Urban sketching–a journaling technique that has been gaining popularity–is where artists and enthusiasts document their surroundings and tell visual stories through their sketches.
In this article, we will explore what urban sketching is, basic techniques to get started, a step-by-step approach to urban sketching, how to improve your skill, and some inspiring Instagram accounts to follow.
What is urban sketching?
Urban sketching is the act of creating on-location sketches that depict the essence of urban environments. It involves capturing the scenes, people, and architecture of cities, towns, or any other bustling location. Unlike studio-based art, urban sketching is done in real-time, allowing artists to document the world as it unfolds before their eyes.
Journaling combined with urban sketching adds words to the images to more fully capture places, people, and moments in time.
Beginner techniques to get started with urban sketching in your journal
Urban sketching is a personal practice and the more you do it, the more your personal style will emerge. With that said, here are some thoughts to help you get started.
- Choose portable supplies. The medium isn’t as important as how easy it is to carry your supplies around with you so you can capture what engages you wherever you are. Watercolors are popular because they dry quickly. So are colored pencils and watercolor crayons. A pencil, kneaded eraser, black ink pen (water fast if using watercolors), and something to add color is enough. Oh, and you’ll need a journal with thick enough paper to support the media. Both Moleskine and Leuchtturm make art journals with thick paper.
- Choose where to sit. Find a place where you can sit comfortably for 30-40 minutes that has a good angle but leaves you relatively inconspicuous. It could be a vibrant street corner, a bustling café, an architectural landmark, or even a quiet park. Look for scenes that evoke emotions or tell a story. The charm is in the everyday scenes that go unnoticed by many.
- Observe and simplify. Before putting pen to paper, take a few moments to observe your subject closely. Pay attention to the shapes, lines, colors, and overall atmosphere. Start by identifying the main elements and simplifying the scene in your mind. Break it down into basic shapes, and imagine how you would compose them on your paper.
- Play with your personal style. Urban sketching allows for a range of artistic approaches. You can opt for a loose and gestural style, emphasizing movement and capturing the essence of the scene. Or you may prefer a more detailed and realistic approach that captures intricate architectural details. Experiment with different styles and techniques to find what resonates with you. The more you practice, the more your natural style will emerge.
Take a layered approach to building your urban sketch.
Over time you will figure out your own approach, but working in layers is a good place to start. Here’s some advice based on how many urban sketchers do it:
- Start with a light pencil sketch. Begin your sketch with light pencil strokes to establish the composition, proportions, and basic shapes. Use these initial lines as a guide, but don’t worry about perfection. Urban sketching embraces imperfections and the organic nature of the process. Allow yourself to make mistakes and let your hand follow the rhythm of the scene.
- Create the basic ink outlines. Once you’re satisfied with the initial sketch, use pens or markers to create the outlines. Play with different line weights to create depth and contrast in your drawings.
- Add details and textures. Once you’re satisfied with the initial sketch, start adding details and textures. Add depth, shadows, and highlights. Sometimes the most mundane details–like a tip jar or untied shoe–bring life to the scene.
- Experiment with colors. Urban sketching can be done solely in black and white, but adding color can bring an extra dimension to your sketches. Experiment with different color palettes. Deliberately working with a limited palette can help define your personal style.
Mike Yoshiaki Daikubara has a great book on his technique called: Color First, Ink Later. Essentially Mike starts with the color of a scene as the base, then builds on top of it. It’s an engaging way to work and definitely worth a test drive. One of the perks to his approach is that your pens don’t have to be water fast when inking if the watercolor is already dry.
- Document your thoughts and stories. Alongside your sketches, add written notes or captions to document your thoughts, feelings, and observations. This adds a personal touch to your visual journal and helps create a narrative around your sketches.
Advice for building your skill at urban sketching in your journal
- Practice regularly. Like any skill, urban sketching improves with practice. Either set aside dedicated time each week to sketch in different environments or just keep your supplies with you all the time so you can practice whenever you have a moment. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become in capturing a scene.
- Focus on increasing your speed. Speed is a factor in urban sketching because light changes and people and vehicles move. Choose speed over perfection in your approach. After all, this isn’t for a gallery. If you work in a journal you can just turn the page and start again. (And if a particular attempt really makes you crazy, you can cut it out of the journal with an exacto knife when you get home!)
- Think like a photographer and explore different perspectives. Don’t limit yourself to one viewpoint. Experiment with different angles, vantage points, and compositions to add variety and interest to your sketches. This can provide a fresh perspective and challenge you to see familiar scenes in new ways.
- Draw people. Urban environments are often bustling with people going about their daily lives. Including figures in your sketches can bring a sense of life and energy to your compositions. Practice capturing the gesture and movement of people, even if they’re just quick, simplified representations. Róisín Curé has a great book on this in the Urban Sketching Handbook series called Drawing Expressive People.
- Learn to appreciate ‘happy accidents’. Embrace the imperfections, mistakes, and unexpected outcomes that may arise during your sketching process. Bob Ross is famous for saying, “There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.” These “happy accidents” can often lead to the edgy, real-time feeling of urban sketching.
- Engage with the urban sketching community. Joining local urban sketching groups or online communities can be a fantastic way to connect with fellow artists, share your work, and learn from others. Attend sketching meetups, workshops, or symposiums to immerse yourself in the vibrant community of urban sketchers.
Instagram accounts to follow for inspiration
Looking for some people to follow to spark inspiration? Check out these accounts:
@urbansketchers This is the official Instagram account of Urban Sketchers, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering a global community of artists who practice urban sketching. It features stunning sketches from artists worldwide.
@koosjekoene Koosje Koene is a co-founder of Sketchbook Skool. She is all about the creative habit and her journal features vibrant scenes.
@amagpiesnest Linda Weijters is a CFO who is into urban sketching. Follow her for urban scenes, nature and drawings of ordinary things.
@lizsteelart Liz Steel is an Australian architect and urban sketcher known for her detailed and vibrant sketches. Her account provides insights into her sketching process and captures the beauty of the built environment.
@cathy.hutchison is a beginner in urban sketching. If you start following now, you can learn about her discoveries as she practices building the skill. Her feed covers topics related to visual journaling.
Ready to try this?
Urban sketching can be an incredibly rewarding practice that allows you to connect with your environment and capture the essence of urban life. Through careful observation and creative expression, you can create unique and personal artworks that tell the stories of the cities you explore. With the right supplies, a curious mindset, and inspiration from talented artists, you can embark on your own urban sketching journey. So, grab your sketchbook, step out into the cityscape, and let your sketches breathe life into the pages of your visual journal.
Remember, urban sketching is a personal journey of self-expression and exploration. Don’t be afraid to develop your own style and experiment with different techniques. The key is to enjoy the process, observe the world around you, and create sketches that reflect your unique perspective and experiences.