Take your art outside! Known as "Plein air", one subset of drawing / painting outside is called "urban sketching", and its subject is any scenery found in a city.
We have tips to prepare for an outside painting session and what to do once you're on location.

A Stitch in Time

Sometimes art is spontaneous. Sometimes art is carefully planned. We suggest putting together an urban sketching kit to contain all the art supplies you may need for getting creative outside. This way, you'll be ready to go anytime the mood strikes.


1. Drawing Tools

First, decide with what tools you'll draw and paint. For sketching or linework: pencil, fineliner, fountain pen with ink, or even a humble ballpoint pen. Drawing is the fastest way to get an image on paper, so you'll want mark-making tools.
Also handy to include is a pencil sharpener or lead refills (depending on your pencil choice). You won't need an eraser because fast and loose lines are essential for the urban sketching aesthetic.
If you want to save time, forego the pencil altogether and bring only a pen. Fineliners are great if you like precise lines, while fountain pens give a more stylistic and varied line quality. Even a brush pen to create both thin and thick lines will work.
Tip: Check that all your pens have enough ink. Use waterproof ink if you plan to paint your sketches.  


2. Painting Tools

If you plan to paint outside, you'll need brushes in your kit. Your best bet is a travel brush or a water brush. A travel brush comes apart to store in a smaller space. A water brush has a cap and holds water within its barrel.

If you're not using a water brush, you'll also need a water container and paper towels. I use my extra restaurant napkins here.
Tip: For urban sketching, less is always more! You only need one paintbrush and one pen to get what you need, so keep it simple.

3. Paint and Palette

You'll need a travel-friendly set of paints and a palette. Watercolours are perfect for travelling because they reactivate when wet and come as pans.

You can find them in small palettes, either metal that folds up or Etchr's unique ceramic mini palettes that are small enough to carry in a kit. Check out this blog if you want to learn more about the different types of paint palettes. 
Tip: Try using watercolour sheets in your travel kit. The sheets contain layers of paint dried on paper that reactivate just like pans. They are much thinner and much lighter than pans. The downside is that it's harder to mix paint because you don't have any wells.
For a challenge, put together a limited palette. It may take some trial-and-error to get the right colours and mixes you want, but it's worth it to be as streamlined as possible.

4. Paper

There are several options for what paper to bring. A sketchbook works for practising. If you plan to paint, it should lay flat when open and be the correct paper type for medium you're choosing.

If you're using watercolour, check out this blog to learn more about how to choose the right watercolour paper for your specific needs. 

Loose sheets and a board with tape will also work beautifully. I don't recommend anything larger than A5 for convenience, but you can make A4 work if you prefer it.

5. Carry Equipment

Last but not least is a bag to hold everything. At a minimum, you'll need a pencil case or zipper pouch sized to hold tools and a bag for everything else.

Etchr's carry collection is tailored specifically for making art outside. You'll find several size options, and they all transform into sturdy drawing surfaces. For size reference, the one I have here is the Slate Mini Satchel. 

Choosing a Location and Sketching

Once your kit is ready, it's time to go outside! Ideally, you have good, dry weather. Otherwise, pack your umbrella!

As for location, some artists like a coffee shop, others prefer a park, still others will find a place to sit downtown to sketch the skyscrapers.

Pick a spot that is out of the way, so you're not blocking the way for pedestrians. When you're happy with your spot, start sketching.
Bonus tip: If you're worried about rain or time, take a picture of your subject first so that you can finish at home. However, in the spirit of Plein air, avoid taking a picture if you can, so you work fast and loose without the distraction of the small details.

Start your sketch by making dots to indicate the corners and edges of the main features for a rough idea of composition, proportion, and perspective. You don't need to draw everything, and your sketch shouldn't be photorealistic. Keep it loose.

Finalising Linework

When you finish the pencil sketch, switch to a pen to finalise your lines. Connect the marks to form edges, then add the larger details. Include variation in your lines, both thick and thin, to add movement and visual weight.
Tip: To add people, use the "carrot top" method: an oval for the head and a carrot shape (a triangle) for the body. We talk more about this technique in our blog post on how to bring urban scenes to life with people. 
Bonus tip: If you're not going to paint this sketch, ink is a great way to add value and create depth in your sketch. Add shading in pen, and give the sketch more contrast with solid areas of ink for the darkest shadows. 

Loose Painting

Make sure your ink is dry before you paint. Always paint from back to front, and light to dark. I paint the sky first, then the lightest areas of the building, then the shadows and dark areas.

To speed up the process, paint everything of the same colour at the same time. For example, if you're painting bushes or trees, paint them all at once while still having green paint on your brush. If there are green buildings, paint those too!
Paint faster by working on the whole painting at once. Meaning while you're waiting for one section to dry, work on a different section. Keep moving around the piece until the previous areas dry.

Of course, if you don't mind paint bleeds, then add more paint while the paper is still wet. When working with watercolours, "happy accidents" always happen eventually.
Keep your brushstrokes loose and lively. Don't worry if your painting isn't perfect; it isn't supposed to be. The goal is to capture the scene's essence and atmosphere and practice your painting skills. Relax and let yourself have fun.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Urban sketching is a great way to practice skills while getting fresh air. Nothing beats a real-life subject to study, and being outside forces you to keep things loose because the scenery is constantly changing.

It also helps hone observation skills. I encourage you to explore! Maybe you'll find your own secret spot. 

If you're a bit scared to paint outside, try using google street view to practice urban sketching at home! 
Are you an urban sketcher? Where is your favourite place to draw or paint? Let us know in the comments. Subscribe to our email newsletter for more tips and tricks for making art and our class schedule and other exciting news.
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. 


  • Peri Nilan said:

    Great tips! What is the rolled brush holder looks like it’s made of canvas (in the photo including brushes, etc)?
    Etchr Studio replied:
    Hi Peri! We’re glad to know these tips help! The rolled brush holder you
    see is from our Watercolour Brush Set that comes with its own roll-up
    pouch. You may check them out here:

    March 31, 2022

  • Kathleen Holmberg said:

    Seeing the steps , in picture and word, really helps imprint the lesson on a 90 year old brain!
    Etchr Studio replied:
    That’s so wonderful to hear, Kathleen! We’re glad these tips have been of
    great help for you. Have fun making more art!
    Etchr Studio replied:
    Hi Kathleen! We’re so glad to hear this blog has been of great help! We
    hope you enjoy making more art :)

    April 02, 2022

  • Patty Barker said:

    Excellent information. Thank you for sharing.
    Etchr Studio replied:
    We hope you find this helpful, Patty! 🧡

    January 31, 2022

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