your palette to a few colours. My favourite are as follows:
indigo, cerulean, burnt umber, yellow ochre and sepia
sap green, indigo, orange and phthalo green mixed with lemon yellow
black ink, white paper and Payne’s grey
But I look forward to trying some other combinations.
Practice Makes Perfect
DO draw as often as you possibly can…you have 10,000 hours to clock up, and urban sketching is the most fun way to clock them up! Seriously, I used to look at the work of artists I loved and wonder what their secret was. In the end I discovered that there wasn’t really a secret at all – it was just non-stop practice. So draw any old thing around you, whether it’s your own living room, a pile of dishes, the washing hanging on the line or something a little further from your home.
Here’s a drawing of my kitchen at home in Co. Galway – anything to avoid actually washing up.
DO sketch very lightly in pencil before you start: I do this if I want something a bit more polished than usual. It’s also useful to take the sheer whiteness off the paper, and lose your inhibitions. I’m talking just the quickest, roughest shapes, no more than a hasty circle or square. If I’m really there just to be extra-zen then I don’t bother – I just take the pen for a walk and see what happens, as in the messy kitchen sketch above. If I’m doing this then I start at the point of most interest and work my way outwards on all sides. But it is annoying to get the length of a line wrong (for example): the way around this is to draw little by little, filling in as you go, until you are 100% sure everything is in the right place. After a bit there will be so many points of reference the whole drawing will get a lot easier.
DO bring a tube of white gouache with you: you can mix this with other colours to give you an opaque light colour that will show up against a dark background.
That’s what I did for the grasses in front of this banjaxed wheelbarrow I saw up the road from me here in Kilcolgan. But you have to make the area behind it really dark, or you won’t get the nice light / shade effect.
DO bring a couple of small plastic bottles of water so that you can have clean water when you need it. But I prefer glass jars any day to plastic so I try to squash a small jar into my bag too. I’ve used seawater but I’m sure it’s not good for your lovely brushes.
DO draw pointless, unappealing subjects from time to time – things that will never look beautiful, no matter how well you draw them. A crumpled tissue. The words on a billboard. The plastic bin where X-ray patients throw their used disposable dressing gowns. A digger slumbering after a hard day’s work, like this one down the road from me in Ballinderreen, Co. Galway:
DON’T fear the public. They are almost invariably lovely – chatty, kind and entertaining. In my last set of tips I talked about the “armour” of headphones and a radio but I haven’t done that for years. Onlookers are great and often give me a colourful story to go with my sketch, and it can be a tad dull if no one stops for a chat (AFTER I’ve got the first few lines pinned down). In the absence of humans, there is nothing like the sound of insects clicking and buzzing and birds cheeping and wittering away…
The Rule Book – Chuck It Out!
DON’T get bogged down in perspective. I have many, disagreements with people about this, but I feel strongly that if you are looking clearly, and doing your utmost to observe the slopes and lengths of lines, you will produce an accurate drawing. Perspective, schmerspective! Likewise, the human body, plant physiology etc. Forget it. This isn’t about homework. Forget what you know. Draw what you SEE. Example: you can’t learn the morphology of a negative shape, but get it right and your “default” subject will be right too. Enjoyment is paramount!
DON’T be afraid to experiment with tools. Try tinted paper, different paper formats, thicker nibs, brush only…
For your interest, here are the contents of my sketch kit –
DON’T be put off by difficult or frustrating drawing conditions. Wind can be battled by keeping large elastic bands in your kit to wrap around the end of your paper. If you feel self-conscious about drawing someone (I do, a lot) you can mitigate this a bit by looking elsewhere every time they look at you. I have no idea if this cunning plan works – no one has ever asked me to stop drawing them (apart from my own family, but I wheedle, beg, bribe, cajole or ignore when this happens). Rain is tricky but I just wait it out if it’s a shower. If your subject has moved on before you’ve finished them, draw the next person who might match up. And if anyone has ever seen a huge umbrella that attaches to the head please get in touch. I have seen the little ones but I need a golf-umbrella-sized one. That clips onto the top of the head, yes, like so –
DON’T get hung up on making your drawing really impressive – quantity is more important than quality for two reasons: one, the more you draw the better you’ll be, and two, each drawing is a permanent memory to keep, which will bring that day back to you when you look at it.
DON’T forget the commute: I love to draw on a bus or plane journey, or in airports or train stations.
