If you've ever wanted to paint some loose urban sketches but still want to capture the essence of the scene, now's your chance!

Artist Ruud Otten demonstrates his flair for loose yet charming urban sketches and shares quite a few valuable tips along the way.

Step 1: Loose Sketch

Ruud selects a scene of South Church (Zuiderkerk) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, as he wants to capture the beauty of this place. You can find and download or print out a copy of the reference photo here.

As for other tools, you'll need a B5 cold-press watercolour sketchbook or a sheet of paper, a size 0.5 fineliner in black waterproof ink, watercolour paints, a palette, a size 8 and 12 round brush, a size 6 quill or mop brush, a 3/8 size angled brush, a white gel pen, 2 containers of water, and paper towels.

Note: Ruud uses his own handmade watercolour paints, but you can use whatever you have on hand.

For paint colours, you'll need yellow ochre, permanent yellow, quinacridone gold, sap green, ultramarine blue deep, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and quinacridone rose.

To begin, you can do a quick pencil sketch, but Ruud recommends going straight to inking in pen as it helps keep things loose. A loose sketch helps add to a loose painting too!

Starting from the top of the church, draw a light line down the middle. This will indicate how tall the church will be and help guide you in terms of where the center is. It's fine if this line is done in pen. With all the other lines and then paint added later, you will hardly notice it.

Next, sketch in the church, going from top to bottom and adding each level as you go. You don't have to be too precise or detailed at all; just try to keep the total number of levels the same and roughly in proportion.

Tip: To keep your sketch loose, you can hold your pen loosely as well!

Add some of the windows and the clock. Then when you reach the treeline, dot and dash in the foliage, angling it in a similar direction as it shows in the reference photo. The treeline doesn't have to be symmetrical, but if it's angled correctly, it should still create a sort of "tunnel" effect for perspective.

Bonus tip: You can also use your pen to measure some of the proportions and the distance between major features or to gauge the angle of things. This is the trick where you hold your pen up to the photo or scene you’re working on and then tilt it according to the angles you see, or mentally note down how big something is in relation to something else to estimate proportions.

Once you have the treeline down, add two light lines to indicate the canal, which should also be angled outwards for a “tunnelled” effect. Then, draw in the tree trunks, spacing them out more as you reach the foreground.

Since the focal point is the church, you can use more solid and close-knit lines in the centre, while your lines can get more spaced out or “scratchier” as you move towards the front (i.e. the edges of the page).

Add the bridge under the church, then scatter in some rough shapes for the boats and the bikes and cars along the canal. Try to focus on the simplified shapes rather than the complicated shapes of the boats and cars, and don’t overthink things. Again, the aim is to keep things loose!

Include a few of the windows at the bottom of the church and block in some of the wheels and windows of the cars. The general shape of the cars should be like an elongated box shape, then add wheels to the bottom. You can also add a few side mirrors, headlights and taillights to solidify the impression that these are cars.

Lastly, lightly draw in some horizontal lines for the water’s surface and the reflections of the tree trunks.

Step 2: Light and Loose Painting

It's time to break out the paints! The colors used are all listed previously, although if you don't have the exact same colors, that's fine – just try to find or mix something similar as a substitute.

Starting from top to bottom again, use the quill or mop brush to wet the sky with clean water. Then, dilute ultramarine blue until it's quite light and drop it onto the wet surface. Avoid some areas for white clouds and don't worry if paint begins to pool in some areas. You'll have a good variation of different shades of the same color!

Next, mix an earthy yellow using quinacridone gold and a touch of sap green, then paint the tops of the trees, the right side of the church building, the area underneath the trees on the left, and the lighter parts of the water.

These are basically the areas of light in this urban scene, and doing this underpainting layer will help add contrast and brighten up your painting as a whole.

Add sap green to your yellow mixture and paint in the mid-tones of the trees and water. Paint in a circular motion to give the impression of the tree branches, and do the same when adding the shadows. The shadows for the trees should be the same as the mid-tones but with ultramarine blue added to the mix.

Add the same greens to the water as well, with the darker greens being more on the right side.

Tip: You can get a great variation of green hues by mixing pigments within the brush. You do this by picking up one color, like sap green, then pick up another color like ultramarine blue but only using the tip of the brush. This way, the pigments stay kind of separated within the brush, and only blend in certain areas once you put your brush to paper. This technique works best with larger brushes, as you need quite a bit of paint and water to assist the blending process.

Step 3: Darker Details

Next, mix burnt sienna and ultramarine blue to create a dark bluish-grey. Dilute this slightly before painting the top and middle sections of the church.

Use an angled brush and a more saturated yellow ochre to paint the houses visible between the tree trunks and the pavement alongside the canal (on both sides). Let it dry for a while before adding areas of burnt sienna and umber. You can even mix in a little quinacridone rose for variation, and the blue-grey mixture for darker areas.

Paint the tree trunks using the same burnt sienna and umber mixture, but darken it further using the blue-grey before using a size 8 round brush to paint the trunks. You can extend the trunks and include the branches by adding a few flicks of paint upwards, but try not to overdo this or be too precise.

Add quinacridone rose to the blue-grey mixture before painting the red clock in the center of the church and the bridge underneath. Then, use a more saturated red to paint the taillights of the cars.

Dilute the blue-grey mix before roughly painting the cars, bikes, and boats, then mix in quinacridone rose and more of the blue-grey mix before painting the shadows underneath the cars and the bridge. Use a diluted yellow ochre to paint the bottom area of the church, then drop in some of the diluted blue-grey to some of the shadows under the arches.

Step 4: Dark Accents to Make Things Pop

Once the previous layers are dry, mix a very dark grey-blue by using the same burnt sienna and ultramarine mixture as before and paint in the darkest details in the church building using the size 8 round brush. Use the same colour to paint the wheels of the cars as well as a few of the bicycles' wheels.

Mix in a little sap green for a dark green and randomly add a few brushstrokes along the bottom of the tree line. You can add two layers - one with a slightly diluted version of this green and one with full saturation. Make sure the previous layer has dried first, though!

Add some other random details to the buildings between the trees by mixing various darker versions of brown using burnt sienna, umber, quinacridone rose, and the blue-grey mixture. Again, vary the hues by adjusting the ratios of the colour mixes.

Step 5: Playing and Splashing Around

Once your painting is dry, it's time to add a few fun final touches! Using a white gel pen, add back the highlights in the church building according to the light source (which should be to the top right). Dot in some whites as well in the trees, being as random as you can. You can even add some to the surface of the water for that "shimmery" look!

Lastly, for a bit of extra fun, load your quill brush with a lot of red paint and hit the side against your finger to create a bit of splatter. Switch to your blue-grey mixture for some darker splatters too, although don't add too much! And to wrap it up, sign your latest painting wherever you wish.

There are a few more tips shared by Ruud himself, which you can check out on the video version of this tutorial. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed this workshop and learned a lot in this short amount of time!
Nicola Tsoi is a practicing 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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