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  • Writer's pictureDanny McShane

Urban Sketching

Updated: Jun 11

I'm not big on rules and categories for their own sake so I'll leave what is and what isn't urban sketching to others. When I use the term I think mainly of working in a sketchbook or pad to draw or paint an urban scene. It's far more fun on location and most folk use the term exclusively for on site (plein air) sketching. Some more of mine can be seen here in my urban sketch gallery

My favourite medium for this is line and wash, and I like to draw with a waterproof fine liner (I like black Unipin Fine Liners, 0.5mm and BR (brush tip for thick lines)), then add watercolour. I've experimented both ways round and prefer making the line sketch first and adding the watercolour after, even if I choose not to stick to the lines.

Marr's of Methlick, at the line stage. Double A5

...and with the watercolour wash.

I like it this way round as I get a surprise at the effect of colour on the sketch, and have the chance to take a photo of it before adding the colour (when I remember). It can feel a bit like 'colouring in' though, rather than proper painting (whatever that is). But it's your time and your choice.

Sketches can be as simple as you like or as complicated.

Different sized sketchbooks turn out to be handy for different things -I have an A6 glove compartment book for sketches of car parks from the car as it's a good way to pass 15 minutes waiting. And my most used is an A5 landscape sketchbook that gives the equivalent of an A3 page in width if I sketch over both pages -the panorama format is good street scenes as well as ... landscapes. I also have A4 and square format books -the subject tends to pick the size -or sometimes the paper. For line and wash I prefer watercolour paper though I can just get away with cartridge paper as long as I don't want any wet in wet paint effects. Smooth cartridge paper does feel great for the line stage (and I've accidentally bought cartridge paper books in the past and just decided to live with them).

Kings Links, Aberdeen
Kings Links, Aberdeen

I noticed on my very first sketches that I had better results going straight in to a blank page with a pen rather than making any tentative marks with pencil first. The style I like is to use a single solid line, rather than 'sketchy' or broken lines. When it works well I get a sort of Tintin look, "ligne claire' as Herge called it. Even if the subject seems complicated there's something about the commitment and simplicity of just getting on with it that powers past any initial hesitation. Everybody's different, but for some reason I just draw better with ink than pencil (I've never liked pencil so it might just be me). But I didn't anticipate this, just as I didn't anticipate liking watercolour at all, so it can be worth trying things you don't expect to like. To be honest I would have said I didn't like drawing at all. Until I tried this kind of sketching in a sketchbook for the first time a few years ago, I had no idea how much fun it would be.

Kings Quad & Cromwell Tower, Aberdeen University.
Kings Quad & Cromwell Tower, Aberdeen University.

I should qualify this a bit - I mainly draw outline sketches, sometimes called contour sketches, where I don't do any shading, hatching, stippling or forming but leave all those subtleties to the watercolour wash (or just leave it as a line drawing if it isn't going to be a line-and -wash). So I don't really consider myself someone who draws, just someone who does line sketches. It doesn't matter to me, but I don't want tread on anyone's toes.

Line drawing of roofline
Marishcal College, Aberdeen, roofline

Where I might fudge boundaries is when I paint an urban scene without any preceding ink work -is this still an urban sketch? And if I do it on a sheet of paper rather than in a sketchbook? I do hope nobody really minds.

Painting of High Street
Old Aberdeen High Street, urban sketch or painting? (22x15")

Sketching in the street can feel a bit exposed to start with if you're remotely self conscious, and picking somewhere safe is only common sense. Safe from traffic and from being an obstruction or trip hazard yourself as well as safe from unwanted attention of any kind. So pick your time and place, and consider sketching in company if appropriate. It also pays to stay aware of your surroundings and what's going on about you, though sketchers usually are but we can get a bit absorbed in the drawing. I find setting myself up by a piece of street furniture like a bollard or lampost or alcove that people would have to walk around anyway works well. Having equipment you can gather and shift in a moment is reassuring as you can just move on at will if need be, with minimum fuss. Whether to stand or sit is a case by case choice per location. I do prefer to sit to sketch (though to stand to paint) so usually carry a folding stool in case there isn't a bench or wall or step to sit on. Getting out of the wind or even having a bit of a roof or shade can be very welcome.

Mealmarket flats, Aberdeen
Mealmarket Student Flats, Aberdeen

Sitting on my stool on the pavement opposite while sketching the colourful Mealmarket flats I had more than one person ask me what I was drawing. When I pointed across the road to the flats they said 'Wow, I hadn't really noticed those before'. This happens more than you'd expect, and once you start urban sketching you see things you'd "never noticed before' yourself.

I like colourful scenes with strong shadows and dramatic lighting but some days the sun comes and goes or isn't there at all. But I'm in charge of what goes on the paper so will often add shadows where I want them if they're missing, or where they were in the brief moment they appeared.

Old building with shadow
The Old Brewery, Aberdeen

And the same with figures- passers-by pass by quickly, but I try to note their proportions in the perspective of the drawing and over the time I'm sketching I can choose which if any I want to represent. I'm usually looking for credible impressions rather than realism so heightening colour, increasing tonal contrast and idealising figures is all fair game, and great fun.

Railway station with figures
Ballater Station

And I make mistakes. Often I just start my drawings at the top, or at the left hand side, and simply draw a single line outline of the scene I want. This occasionally leads to some crises of proportion (which is terribly amateurish) and having to omit windows, bays, even floors on some buildings to get them to fit into my page.

Block of flats in sunshine
Beach Boulevard Flats (with nearly the right number of floors).

I've even set out to paint a street view, started with the top of a tower and drawn downwards then not reached the street (so I didn't get to draw any figures at all). But I can't look at that sketch now without smiling. You don't have to make my mistakes, you can go and enjoy your own!

Sketch where I didn't leave room for the whole buildings
King Street at West North St., Aberdeen. Would have been good to reach street level!

Ideally I'll paint the watercolour wash while I'm on site, but completing the line drawing does make for a natural break point and a decision whether to paint or turn the page and draw another scene. Having observed your subject pretty closely for up to an hour it's usually no problem to paint from memory at home. And sometimes the weather will make your decision for you.

My first love is outdoor painting, urban or otherwise, so my practice is usually to go out to paint something at my favourite size ( half imperial, 22x15") but always to have smaller size paper and a sketchbook with me as a fall back option if it's too windy. Sketching from a cafe or inside the car is is much easier than trying to paint. I do occasionally go out specifically to sketch or to meet other sketchers in town.

If there's a secret to urban sketching it's just to do it. Starting is by far the hardest bit! Get a book and a pen and just fill it, regardless of what youthink of the quality of your work. By the time you're on the last few pages you'll have figured out and learned a lot, and you'll have loads of memories as well as sketches.

Lots of towns and cities have Urban Sketching Groups you can find by their Facebook Pages if you want to sketch in company. Other sketchers often offer ideas and hints and tips and location suggestions. Or there's the complete freedom of doing your own thing. Either way, it's surprising how much more you start to see once you start sketchingthe buildings and places around you.

Happy sketching. :o)

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Jun 10
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Super sketches and practical tips, Danny, thanks! ( I couldn''t figure out the sign in thing on my phone, Jim P. )

Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Jun 11
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Cheers, Jim😄 The sign-in thing is a Wix (the website host) thing I haven't really got my head round either. I should read up on it - I think it just lets you have a username appear instead of 'Guest' for commenting, though the 'join' and 'member' terms are a bit offputting. I've no need for membership nor does any access to the site change, it's just part of the furniture.

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