An Amateur’s Guide to Urban Sketching

Nov 30, 2022

To draw a place is to truly see it. Does that sound weird? It’s not, really. Urban sketching offers anyone who engages in it a refreshing new way to interpret a familiar environment.

We live in a world increasingly influenced by digital media, where capturing images of our surroundings is as easy as taking a picture of a particular subject that interests us with an iPhone. But what if we were to stop and actually draw it instead? That would be a far more personal experience, don’t you think?

Urban sketching captures our immediate fascination with an image – this might be a neighbourhood church or other architecturally interesting location, such as a local pub’s facade – and depicts it in a new, more imaginative way.

Many of us may have tried our hand at sketching at one time or another in our lives, likely in our adolescence or teen years. But sadly, many of us abandoned this pursuit in favour of using a camera or simply gave up, believing ourselves to be lacking any talent at all.

Call It What You Like

Whether you’re wandering around a historical town, happen to be out walking past a local park or wandering down an unfamiliar street, urban sketching is about doing a drawing of something while on location, rather than using reference materials such as photography to produce the work once you’re back at home.

As defined by the founder of Urban Sketching World: “Urban sketches tend to focus on architecture or street scenes but also include drawing people in cafés, or while on their daily commute and anything in between! As long as the sketch is done from life and outside of a studio setting, then that can be considered urban sketching.”

Travel Light

The beauty of urban sketching is that all you need is a small selection of pencils and (perhaps) pens and an A5 sketchbook. No easel. No paints. You can stow your gear in a lightweight backpack and set up camp wherever you happen to be at a moment’s notice.

Urban sketching is about doing a drawing of something while on location, rather than using reference materials such as photography to produce the work once you’re back at home.

Get Comfortable

Many experienced urban sketchers prefer to draw while standing up, but for beginners a seated position is probably more preferable. It’s more comfortable, steadier and leads to greater accuracy. All you have to do is find a wall or a bench to sit or lean on so you can relax and give yourself time to capture a subject that interests you. Often, even your lap is your easel!

Choose Your Medium

Perhaps the most forgiving and easy-to-use sketching tool is the pencil. As celebrated London (U.K.) based urban artist Phil Dean – otherwise known as The Shoreditch Sketcher observes:

“Pencil is a wonderful medium to capture the urban environment. Most of us are familiar with drawing with pencil from our school days so it’s an unintimidating medium to work with and perfect for the novice sketcher. The quick, soft lines of pencil are fast and fluid, allowing the sketcher to capture the hustle and bustle of the city. Hard pencils are beautiful for drawing the crisp lines of architecture, whilst the softer pencils are perfect for organic shapes such as people and trees.”

Mr. Dean recommends softer pencils (6B — HB) for heavier line weights and shading, while favouring harder pencils (6H — H) for delicate, light, precise linework.

Keep At It

Practice makes perfect and aiming for a sketch a day is an excellent way to quickly train your hand and eye. Don’t be put off by the challenge of taking a quirky looking storefront or even an apparently ordinary building as a subject.

It won’t take long for you to become addicted to the quest for ever more challenging subjects and views. According to Won Kang, founder of Urbansketcher:

“Urbansketcher was conceived as a visual diary to convey the tactile world around me. In the early years I spent mostly sketching buildings in a gritty part of Vancouver referred to as Downtown Eastside. Even in the urban blight of that area undergoing transformation there were amazing moments of beauty and contradiction.

I am a big fan of old signage, patina, rusty railway tracks, notorious drinking establishments, speakeasy bars and churches. These buildings and the adjacent streets became the muse for my artistic expression. I am fascinated by the ordinary and the everyday.”

No One’s Judging You

I’ve recently returned to drawing and sketching after many years. It’s a solitary activity that’s so tranquil and one that relaxes me and allows me to use my imagination and just let go. No one’s judging me – if anything, I’m my own worst critic – I’m free to let myself look at and think about my chosen subject in my own particular way. I don’t just limit myself to black and white sketching anymore either but inject some colour once in a while. It’s very freeing to just wander the city where I live or in which I may be travelling and light upon a subject and try to capture its essence.

Discover Which Materials Suit You Best

You’ll find there’s a generous selection of pencils and types of paper to choose from once you get started – my preference is Staedtler brand for pencils and Canson for drawing paper pads, but you’ll soon decide which art supplies suit you and your style best once you begin to sketch and become more adept. For coloured pencils, I love Derwent or Prismacolor.

Be Prepared

Just like the old tagline for the American Express Card used to suggest, “Don’t leave home without it”, which for me means, don’t leave home without my little art bag of sketching supplies. You never know when the urge will emerge, to draw!



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