As a precursor to something even more “monumental”, this demo from Pedro Loureiro is a quick practice of the basics of urban sketching, coupled with a few helpful tips along the way. And as we all know, the key to greatness is to build a strong foundation! So come and follow along for some chill (but lightning-fast) practise.

Step 1: Thumbnail Sketch

As one of Etchr’s resident artists, Pedro is no stranger to teaching an online class and wastes no time by diving right into a quick thumbnail sketch.

But before you start, you’ll need to gather your supplies: a cold press landscape watercolour sketchbook (A4 size, 300gsm or 140lb), a pencil, a fountain pen filled with waterproof ink, watercolour paintsa palette, a size 10 round brush and a large mop brush, two containers of water, and paper towels.

You can also print out or pull up the reference photo on a screen, which is the back view of a cathedral in Coimbra, Portugal.

Starting with a pencil, do a thumbnail sketch of the cathedral, starting with a narrow frame and then roughly drawing the little towers and the cathedral itself.

Block in the shadows, and try to keep everything in proportion. Try not to worry too much about perspective; the only areas where you should take note of are the staircase and the cathedral’s top area.

While Pedro normally prefers making monuments look even more monumental by tweaking the perspective, for the sake of an easier practice, he decides to use contrast and framing to add some grandeur instead.

Your sketch should take no longer than 5 minutes, but it’s still important, as it helps you figure out the framing, while also doing some shadow and volume studies.

Tip: Pedro does his thumbnail sketch on the other page across from where he plans to paint and likes to incorporate this sketch into the painting itself. While you don’t have to, it shows the process that led to the creation of the final painting, which is a nice touch!

Step 2: Ink Sketch

When your thumbnail sketch is done, all you need to do is transpose that idea to the main page, while making it bigger.

To that end, Pedro recommends starting from the inside and working outwards, which is the opposite of doing the thumbnail sketch, where you should start from the outside and work your way in.

This is because you’re trying to see how best to frame your subject during your thumbnail sketch, and how to fit everything within that frame. With the ink sketch, you want to start from the inside and build outwards from there, as you’ve already worked out where to place everything. 

So start with the middle tower, using your fountain pen and scrawling your way around the page. It’s okay to double up on your lines and scribble in some of the details, such as the eaves.

Tip: Whatever you do, try to refrain from connecting your main outlines to the ground. You want to establish that connection through your paint, not your pen.

Next, draw the smaller tower on the right, then draw the cathedral in the back. Try to get the shapes and perspective roughly right, and add some selective details along the way to keep the focus on the cathedral.

This includes the spires, the windows, and the parapets. Scribble in the bush and the third tower in the bottom left, and the staircase can be a series of squared zigzags. Your lines should be loose and easy.

Scrawl in some texture at the bottom for cobblestones, and add some lines for shading on the towers’ and cathedral’s roofs. Don’t colour in a solid block of ink; a few lines are more than enough! 

The final thing to do is to frame your sketch by drawing the two walls on both sides. You can let your lines kind of “trail” off into the distance, and we’ll be using paint later on to complete this effect. When you’re done, wait a few moments for the ink to dry to make sure it won’t bleed during the painting process.

Step 3: Watercolour Contrasts – Warm Shadows

It’s time to paint! The painting process is also meant to be very quick and loose, so if you haven’t gathered your painting tools already, you should do so now.

For paint colours, you’ll need burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, burnt umber, sepia, and perylene green (or any mid-green). You should also spray them with a little water beforehand to make them easier to use.

Once you’re ready, start with the size 10 round brush and burnt umber. Paint in some warm shadows on the cathedral, such as under the window’s arches, and any walls or surfaces facing right (since the light source is coming from the top left corner). To create darker shadows, mix in a little ultramarine blue for a warm grey tone.

Paint in the eaves under the towers’ roofs, the cast shadow on the left side and top right corner of the middle tower, and the windows and archways.

Tip: Vary the colour and tone of your shadow by adding more burnt sienna or ultramarine blue, and by diluting your paint or making it more saturated. Shadows for the cathedral and towers should mostly be warmer (i.e. more browns/earth colours), while in contrast, all surrounding shadows should be cooler (i.e. more blue). 

Step 4: Cool Shadows

You can also “pull” shadows from the tower onto the ground, which will create this seamless connection to your painting. And since the ground isn’t part of the cathedral, you can touch in a little more ultramarine to make it different from the tower’s shadow.

Throughout the painting process, Pedro uses quite a lot of water, and occasionally uses a clean brush to blend out some of the shadows connecting the background (cathedral) to the foreground. This is to blur the illusion of distance, so that even though the cathedral is technically in the background, it still takes a central focus in the painting, making it look “grander” than it would have been.

Paint in the tower on the left with a neutral grey mix, and feel free to drop in more saturated colours to the wet paint to enhance certain areas if needed.

Finish painting the ground with a mixture of burnt sienna and ultramarine, and pull a very light shadow into the rightmost tower.

Paint the bushes and staircase on the left, again using the neutral grey mixture, but with more ultramarine and/or cobalt blue. Dilute your paint for a lighter shadow along the top of the bush, and touch in a little burnt umber at times so there’s a little more variation in the cool shadows’ colours.

Step 5: The Frame

For the walls framing the cathedral, switch to the large mop brush, and mix a lot of ultramarine with a little bit of burnt sienna and sepia to get a very dark neutral grey. Use this to paint the windows and the darkest shadows on the right side, then dilute this paint to slap on some lighter shadows.

However, the paint around the highlight is caused by the light from the left hitting part of the wall on the right. If you’re ever not sure where each tone should go, use the reference photo to help.

Drop-in a little more ultramarine blue to the shadows of the windows, and kind of “trail off” your paint to the right by diluting the paint to fade away. You can also add what Pedro calls some “splishy-splashies”, which are paint splatters that go off to the right!

These are easy to do – just load your mop brush with a ton of paint and water, and flick it in the direction you’d like the splatter to go. If it’s not working, you can hit your paintbrush against a pen or something similar.

For the left side, use burnt umber with a touch of ultramarine for a much warmer shadow. This will help contrast it to the other side, and add some asymmetry to help balance out the overall look of the painting! You can even paint over the edge of the page into the next one to extend the painting even further.

Add some paint splatters here too, and if you’ve done your thumbnail sketch on this page, you can incorporate it into your painting by painting in the shadows of your sketch. You can drop in some ultramarine and cobalt blue as well, but the main shadow colour should be warmer. 

Step 6: The Sky, and Finishing Touches

Go back to the size 10 round brush, and paint in the sky using a diluted cobalt blue. Vary the saturation so that the top of the sky is more saturated than the bottom, as the sky tends to have a lighter colour as it nears the horizon.

Use a very diluted neutral grey to paint the cathedral’s bottom wall, then use a cool shadow tone to paint the windows of the cathedral. While the paint is still wet, scribble in some burnt sienna along the parapet of the bottom wall, and use a lighter burnt umber to paint the front side of the cathedral’s side towers.

Paint the towers’ roofs using burnt sienna, and touch up any of the shadows that need doing so. You can also add more contrast by using a very saturated neutral grey to paint in the windows of the towers and cathedral, and along the stairs.

Drop a touch of perylene green or a mid-green tone for the bush, and give your painting a once-over to see if there’s anything you need to add. If not, feel free to sign and date your painting!

This was a really quick lesson, so good thing there’s a live demo recording that captures Pedro’s exact process! You can also check out his 90-minute art class if you're ready to take your art to the next level.

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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. 

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