You don’t have to be an architect to start urban sketching! Isabel Santos proves this to us in her tutorial on sketching the “non-architect way”, but whether you are an architect or not, she shares some cool (and funny!) tips in this short and scribbly demo.

Step 1: Angles and Prep

As mentioned, Isabel isn’t an architect. She isn’t formally trained in art either, but she’s picked up a lot of solid art techniques throughout the years of teaching herself. The key is to make your buildings look convincing enough to be a building and to focus on your art style rather than worrying about other people’s judgement.

Bonus tip: Isabel prefers to draw on location, and paint in monochrome or simple tones to keep things easy and stress-free. It also helps her focus on the painting’s composition and values, which are more important than colour.

For your tools, you’ll need an A4 cold press sketchbook (or mini booklet), a fude fountain pen with black waterproof ink, round paint brushes in sizes 12 and 8, a watercolour palette, watercolour paints, a container for water, paper towels, a protractor or angle-finder (optional), and a copy of the reference photo (digital or printed).

To begin, make an angle-finder if you need one. This is easy to do: on clear acetate, use a permanent marker to draw a circle about the size of a roll of masking tape, then divide it into twelfths, like a clock.

You can label it like a clock as well. By placing the centre of this on any corner of a building, you’ll be able to figure out all the angles of each line relative to each other.

If you don’t need an angle-finder, you can start here instead, by examining the reference photo. Since the middle building with the dome on top is the most interesting, Isabel decides to make that her focal point. From there, you can trace with your finger on your paper how you plan to space out the buildings, with the focal point slightly off-centre.

Tip: According to the “Rule of Thirds”, the focal point is best to the left or right of the central line, because that makes it more interesting to look at.

Take careful note of where each building should be, and the rough shape of each one. 

Step 2: Sketching the Focal Point

When you’re ready, you can start sketching for real, using the fountain pen. A fude pen is good here because its bent tip allows for a large variety of line widths, plus it has almost a brush-like texture to it, especially if you’re using cold press paper.

Beginning with the middle building, sketch quickly and loosely while taking care to keep the angles of each edge as accurate as possible. You can eyeball it, but if you need help, hold your angle-finder against the reference photo.

Tip: Vary the width of your lines by angling your pen in different ways, or even turning it around. If you don’t have a fude fountain pen, you can use a marker or brush pen instead. Just make sure it has waterproof ink!

If a building looks very complex, try to simplify parts of it into easier shapes. For example, the dome of this middle building looks like an onion, so try drawing that instead! 

Step 3: Finishing the Ink Sketch 

Draw the other buildings around the central one. You can gauge where to place each one by checking the reference photo and putting a small dot on the corner of where the building should start.

Keep scribbling around, and don’t worry about your lines being messy. If you’ve done continuous line drawings before, you can apply the same principle of not lifting your pen off the page from feature to feature.

When you’re done with the buildings, draw one very scribbly line along the bottom to indicate the tree line as seen in the reference photo. The plants on the right side resemble very tall blades of grass, which you can draw instead of scribbling it in.

Step 4: Painting Tones 

It’s painting time! Since you’ll just be painting different tones, pick one darker colour to use and stick to it. Isabel recommends anything from black to grey, indigo, dark purple, or sepia.

If you need, mix 5 different shades of the colour you picked, from lightest to darkest. You can test it out like I’ve done in the picture above to check that you’re able to get these different ones, though if you’re already well-versed in mixing different tones of any colour, then you don’t need to do this.

Next, use the size 12 round brush to start painting the middle building again, with the onion-shaped dome. You can check with the reference photo to see where to place each tone, although it doesn’t have to be very accurate. You just need to understand that because the light source is coming from the top left, the shadows should be on the bottom and right sides of the buildings.

Also, work on the mid-tones to lighter tones only. You can leave areas white for the lightest highlights, and as for the darkest shadows, we’ll add them in later.

Step 5: Painting Foliage

Next, paint some lighter bushes that are behind the buildings on the left and centre. This also helps tie them together as one bigger painting.

Then, fill in the scribbled line of trees in front of the buildings as well, this time with a darker tone as they’re closer to the foreground. You don’t have to paint it all; just the top line is fine.

For a little more interest, use the tip of your brush (as long as it comes to a fine point) to paint some tree branches on the left. If you’re not sure how they should go, you can use a pencil to lightly sketch them in before painting over your lines.

Step 6: Darkest Shadows and Final Touches

Time to add the darkest shadows! To do this, mix a very saturated version of the colour you’ve picked, and use the size 8 round brush to paint in the smaller shadow details. If you’re ever not sure where your tones should go, that’s what the reference photo is for!

Once you’re done, you can also add splashes of orange-red here and there, especially for the buildings that have red roofs. Some of the walls are also tinted in orange due to the light of the setting sun, so you can add that as well. The onion dome, on the other hand, can be done in a splash of yellow.

Lastly, touch up any areas that you feel need to be darkened. But in any case, if you feel that you’re done, you’re done! This is just a quick sketch for something bigger and better, so it doesn’t have to look polished at all. Its purpose is similar to a thumbnail sketch, so you can use it as a reference, or to see how your art skills have improved throughout the years!

As always, I hope you had fun following along, and do share with us if you did.

To hear all of Isabel’s funny comments and awesome art tips, watch her 30-minute class recording. She’s a riot! When you're ready to take your art to the next level, check out her 90-minute class too! 

If you’d like more tips and tricks on the creative process, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. You’ll be kept up to date with our latest workshop schedule and flash sales, too!

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


  • david bunce said:

    I loved Isabel’s video

    August 21, 2022

Leave a comment