10 Strategies for Urban Sketching in Winter


For those of you in the northern hemisphere, winter is coming. As luck would have it I am in the southern hemisphere and a hot summer is coming, yay! But in the interests of empathy, I have decided to turn my attention to those of you who dwell in colder parts of the world.

I am originally from the UK and while the UK certainly is not the coldest climate, it can be miserable in winter and I have had my fair share of working urban sketching activities around the temperature…and the rain…and the wind…and the general misery…!

Can you tell I am not much of a fan of winter?

Hopefully, this post will arm you with some strategies on how to go about keeping warm while sketching in the winter.

Your urban sketching time should not suffer just because it is cold outside. Urban sketching is not a seasonal sport. We can and we will do it all year round. Who’s with me?!

It’s easy to fall into the thinking that urban sketching is something you do outside when the weather is favourable or on holiday when you have time but that’s not true, you can sketch on location all year round. In fact, some urban sketchers live in climates that are cold and harsh 365 days of the year…and they still sketch regularly. 

Let’s take a look at some ideas and strategies that will both enable you and encourage you to sketch all year round.

10 Strategies for Urban Sketching in Winter

Urban sketching is the art of sketching on location, drawing from life and recording the world around you. This basically means drawing anywhere, any time. You can be at home, at the office, in the pub, in your car, on holiday, in the garden, in the park, in a restaurant – anywhere at all. Come rain or shine.

I’m not the biggest fan of winter (as we have discussed) but some elements of it can be nice. Open fires, wrapping up in lots of layers and the general feeling of cosiness.

The ability to carry on and urban sketch throughout any season is imperative to me, for both my mental and creative well being. Being open to sketch all manner of things in any location can really help carry you through the darker colder times.

#1 – Sketch at home

There is so much to record just around your own house. A lot of people really embraced this throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown during 2020.

The hashtag #uskathome sprang up and sketchers took to the activity with enthusiasm.

You can sketch each room of your house, the contents of cupboards, family members, pets, the garden, the view from the window…the list really and truly does go on. You can also record the same things over time too.

For more ideas on how to practice urban sketching at home, check out my post here.

There are a few videos on the Youtube channel about urban sketching at home too, here’s one of me sketching the living room:

#2- Sketch from your car

Sketching from the warmth of a car is a great way to protect yourself from the elements yet still allowing you to sketch out in the world. 

I used to sketch from my car when I was a lunch break at work. Not always because of the weather but sometimes because it was the only place to sit. At first, it was so that no one could see me!

As well as protection from the elements, sketching from inside your car can be a nice stepping stone to get you out sketching in the world but not right out into the open where everyone can see. It’s a good way to practice and build your confidence.

Urban sketcher Paul Heaston sketches from his car quite a bit. I think it can get pretty cold where he lives in the US, but also I think it’s a convenience issue. If he is dropping family members off or needs to wait for something, he just sketches whatever he can from his car. Sometimes that even includes parts of his own car!

As well as sketching other cars or street scenes, you could purposefully drive somewhere with a view and sketch – in the cold, the car is now your mobile studio.

Tomas Pajdlhauser a.k.a Captain Tom, sketches from his truck occasionally. He is based in Ottawa, Canada so he certainly has to battle the cold weather to sketch. In the video below, Tom gives us a rare insight into his sketching process from his truck.

#3 – Sketch at the pub or cafe

There’s plenty of sketching potential in a public place such as a coffee shop or pub. 

You can sketch people, perhaps catching bits of conversation to write down alongside the sketch to remind you of the time and place as Lapin does.

You could sketch the food your order or some delicious looking pastries as Marie Silver does. If you want to find out more about sketching food, check out my post here.

Marie has a distinctive style which she in part achieves by always sketching on toned paper. She uses the Stillman and Birn Nova sketchbook (which you can find on Amazon) along with watercolours and white ink to bring out the highlights.

If you want to find out more about how to sketch on toned paper and which supplies to use, check out my post here.

Want to know more about the different types of Stillman and Birn sketchbooks? Check out this post.