This one took my mind off in-flight nerves from Gatwick to Shannon a while back…
DON’T sweat the small stuff – literally. I keep trying to draw things like ivy which is lovely but so fiddly! Brickwork looks beautiful if you can bothered drawing it properly but it is repetitive. It’s about enjoying yourself, not giving yourself a pain in the head. Having said that, I will master those fiddly branches at the tops of bare trees if it’s the last thing I do…but only if I would otherwise be twiddling my thumbs – they will never be a “treat” drawing like a million other things would be.
DON’T try to walk before you can run, or if you do and it goes wrong, don’t beat yourself up for it. By this I mean please try not to become downhearted if something doesn’t turn out quite like you planned. Those treetops can make me feel like a really useless drawer, and then a day or two later I’ll do something full of presence and truth. We all have our strengths and weaknesses – and it’s a whole lot of fun finding what yours is.
DON’T think of urban sketching as an indulgence. “Urban Sketching” could actually be short for “Urban Sketching as a Cheap and Enjoyable Way to Maintain Mental Health”. It is definitely true for me.
Here are a couple of thoughts shared with me by generous sketchers:
“Sketching allows a meditative state I find difficult to achieve otherwise (young kids, noisy house). I find it easy to revert to that state even if I’ve been disrupted. It’s also something of a distraction when I’m actively trying to not think about something that’s worrying me, and I find it helps me go to sleep. How lucky we are to have found a relatively inexpensive, productive and relaxing pastime!”
“Although the main benefit of drawing remains the joyful process of producing artwork, it has also become a kind of safety valve; I’m working in a very competitive environment as the CEO of an internet marketplace, and drawing almost every evening helps me to release the pressure accumulated during a day’s work. It’s a very relaxing process which helps me find serenity at the end of the day.”
These are only two of the many comments that have been generously shared with me, but the amazing thing is that they are all so similar. So be good to yourself, and remember you’ll be a better friend / parent / colleague if you’re serene (until you get annoyingly so).
DON’T forget life-drawing as a way to improve your urban sketching skills. Life-drawing is the daily run around the block to urban sketching’s triathlon (not that I would know). Life-drawing challenges every aspect of your drawing skill: light and shade, line, proportion, speed, accuracy…even drawing in company.
Remember to be Social – with Kids as well as Adults
DON’T forget the kids: bring them with you occasionally as they are great little artists and might surprise you with their ability to concentrate. I have been amazed how long a child can stand behind me and watch me draw, and how long my own kids, and the kids I teach, can spend absorbed in a painting. When I started teaching children, there were always one or two who were easily distracted. Now, those same youngsters don’t move a muscle for an hour and a half and have to be told firmly to put their paintbrushes down at the end of class. Likewise, I’ve attended sketchcrawls where the kids have had to come to for one reason or another, and again, they zone into the act of sketching like everyone else. I have also been out with my own three where a folding stool has been swung by one child at another child, where two have fought over who saw the daffodil first (you can both draw it, you lunatics) and where someone has splashed paint on someone else’s work. But catch them around the age of 9 to 12, when they’re starting to think they “can’t” draw, help them produce something they’re proud of and you’ll give them a gift they’ll keep forever. I asked the kids in my class recently to name two things they enjoyed about painting: the most common thing was “being proud of something you’ve done”…the sweeties. (I made them a little written test on using watercolour which contained the same question: someone had written “showing off”.)
A funny one to end on, but DON’T allow sketching to take over entirely. Balance and all that! There’s a guy who goes to beauty spots around the world and photographs the people who visit them. He says they don’t really look, they just obsess about getting the right shot to share or whatever and then leave. I have been guilty of drawing when I should just be taking in the scene instead. Some people say that drawing makes them more fully aware of their surroundings and that’s great, but personally I go into a trance: this unconscious state means I don’t really take in anything around me. I’ve “missed” concerts and so on because I’ve been so absorbed in recording them. You know those guys who go on safari and spend the entire time filming it, and we criticise them for not being fully present? Just saying.
So where do you go to from here?
– Join Urban Sketchers ( Join Urbansketchers ) and then join a local Chapter so you can meet up with other sketchers.
– Get yourself some basic sketching and painting equipment. I regularly write about this on my website and usually discuss what paints and other materials I have used in my feature pieces, or give a more in depth consideration in my premium Patreon only articles, starting here Urban Sketching Kit
– Read some books and articles by well known urban sketchers Book reviews
– Learn some tips and techniques , Tips and Techniques
– Improve your approach to planning, scene selection and composition My PREMIUM articles are designed for this, starting here Planning an Urban Sketch
– Join a Workshop, where you will get expert tuition and a fun holiday at the same time in an exotic location. You can see some announcements here Find a Sketching Workshop
– Keep up to date with me by following my Feature Articles
– Please do sign up to my newsletter for the latest information about my urban sketching world.