Have you ever wanted to do an urban sketch or painting but felt a bit too pressed for time to even start? Well, in this FREE live demo, Marek Badzynski shows some really useful tricks to get a fantastic monochromatic painting done in just one hour! It’s another fast-paced demo, but once you understand the basic steps, you’ll be flying in no time, too.
Step 1: Diving Straight to the Ink Sketch
As a seasoned urban sketcher based in Toronto, Marek likes to find unique-looking areas to sit down and paint. But for him, he would rather capture the essence of a place instead of having to draw or paint out every single detail in complete accuracy.
That is why he developed this technique to help him paint faster while also getting the right feeling and atmosphere of the scene.
This means he completely forgoes the pencil sketch and jumps straight to inking with a fountain pen. Don’t worry; you can do the same, too!
As for the materials needed for your sketch, you’ll need watercolour paper, a fountain pen filled with waterproof ink (or a waterproof graphic pen), and either a stick of water-soluble graphite or black or any dark-coloured watercolour paint.
Tip: You can use cold or hot press paper, but Marek recommends cold press paper, as it’s easier to get more dry brush textures later on.
There’s also a bit of flexibility in terms of what you can use to paint, as not everyone will have a water-soluble graphite pencil. As long as it’s just one dark colour, then you’re good! He suggests black because it meshes well with the black ink from his pen.
Bonus tip: The main difference between water-soluble graphite and watercolours is that graphite dries with a bit of a metallic sheen once it’s dry. You can also directly draw on the paper and then wet it with clean water after, although this will leave a pencil texture on your paper.
Otherwise, you can use it pretty much like a watercolour pan; by wetting it and picking up the pigment with a wet brush. Watercolours will dry more matte, plus they come in other colours, but ultimately, it comes down to what you have and your personal preference.
Once you have all your tools ready, take a close look at the reference photo taken from Rome, Italy, and break down where the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows are.
It’s also good to note that the light source is coming from the top right, making the building on the right be in shadow, while the one on the left is the brightest (minus the cast shadow coming from the middle building). This will help you focus on the picture’s values (i.e. light vs dark areas), which is a great benefit to doing monochromatic paintings.
Next, put dots to mark where the corners of the main features of the middle building are. If you accidentally put a dot in the wrong place, no worries – they can always be turned into pigeons! Just focus on trying to get the right proportions before drawing the connecting lines between the dots.
The best way to do this part is to time yourself. Marek draws pretty fast here, despite having to talk at the same time, but he finishes in just under 20 minutes.
Spend the most time on the old building in the middle, as that is your main subject, but even so, details like the windows and eaves don’t need to be very accurate. You’re looking to get an impression of what you see rather than a photorealistic drawing.
Go for quick gestures and strokes, adding more dots where needed, and leaving even the scratchy lines in because they add to the run-down feeling of the building. The umbrellas are the next most important part, as they give contrast and character to the scene.
Draw each part section by section, moving from the right building and fountain to the left building and kiosk. Add some human figures, too – draw them loosely, as the eye can easily make out a human shape simply with the impression of a head and torso. Again, it doesn’t have to be super accurate!
You can put more figures in other areas or take some away to emphasise on the other building features, but you need them to add life to your drawing.
You can also shade in a few of the darkest shadows, such as under the umbrellas, the windows, or the silhouette of trees in the background. The key here is not to overdo your drawing, especially as you’ll be painting in your values later.
Step 2: Quick Wash
When you’re happy with your ink lines, or even if it’s not perfect, the next step is to start painting. If you haven’t done so already, tape down the edges of your watercolour paper using artist’s tape, or even clip them down to reduce warping and to keep your paper secure while painting.
Bonus tip: If you’re outdoors, you can consider pre-taping your watercolour paper to a clipboard, or getting a watercolour block that’s already sealed on all four sides.
Next, wet your water-soluble graphite stick or watercolour paint(s). I myself don’t have the graphite, so I’ve gone with lamp black and grey watercolour pans. Then, with a large mop brush and quite a diluted mixture of grey pigment, paint in the façade of the main building.
Paint quickly, even leaving some areas of white, especially near the right side.
While your paint is still wet, mix in a darker grey, and drop it into areas of shadow, especially near the bottom of the building (just above the line of umbrellas). Try to keep the umbrellas white to make them stand out more!
