7 Awesome Tips to Start Urban sketching & Why you Should!

What is Urban Sketching?

Recording the moments and experiences of our daily lives through drawing seems to be a common instinct in human nature, dating all the way back to prehistoric times.

Although the term “urban” is used to describe urban sketching, it can refer to any type of outdoor drawing!

Capturing the people, places, and things around up in our sketchbooks is an exciting and satisfying activity that really is what urban sketching is about!

In this article, I will give you 7 top tips on how to start urban sketching, and some interesting information about where Urban Sketching started!

You can really engage in urban sketching anywhere! Urban sketch in your backyard, on a mountainside, at a bus stop amid the hustle and bustle of a city, and even in a shopping mall!

You can also use whatever art supplies you like, and your sketchbook can be any shape or size. There is a lot of freedom and room for individuality!

Most importantly, urban sketching is about making sketching a daily habit so that your creativity and art-making become integrated into everything you do. When you flip through the pages of your sketchbook, you can see all of your discoveries, recollections, creative moments, and artistic excursions in one spot. Your artistic path is chronicled in this journal!

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urban sketch of a car in london

How to Urban Sketch?

It can be a bit daunting to start Urban Sketching, so the first step is… just start! Choose a location you find inspiring, turn down your inner critic and start sketching!

7 Quick Urban Sketching Tips to Get you Started

  1. Be Prepared: Make sure to have a couple of pencils, an eraser, sharpener, watercolor pens, markers, a couple of brushes, and some paper towels packed into a compact and easy-to-carry bag or case! You want to find a carry case that is travel-friendly and durable! 
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  2. Keep your Sketchbook Handy: It’s a good idea to get yourself a mixed-media or watercolor sketchbook that you can easily slip out of your bag when inspiration strikes! Here are some of my recommendations for travel sketchbooks.
  3. Find a comfy spot: Choose a good place to sit where you can see the area clearly and could comfortably remain in position for some time! 
  4. Check out the weather forecast! It’s a good idea to check for rain ahead of time. You will certainly feel a lot happier drawing under an umbrella than in the rain!
  5. Observe: Make sure to carefully observe what is actually around you – not what you think is there!
  6. Sketch out a quick plan for your composition: Loosely plot out where the subject matter will be positioned on your page.
  7. Draw what you see: Remember only to draw what is there – it’s not considered authentic urban sketching if you add or remove objects from the scene.
  8. Don’t over color: It’s easy to over-paint with watercolor washes. It’s a good idea to apply loose, light washes of watercolor to your artwork. Remember that urban sketching is often a swift-moving art style that has a loose quality to it.
  9. Keep at it: The more you practice, the better you get!

Materials and Tools you Need to Get your Urban Sketching Practice Started.

Urban sketching, like all art-making, is such a personal journey, and you must find your own way to express how you see your environment.

It’s a good idea to try out different combinations of materials and have fun exploring the possibilities!

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Try to capture the essence of your location and help your viewer focus on the crucial bits of the composition!

a person sitting in the park urban sketching

What’s the difference between being an urban sketcher and an en Plein air painter?

Artists who paint en Plein air sit in front of a canvas and paint an outdoor subject.

En Plein air means ‘in the open air’ in French.

Historically artists, like Monet, would go outside their studios to watch and paint natural settings in real-time, giving birth to the term ‘en Plein air’.

Although landscape painting has existed for centuries, it was popularised in the 19th century by the French Impressionists. They focused on conveying a sense of natural light in their paintings to reflect the passage of time.

While Plein air painting is a method of painting your subject, urban sketching is considered a movement of painting.

Gabriel Campanario, a Seattle writer and illustrator, started the urban sketching trend in 2007 by building an online storytelling forum that encouraged urban sketch artists to create drawings on location rather than from images.

“Urban Sketchers is an international nonprofit dedicated to fostering a global community of artists who practice on-location drawing… Our mission is to raise the artistic, storytelling, and educational value of on-location drawing, promoting its practice and connecting people around the world who draw on location where they live and travel.”

