The Benefits of Urban Sketching: A Love Story (or, There Are Three People In This Marriage)

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My husband thinks I am mad when it comes to urban sketching. He says I’m obsessed. That I’ve gone too far. I say, would you rather I chose wine? Fancy men? (Why can’t we have them all, said a lady I met yesterday). From the moment I started sketching, it was pure love. That’s why I see my relationship with sketching as a love story: and there are, indeed, three people in my marriage.

The following is based on a presentation for Kava in Kinvara on Thursday 14th August 2014.

What’s the difference between an urban sketch and a plein air painting?

The essence of an urban sketch is that its primary function is not to be beautiful, but to capture what it feels like to be human. This could be in a man-made building, the hand of man on the landscape, or human beings in action, wherever they are or whatever they are doing.

In my mind, an urban sketch is usually beautiful because as human beings we are fascinated with what other humans do / have done.

What are the benefits of urban sketching?

The benefits of urban sketching are manifold. At the very least , you will find that boredom becomes a thing of the past, for while a plein air sketch requires a bit of time and organisation, an urban sketch can happen anywhere and everywhere. Waiting for a prescription to be filled in the chemist? Sketch. The bus with the person you’re waiting for is late? Sketch. Nothing on telly? Sketch.

For the public, the benefits are unexpected. In my experience the public gets a huge kick out of watching a sketcher draw live, and it brings the experience of real art in action to them.

For me personally, it has turned my life around. I had always had periodic melancholy, but it’s a thing of the past since sketching entered my life.

And another benefit – I’m so used to observing the real world and transcribing it onto my page that now when I make up something, I can cut to the chase with a strong, realistic drawing very quickly.

What do you need to become an urban sketcher?

The basic tools are a small sketchbook (A5 or A4 is probably best), some pens or pencils and a small box of paints. Part of the fun is getting it into a form you can grab and go – a pencil case, a fabric wrap, a portable stool. A tiny bottle of water, something absorbent and you’re good to go.

What specific tools work for me?

I use a Platinum Carbon ink fountain pen (€) ( with cartridges. It is instantly dry and waterproof. I love my Namiki fountain pen (€€€) for its flexible nib, for really free drawing. I use grey Noodler’s ink in it (from the US) which is also waterproof.
I always have a 2B pencil with me and a Staedtler rubber. I bring a light craft knife for a sharp point. I always bring a piece of folded kitchen paper, and my water is in a transparent plastic bottle, the type used for travel on a plane (-€ from Penneys).
I buy a black linen-covered tie-closed sketchbook from Cork Art Supplies ( called Aquarellbuch (€) in either A4, with linen cover and tie, or A5, smooth cover with elastic.
I’ve just started using a big elastic band to keep the pages down. Works a treat.
I buy a portable stool from Halfords (€). You can get one with a jar holder but it’s not necessary.
For paints, I use the W&N sketchbox in 24 colours (€€), the W&N field sketching box (€ if on sale), and I’ve just started using Schminke, which are going great for me.
I use the best brushes I can: sable brushes with a beautiful point.

Clothing is important. I wear a woolly hat even if it’s sunny and warm because you are very still. Many layers. Rainproof jacket. Two (at least) pairs of trousers with thermals underneath. If you’re sketching in an urban environment, remember to stop and get a hot cup of tea.

Selling your work

You’ll get onlookers wanting to buy your work. I charge €50 for a quick sketch on the spot, because if I charge more I won’t make a sale. This is a fraction of what I sell for in general or if I’m commissioned but the way I look at it is – it will buy me more art materials and I’ve enjoyed myself anyway…and it makes the punter very happy and brings art to him or her. Sometimes I give it for free but I have to be very moved by their enthusiasm to do that!!! Once I’ve left the spot though, the deal’s off. I always ask the recipient to scan the sketch for me and send it on, and they usually do.

I’ve heard of people leaving their hat on the ground…and hearing the chink of coins landing in it. Why not? Lots of people find it very entertaining to watch.

Online Groups

It’s great to join the community who come from all over the world. My favourite groups are Urban Sketchers, Urban Sketchers Galway (we meet once a month, do join us), Everyday Matters, Artists Journal Workshop on Facebook and/or Flickr.

Tell a Story

Don’t forget one of the most enjoyable aspects of urban sketching – telling the story behind the sketch. There are some sketchers whose work is beautiful, but who never say a word about the sketch, so I find them pretty boring after a short while. But when there’s a well-told story to hear as well as look at a beautiful drawing…it’s a match made in heaven. Social media is a great way to tell a story and show a sketch at the same time: you’ll reach so many people this way.



How do I draw people moving? Never easy. But the good news is that it’s possible, because moving things bring great life to your sketch.

1. A person who is walking along

Do what you can, and if they’re gone before you’ve finished, add the legs / torso / whatever from the next passer-by.

