If you’ve done any urban sketching before, you might find that things start looking the same after a while – whether it’s due to being stuck in the same area or because most buildings are constrained to a particular look or structure.

In this FREE demo, Eleanor Doughty shows us how to break out of that “building box” and stylise your art to give it extra pizzazz!

Step 1: Fastest Sketch Ever

Eleanor usually brings her sketchbook whenever she leaves the house and uses urban sketching as a personal diary to record the sights and scenes she sees. Her number one tip is to keep it casual!

For the sake of this demo, we’ll be working from this reference photo, taken in Seattle, USA. Eleanor uses Etchr’s cold press sketchbook here, but feel free to use hot press or your watercolour paper of choice because we’ll be painting on it later.

She also uses a Pentel Parallel Pen, with a 1.5mm square nib filled with black waterproof ink. If you don’t have one, any similar chisel or square nib will do. Just make sure it has waterproof ink.

After drawing an inked frame for your painting, you can do a quick pencil sketch of the major features in the reference photo. Feel free to shift things like the lamppost or background buildings to get a better composition!

You can also adjust these during the inking part. This pencil sketch should take no longer than five minutes, as you’re keeping it casual. 

Step 2: Inking from Front to Back

For the ink drawing part, start from the foreground before working your way back. This will avoid overlapping lines, and your background lines won’t cross over anything in the foreground.

This means starting with the leaves of the tree on the left. Hold your pen loosely and almost squiggle your lines in to get bunches of leaves here and there. Make sure to vary the leaves’ shape and size and make them lean in a direction that makes sense for the tree.

When you finish the leaves, draw in the branches and tree trunk in solid black. You don’t have to follow the reference photo strictly. As long as it looks like a tree, and gives the feel of a tree, then you’re good.

Draw in the lamppost before doing the same for the other three. Once you finish, add in the line for the sidewalk, making sure to keep it in perspective.

Tip: If you’re finding it challenging to keep your lines loose, try adjusting your grip on your pen, so you’re also holding it loosely, or shake your hand a bit to loosen your wrist muscles.

Don’t fuss over the details. You’re aiming to get an impression of the scene to bring out a more stylistic drawing. 

Step 3: Cars and Buildings

When you finish the foreground, move to the mid-and background. Perhaps the most challenging part of the drawing will be the cars, but we can do even this simply and quickly if you have a good understanding of perspective.

After drawing the back of the car and the side that’s facing you, extend your lines, so you’re kind of drawing a car-shaped box. Don’t forget the wheels, and last but not least, add a thicker line as the shadow underneath the car. 

Next, continue to the midground, drawing the cars on the other side of the road before moving to the trees. Because they’re farther away, don’t add in as much detail, and make sure to use the thinner edge of your pen. 

For the background buildings, you can shift some of them to create a more cohesive composition.

The storefronts and such are also a bit of a blur among the trees, so you can draw in some doors and rectangles for signs and call it a day. However, remember the background should have even fewer details than the midground, so don’t fuss too much.

To add a bit of life, you can ink the silhouette of a person holding an umbrella.

Tip: The key here is to have a solid foundation (i.e. drawing) for your painting. This means having a good understanding of perspective, especially for the buildings and cars.

Also, keep reminding yourself to keep things casual and loose because sometimes it gets tempting to add in every detail.

Step 4: Blacking in for Contrast

Once you have the basic outlines of your drawing, you can black in some of your details to add contrast, especially for the foreground trees.

Eleanor recommends that you keep squinting at your picture to better understand what your drawing needs and where those extra black areas should be.

Her mantra is, “When in doubt, black it out!” which means that if you can tell what something is just by looking at its silhouette, then it has a good, straightforward design. Use this method to really embolden some aspects of your drawing to give it a better sense of contrast and a more prominent focal point.

Add some thin outlines of rain puddles on the sidewalk to capture this rainy day, and use a finger to smudge the ink below the tree trunks and lamppost to give them a watery reflection. If you’re using a waterproof marker, you can use some black paint to create this effect instead.

Step 5: Bonus Painting

If you have a good drawing, then the painting part is really just a bonus. Eleanor uses black watercolour paint to save time, but you can use other colours if you wish.

You’re working in the opposite direction now with the painting process – from the back to the front. After wetting the sky with water, drop in a highly diluted black for a watery grey sky. You could blend in darker areas for clouds.

Bonus tip: Eleanor recommends using a larger flat brush for painting because you can get crisp edges with this brush when you work wet-on-dry. 

Moving quickly, paint the rest of the background with a slightly darker shade of grey. The walls of the buildings facing left should be an even darker shade because the light is coming from the top right corner.

Keep moving to paint the midground trees and the sides of the cars with darker paint. The rest of the midground is a mid to dark grey, with the left side being darker in general. Be sure to preserve some of your whites like roofs, lamppost, and puddles.

For the foreground, drop-in darker grey tones, but not too dark because the darkest part should be the shadow of the trees and their reflections. This will really help with the scene’s “rainy effect”, so keep your blends soft and varied.

Step 6: Finishing Touches

To finalise your painting, add some extra dark tones to harmonise the contrast for the overall picture.

This includes darkening the bottom areas of the midground trees and using a very saturated black to paint the leaves of the trees in the foreground. Doing so helps bring the painting together and make your foreground pop out.

Keep adjusting your tones wherever you need, and keep squinting to see where you need more contrast. Once your painting is done and dry, use a white gel pen to outline the foreground trees.

This may not be a style you’re used to working with, but I hope you learned something. Eleanor shared many excellent tips in her demo that you can watch here: live demo recording.

Remember to keep it loose and casual, and maybe you’ll find your own style from these techniques. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend that you check out her Mini Workshop on Stylised Urban Sketching in colour

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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. 


  • Joe said:

    Omg ,excellent ,easy tips to try. Thanks
    Etchr Studio replied:
    Go for it, Joe! 🧡

    November 12, 2021

  • Averil said:

    Thank you Nicola! I followed your tips and steps and learnt a lot about the order in which to approach a scene. Thank you so much 😊
    Etchr Studio replied:
    We’re glad to hear that, Averil! 🧡

    November 07, 2021

  • Anne kaczorowski said:

    Thank you for these ideas and tips!
    Etchr Studio replied:
    We hope you find them helpful, Anne! 🧡

    November 06, 2021

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