You can also add this darker grey to areas under the eaves or wherever there are darker patches on the façade. Again, it doesn’t have to be accurate. You’re just giving the building more contrast, making it feel like the paint is peeling off.
Step 3: Racing Onwards
Moving on, mix an even darker grey for mid to dark tones, and paint the foliage in the background. Paint the building on the right as well, since it’s also in darker tones.
Tip: If you start off with a light wash, you can always go back to add another layer of paint to darken certain values. However, once you’ve made the layer too dark (and it has dried), it will be much more challenging to go back to a lighter tone. So it’s a good idea to mix paint a little lighter than you might want!
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you've made the layer too dark, you can opt to use a lifting technique! Just keep in mind that some watercolours stain, so your lifting results may vary.
Move down to paint the fountain as well, being careful to avoid the people. Marek prefers keeping the people white, as it would take too much time to paint each individual one in the right values.
While your paint is still wet, you can also drop some black paint or very saturated graphite for the really dark shadows. This “wet-in-wet” technique will create some smooth blends! Then, paint the ground under the umbrellas, keeping this part pretty light for more contrast.
Paint the left side next, with a darker mid-tone again for the building in the background and the cast shadow on the leftmost building.
Tip: Keep a paper towel or dry cloth in your other hand while painting, as you can use it to lift paint out or soak up any excess liquid!
Step 4: Creating Contrast
If you ever find yourself waiting for a certain area of your painting to dry, you can always mix a very dark tone and paint in the darkest values in your painting, such as the area under the umbrellas and the background foliage.
Keep checking the reference photo as well to see where each value goes, but remember to keep your brushstrokes light and loose!
Another thing to note is that it’s good to leave some white areas, such as the sky, the umbrellas, and the building on the left. You need to keep your highlights, which will give your painting much more depth and contrast.
Lights also bring out the darks, which you can add more of along the eaves of each building, the staircase to the fountain, and anywhere you think needs it.
As for the ground, use the whole side of your brush to paint some broken horizontal strokes in a lighter mid-tone, adding thinner strokes of a darker mid-tone for a better “grounding” effect. Be sure to leave slivers of white, too! The rough surface of your paper should also create a more “jagged” effect, which also adds to a rough concrete texture.
Step 5: Adding Texture
While the surrounding buildings and scenery are drying, the main building’s façade should be dry by now, so mix a mid-tone, dry out your brush by wiping it on a paper towel, and quickly brush over the main building area.
There should be some paint left on your brush, which will create this “dry brush” effect, thus adding texture to the building.
If it’s not working, your brush is either too dry or too wet. A good way is to test it on a scrap sheet of watercolour paper first! If it’s still not working, it might be because your paper’s surface is too smooth.
While it’s easy to add this texture to the whole building, it’s better to add it in random areas to keep that loose feeling. You can also add this same texture on the ground to give it more interest.
Step 6: Touch-ups
For the home stretch, mix a very dark tone to paint in the windows and the underside of the main façade’s eaves. You can also enhance some of the shadows you previously painted, especially among the bottom area of the building.
Remember that for this main building, the rougher it looks, the better! Paint some “patchy” areas as well for an even more rundown look, and fix any areas so that the values contrast well with one another.
Add any finishing touches to your painting, including a very light shadow on the left side of each umbrella and its underside. Take the opportunity as well to cover up any unwanted dots leftover from your ink sketch, using your fountain pen to add in birds, pipes, or other things that will work in this scene’s context. Just make sure the paper is dry before adding ink on top!
Marek calls these tiny details “jewels” as they kind of “sparkle” throughout the painting. So make your painting shine, too! Sometimes it boils down to artistic instinct, but the more you train it, the better it becomes.
And there you have it; a very loose and quick way of doing a monochromatic urban sketch. Even though it was quick, I hope you got a lot out of it and have become armed with the ability to create many more!
If you want to watch the original video with Marek, here’s the link to the live demo recording. Once you’re done, be sure to share it with him and with us! We love seeing your progress, no matter how big or small it may be.
Want to take your urban sketches to the next level? Check out Marek's Mini Workshop recording! He'll teach you how to paint a scene using neutrals and greys!
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