(Taken from urbansketchers.org)

Both urban sketchers and en Plein air painters bring their materials with them when they go outside to paint in real-time.

They also both tend to produce smaller work since their canvases must be portable.

Both artists want to capture the reality or truth of how a place appears, which means they don’t add anything to the painting that would make the portrayal less accurate.

Despite their several similarities, it is argued that the most significant distinctions between Plein air and urban sketching are the length of time spent painting the scene, the materials utilized, and the subject’s location.

According to the Urban Sketchers’ mission statement, an urban sketcher’s work conveys a story about their sketched location. In a sense, being an Urban Sketcher is so much about recording your environment.

En Plein air painting, which usually employs either paint or pastels to depict an outdoor subject, is considered to take the longest because it focuses on capturing the details of a scene.

[Related article: How to Draw a Background | 11 Easy Tips for Beginners]

Urban sketching, on the other hand, is sketching, which means it is less detail-oriented and has a faster, more casual approach. 

It’s also important to note that you can use any art medium when engaging in urban sketching!

Urban sketching can encompass indoor areas outside the artist’s home, as well as outdoor scenes. Even though painting a street scene is considered an urban sketch, indoor settings like cafes, museums, malls, restaurants, and concerts are  often used.

What is Travel Sketching?

Travel sketching is a term used to describe outdoor artwork made while traveling.  This word refers to art that is inspired by interesting scenery observed by the artist while on vacation.

Travel sketches, like urban sketches, may incorporate text or annotate their drawings to provide background information about the artist’s explorations of the destination.

Travel sketching is different from en Plein air painting and Urban Sketching because you can do a drawing from a photo taken of the location – instead of actually being there! 

If you recall, the Urban Sketcher’s Manifesto stipulates that urban sketchers must draw on location from observation rather than from photos.

So basically, if you work directly from a photo, your art practice cannot be considered en Plein air painting or urban sketching.

However, if you sketch an artwork while on your travels, on-site, without using a photo, then your artwork is both an en  Plein air painting and a travel sketch.

[Related article: How to Improve Your Digital Creations | 22 Digital Painting Tips]

Where can you Urban Sketch?

Because urban sketching is such a terrific way to meet new people, you’ll most likely find urban sketcher groups in your hometown or most large cities, and more are sprouting every day.

There are free sketching excursions, scheduled weekend courses, drawing conventions, and symposia where you can meet other urban sketchers!

You can also join an online group of urban sketchers. Sketchers worldwide share their work and cover every possible subject in social media groups that come together on various platforms.

Are you looking for inspiration for your next sketching adventure?

A  museum or art gallery is an excellent place to start. You’ll find a wide range of intriguing and well-presented ideas.

Make sure to pack light because most museums only allow you to stand to view the displays — and most only allow you to write with a pen and ink (so you may be prevented from hauling out your paint and brushes!).

Why Should You Become an Urban Sketcher?

Practicing drawing from life is a great way to express yourself and improve your visual and artistic skills. Sketching a location and scene that you are a part of is a really exciting and satisfying activity!

It is so much better than taking a  quick selfie or photo and then moving on.

You get to tell a story in the moment through urban sketching from life, and you get to record your own creative impression.

Give it a shot. You may create a sense of vibrancy and truth that can’t be reproduced in any other way!

urban sketching pin


Sketching is like any learned skill –  to get better at it, you have to repeat it often!  

If you haven’t tried out urban sketching, now is the time to start. The 7 top tips above will help you get outside and record your world as you see it! 

A drawing a day is a terrific way to fill your sketchbook and help your drawing skills improve – practice makes perfect!

Draw things such as park benches, cafes, mugs on desks, old buildings, and other everyday subjects.

You’ll rapidly learn how to spot great scenes for urban sketching and turn your sketchbook into a creative art journal!

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