Sometimes it's nice to have a chill art session focusing on tones and values rather than fussing over colour. Paul Kelley shows us how he does it in his laidback FREE demo doing an urban sketch in ink. Join us for this relaxing creative session!

Step 1: Making Marks

Paul is a seasoned architectural illustrator based in the Midwest US, so his scene choice for this urban sketch is a tower on a bridge (called a "Tenderhouse") along the Chicago River. While this old architecture is not used anymore, it is still well-preserved and gives a rustic feel.

Note: You'll see two reference images – one in colour and the other in greyscale. For value studies, where you're just focusing on getting the right tones, desaturate your reference image (and up the contrast if needed) to make it easier to see the different tones.

You'll need these materials:

  • A4 cold press watercolour sketchbook, or paper

  • a fountain pen filled with waterproof ink (or a waterproof graphic pen), 

  • a large mop brush and a size 12 round brush

  • black or neutral tint watercolour paint

  • a palette

  • a container of water. 

Tip: You can use cold or hot press paper, but Paul prefers cold press. He likes the occasional skips it makes in his sketch lines and the additional texture, but if it's not for you, use the smoother hot press instead.

When you've finished prepping your tools and paper (by taping the edges down with artist's tape), have a look at the reference photo. Notice where the darkest areas, mid-tones, and highlights are. What shapes can you find in the small tower? 

Here is a quick crash course on Tonal Values and Contrast if you want to learn more! 

Once you've broken down the image in your head, you can start making some marks in ink to indicate all the corners and edges of the tower. This should be a speedy process because you're just marking out how large your tower will be and making the proportions and perspective relatively accurate.

You can also lightly draw in some edges if you wish, so you remember which corners connect. 

Tip: Keep your marks loose and light, and don't be afraid to correct them if they don't look right!

Step 2: Ink Sketch

The mark-making process shouldn't take any longer than 5-10 minutes, so you can move to sketching quickly. Once you have a general idea of the basic outlines of the tower, start drawing more solid lines.

Throughout most of the drawing process, Paul uses the backside of his fountain pen because it creates a "sketchier" and lighter line than the "correct" side of the nib. He also uses quite a squiggly and dashed line, which gives the drawing a chaotic but still definable quality.

Tip: While this style may be a little "messy", it's good to try out different styles to see which suits you. However, if you already have a preferred style, feel free to use it instead. 

Bonus tip: Paul prefers fountain pens because the nib will never wear out but if you don't have one, use a graphic pen (with waterproof ink) instead. 

Once you finish drawing the tower, you can scribble in the details of the tower and some background features. Keep your background lines really loose, though, and don't add too many lines, so it doesn't detract from the focus of your drawing (which should be the tower). 

Step 3: Light Wash

Depending on the ink or pen you used, you may want to wait a few seconds for it to dry before painting. Once it's dry, prep your paint by diluting some black or neutral tint paint in your palette. 

Starting with the lightest wash and your mop brush, paint the pretty light areas while leaving white gaps in the paper for the lightest areas. Paint the mid-and shadow tones, too, so you can then deepen those tones with extra paint layers later.

Don't forget to paint the background areas too! Leave a small outline of white around your tower. However, having your foreground bleed into your background won't hurt because this is just the first wash.

Step 4: Mid-Tones

While your paint is still wet, add a little more paint to your palette, and do the mid-tones. Because the surface of your paper is still wet, you'll get some lovely blends with this wet-on-wet technique.

Try not to oversaturate your paper, though, because doing so may lead to a tone that's too diluted once it's dry.

Tip: Watercolour dries about 30% lighter than when you first lay it down, so if it looks a little too dark when you first use it, don't worry – it will lighten, especially if you used the wet-on-wet technique.

Paint the mid-tones for the background too, and don't paint too precisely – it's okay to keep your painting loose, just like your sketch! Your primary focus should be to see where the values should go and make the tower stand out from the background.

Tip: Think about the focal point in the tower itself, too! That area should have the most detail and contrast. Don't be afraid to exaggerate some of the tones (i.e. light tones get lighter, and shadows get darker). 

Step 5: Slap in Some Shadows

For your shadows, pick areas where you want a smoother blend, and separate them from the places where you want it to be really dark. 

In areas you'd like a smoother transition, drop in your most saturated mixture of paint, using the size 12 round brush for a smaller "reservoir" of water in your paintbrush. Your previous layer of paint should still be wet, thus creating a smooth transition in these areas.

It's fine to add this paint to some background areas like the bridge's railing, but don't make it too dark because it will distract from the foreground.

For areas where you want crisp and dark details, wait until the paper is dry or use a hairdryer to speed up the process. Paul recommends that you wait until the paper has cooled a little because the heat may "bake" your paint into the paper's surface and cause unexpected reactions.

Step 6: Final Finalisation

Once your shadow layer has dried, do some final touch-ups for your monochromatic painting. Perhaps you missed a detail in your sketch? Draw them back in with your pen.

Or maybe you need to darken some areas or add a little texture using the "dry brush" technique (i.e., quickly brush over the paper's surface with a paintbrush that has some paint but has been wiped onto a paper towel to dry it a bit). 

Last but not least, use a white gel pen or white gouache paint to add back some highlights you may have accidentally painted over. 

While you should take this chance to complete your painting, don't fuss over it too much. It can be difficult to know when to stop, but if you feel that adding this or that won't make a big difference overall, that means you're done!

Paul gives some good tips about moving away from "perfection" and working more towards expressively exploring art and design. I hope you got to do the same and will continue to do so for your future practice sessions!

If you liked this demo, I highly recommend that you check out Paul's 90-minute art class! When you finish, share your sketch with him and us! We love to see how people use these lessons to practice and incorporate the ideas in their artistic journey. 

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 


  • Paul Foote said:

    I’d like to know what brand of fountain pen ink is waterproof. I have not found any to be that and you cannot put india ink into a fountain pen because it will clog it up.

    June 01, 2022

  • Peri said:

    Great step by step instructions! Fun to try building values with a wet medium in lieu of just ink or graphite. I like the looseness of the sketch too. Good example for travel sketching :)
    Etchr Studio replied:
    Awesome to hear, Peri! We can’t wait to see your travel sketches, don’t forget to tag us on Instagram with #Etchr 🧡

    January 19, 2022

  • Gabriela said:

    I like your step by step, thanks a lot!!!!
    Etchr Studio replied:
    Thank you, Gabriela! We hope this helps you make more art! 🧡

    January 19, 2022

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