2. Someone doing a repetitive action

Be patient – they will take the same pose again. This applies to chefs, fishermen, swimmers, divers etc. For example, look at the position of the swimmer with the right arm (say) out of the water, then close your eyes, draw a bit, then look again, and draw a bit more.

3. A car driving (or other vehicle) Same as for Point 1.

4. Choppy sea / running water

You can use the second technique, or you can ignore reality, and do whatever you think would be nice…or, even better, you can squint and in that way see the main shapes and colours.

And remember the golden rule…

If it moves, draw it first! It will soon be gone, you can bet on it. You can draw the building anytime.

Drawing Accurately

Drawing accurately is not essential for sketching, but it sure goes a long way to the feeling of satisfaction you’ll get from a sketch. After all, we are in the business of telling a story of what we’ve seen – we may as well get it right. Once you are highly skilled you can play with your line: but you’ll know exactly how far you can push it before you lose the essence.

“If only we could pull out our brains and use only our eyes.” Pablo Picasso. This sums up my philosophy on drawing. Try to forget what you know. This is not as easy as it sounds. You have to forget all your perspective classes and everything else. Use those as tools when you’re making up a drawing, by all means, but not when you’re making a live sketch. You must draw what you SEE, not what you KNOW.
I have always said to my students that you must pretend you are an alien, and you’ve never seen a nose before…or know what three dimensions mean. You’re there to RECORD what you see. The fact that you are a unique human being will be all the personality and individuality the sketch will ever need.

See the scene before you as a jigsaw puzzle. You’ll probably want to draw a big box or circle with a light pencil mark, just to turn the white paper into a nascent drawing.

Pick the thing you want to draw most of all, and start there. Keep watching for other lines or marks that relate to the line you’re drawing, for example, where does the chimney start? Is it half way along the line of the roof? A third? Or what?
The more lines you add, the more of your jigsaw puzzle will be filled in, and the easier the sketch becomes. That’s why a complex drawing may be time-consuming, but it won’t be hard.

(On that note, if a sketch is taking too long, come back another day, if you want. So what?)


Be careful with shadows. They are a very powerful tool in making your sketch look beautiful and evocative, but they’re easy to get wrong. You won’t go wrong if you remember that you must capture them as a whole, at the same time, or they will move too much. You can draw them all at once, and paint them later, when you have underpainted in the underlying colours. I always use Payne’s Grey or a blend of that with other colours: for example, on a road it will be Payne’s Grey, but the same shadow extending on to the grass will be Payne’s Grey plus Viridian or another green.


I am loathe to say “this is how you paint sky” because it is ever-changing. But there is a fall-back sky that is very often the one you will be painting, because you wouldn’t be outdoors unless it was a nice day. Also it’s a useful summer sky…and it’s as follows:
Start with drawing very lightly the line of the clouds, in PENCIL.
You can either fill in the blue with Cerulean Blue, or you can do the clouds first.
The clouds will all darken towards the bottom. I use a soft mix of Payne’s Grey plus Vandyke Brown to get the right colour. On the horizon there will be a strong element of purple.
Repeat for each cloud.
Remember to keep your colour very wet at all times or you will have nasty hard lines.


Similar principle as clouds: always darker towards the bottom, especially towards the dense bit of foliage in the middle. More pronounced in strong sunshine.


A killer. The great plein air painter Blaise Smith and I agree that it should be banned.

Using your paints

The first thing to remember is that practice makes perfect.

1. Avoid hard lines. You’ll get them if you are painting an area and you allow it to dry while you muck around with another part of the paper. Sometimes this is hard to avoid: the way around it is to brush out the edge of the paint you’ve done to transparency, then you can come back and build it up later.

2. Paint wet-on wet or wet-on-dry. Never paint wet-on-half-dry. This is how your paint gets muddy.

3. Practice on scraps…cut off bits from another painting or the reverse of something you’ve discarded. It’s a great way to stop caring about the result.

4. Get to know your colours. This comes with time.


There is no white sharper and stronger than the white of your paper. Ignore the white in your palette – even better, take it out of the set.
However, I am not averse to a white gel pen or a tube of white gouache – they can be useful for things like lichen spots on a dark roof or wall.

And finally…

Don’t Panic!!

There will always be another sketch, another day, another sheet of paper, another chance. And on your page, there is space to start again…

It won’t come overnight, and it’s great fun getting there.

Róisín Curé

Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend

My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-

Set of 24

Set of 24

or in the UK and EU :-

Jackson’s Art Supplies
Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour : Metal Set : 12 Half Pans

I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-

Escoda Versatil Brushes

Escoda Versatil Brushes

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Escoda : VERSATIL Kolinsky Synthetic : Series 1540 : # 8

There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-

The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-

Kuretake Brush Pen

Kuretake Brush Pen

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Kuretake : Bimoji Fude Pen : Black Medium BRUSH : Maroon pack XT5-10

The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-

I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-

I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks


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