Urban Sketch of the main piazza in Intagna, Switzerland. By Lis Watkins. You can follow Lis on Instagram @lineandwash or find more of her work at liswatkins.com 

What is Urban Sketching? 

Urban sketching is an art practice that has gained popularity over recent years- and it’s easy to see why. Like painting en plein air, urban sketching involves creating art from life, on location.

Unlike studio art, urban sketching is typically completed quickly and intuitively in one sitting. Urban sketching is spontaneous, and it is concerned with storytelling and capturing the essence of a place rather than accuracy. 

“Art in the Heart of Melbourne.” Urban Sketch by Chris Haldane. 

Despite what the name may suggest, you do not need to be in a large city to participate in urban sketching. You can urban sketch anything you see that inspires you, anywhere - inside your favourite cafe, at a museum, in your garden, on the bus, even inside your own home. The most important requirements are simply sketching from life, using direct observation, and aiming to capture a place in time to tell a story. 

Why Artists Love It 

Artists love urban sketching because it is a low-pressure way to improve your skills and incorporate making art into your daily practice. Though many urban sketchers share their work online, the exhibition is not typically the primary purpose of urban sketching. Your sketchbook is a place for you to experiment and play around without worrying too much about creating something refined. 

Many artists use urban sketching as a way to keep a visual journal. It is a means of recording memories, experiences, and feelings in your sketchbook. It allows you to slow down and be present in your environment, interact with and understand the world around you on a deeper level than you would if you had just snapped a quick picture.

Once you incorporate urban sketching into your regular art practice, you’ll start to find beauty and inspiration every day, even in things you might have once overlooked. 

Sketchbook spread by Lis Watkins. Lis created this spread in Porto, Portugal at an Urban Sketchers Symposium in 2018. 

Unlike many other forms of art, which can be pretty solitary, urban sketching often involves a social component. Groups of urban sketchers get together in locations worldwide to go on sketching outings together and exchange tips and ideas.

You can most likely find a group of urban sketchers local to your area that you can join. Try starting with urbansketchers.org to see if there is a chapter near you! 

What You’ll Need to Get Started

My simple urban sketching kit includes graphite pencils, a fineliner pen, my Etchr Lab sketchbook (A6), Etchr Mini palettes paintbrushes, and a set of watercolours 

“Sketching” here refers to the looseness and roughness of the work of art, not the materials used. You can use any of your favourite mediums for urban sketching! Considering the ease of set-up and travel is essential when choosing your medium.

You will have to carry your materials with you to wherever you choose to set up, so you may want to choose lightweight materials that do not take up much space in your backpack. 

Urban Sketch by Lis Watkins at Camden. 

It is also important to consider your sketching location when picking your materials. If you are going to be sketching in a park, for example, there is no reason why you couldn’t urban sketch with acrylics or even oils. 

However, if you are going to be sketching somewhere indoors, like a cafe, they might not be happy if you set up an easel and pull out a set of messy paints. Some places, like museums, will only allow you to enter with a pen or pencil. 

For these reasons, many urban sketch artists choose to bring a simple kit of a pencil, pen, sketchbook, and watercolours to create mixed media pieces. Watercolours are lightweight and portable, and you can set them up just about anywhere with little hassle- not to mention they dry quickly, making them perfect for fast, spontaneous sketches.

I always keep a small set of watercolours, a pencil, a fineliner pen, a mini sketchbook, and a small jar for water in my purse or backpack at all times in case I see something I want to sketch while I am out. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you left all your materials at home when inspiration hits! 

Consider making yourself an urban sketching kit from the following: 

Etchr Field Case - This field case is perfect for storing all of your urban sketching materials while you are on the go! 

Etchr Sketchbook - These sketchbooks are perfect for mixed media, and the A5 and A6 sizes are wonderfully portable. The A6 will even fit inside of the Field Case.

Etchr Lab Black Graphic Pen Collection - Set of 16 

Etchr Porcelain Mini Palettes 

Etchr Watercolour 24 Half Pan Set

Taichung Skyline. Urban sketch by Chris Haldane. 

Where and What to Sketch 

You can urban sketch anything you see that inspires you, indoors or out, as long as you sketch directly from life. Your subjects could include buildings, landmarks, or people going about activities.

However, it can be challenging to know where to start when the whole world is open to you. Here are some places you could consider if you’re looking for a place to sketch:

  • Museums 
  • Buildings with interesting architecture
  • Farmer’s markets or other outdoor markets 
  • Street corners 
  • Your favourite cafe
  • Public gardens and conservatories 
  • Inside your home- what’s on your bookshelf or desk, your kitchen when it’s in use, etc
  • Train stations or other public transit hubs 

This urban sketch “Spring in the Blue Mountains” by Chris Haldane shows that you can urban sketch anywhere, even in rural areas. It’s all about the story you tell! 

And remember, you can still urban sketch even if you live in a rural area! The “urban” in urban sketching is much less important than the “sketching”!

Urban sketching is about recording your experiences and inspirations! It’s about telling a story with your sketchbook and pen, and you certainly do not have to be in a city to do that. 

This is only the beginning- when it comes to urban sketching! If you are eager to learn more and would like a bit more direction, check out this introductory urban sketching class by Pedro Alves. 

Where are your favourite locations for urban sketching? We would love to hear in the comments! 

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Lilly Carr is an artist and illustrator based in Chicago, USA. She uses gouache to create colourful pieces inspired by the magic of nature. When she’s not painting, she loves spending time exploring the outdoors and gets overly excited every time she spots a nice mushroom or rock.

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