You could also sketch the interior of the cafe to show a wider view of the scene and capture the atmosphere of the place. I have a post all about sketching interiors here.

One way of encapsulating all of the elements mentioned above is to design a sketchbook spread with different sections capturing vignettes of the room, people and food. You can include the date and some notes if you want to give the spread a journal-like feel.

#4 – Sketch at a public library

Sketching in a library is a great strategy for sketching people. The environment is usually quiet and people tend to work or read and won’t notice what you are doing.

It’s certainly a good practice ground and a great way to build your confidence sketching in public, as well as being warm and dry. You are also not obliged to buy food or drink as you would in a bar or cafe, save those pennies!

#5 – Sketch on public transport

Sketching on public transport is one of the prime activities for sketchers such as Adebanji Alade, Don Colley and Dwayne Bell.

Adebanji Alade is super passionate about sketching. Although he is an incredibly accomplished oil painter (in fact he is actually the Vice President of The Royal Institute of Oil Painters!) I know him by his vast collection of commuter sketches who grace the London public transport system. 

Adebanji has just released a book (which you can find on Amazon) about his sketching addiction in which he teaches the multiple methods and mediums he uses covering not only people sketching but urban sketching and painting in general.   

If you commute via public transport, this could be a straightforward way to integrate your urban sketching practice into daily life. 

Urban sketcher Lynne Chapman attends events now and again where she takes a train from one city to another, giving her lots of time on the long journey to sketch other passengers who are usually zoned out, on their phones or asleep.


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#6 – Sketch at a Shopping Mall 

While I personally try to avoid shopping malls at all costs, from time to time you may find yourself there. Or you could purposefully head to one.

There are usually multiple coffee shops or restaurants to sit at so I suppose this gives you the opportunity to peruse and decide which one you may want to sit at and sketch.

There’s also seating all over the place in the walkways so this provides another potential angle. There is a range of shops you could position yourself near to spot some good people to sketch.

One of Will Terrell’s favourite past times is sketching in Walmart. While he does not do realistic drawings he is still practicing sketching from life, he just overemphasises certain features to make a caricature instead.

Sometimes he will do these sketches from memory of the people he saw (which is incredible to me). Will is also hilarious. He giggles away to himself while he is drawing and his joy is just infectious.

If you’ve never seen any of his people sketching videos please do check them out, they are so much fun.

#7 – Sketch from a hotel lobby

There’s a hotel in London that overlooks Westminster bridge, on the second or third floor there is an area with restaurants and at one end of the floor are some seats in front of floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall windows, with the most fantastic view over the Thames, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

This would be a perfect spot to go and sketch when it’s cold outside. I have logged it in my head next time I am in London.

If you live in or are visiting a city in winter, some hotels can offer extraordinary views and are completely open to go and sit in for a while and sketch.

#8 – Sketch at a museum

This can be one of the best and most interesting indoor locations for sketching. There are museums specialising in all manner of subjects, or huge museums specialising in lots of subjects!

Usually, there is somewhere to sit in front of interesting exhibits, usually museums are quiet and usually people there are used to seeing people drawing or sketching exhibits for a variety of reasons.

Museums are a “safe space”.

Sure, if it’s busy there can be lots of people to navigate, some may peek over your shoulder, but museums can be another excellent training ground for your confidence to sketch in public. And again, you can always turn your sketching attention to the general public as well as the exhibits themselves!

#9 – Special projects

Why not reach out and see if you can get granted access to somewhere special or interesting, with some kind of behind the scenes privilege, to document things in your sketchbook? You could create your own reportage project. For more information and inspiration on reportage sketching, check out my post here.

This could be a really great idea to capture something the public doesn’t often get to see. Or to raise awareness about some important work people are doing or special issue that needs public attention. 

A simple email could open some doors and perhaps the offer of using your sketches is the only leverage you may need.

Examples?

Documenting activities of staff at a wildlife centre or animal shelter caring for the animals; getting backstage to sketch the activities before an event or show; access to parts of an old building that members of the public can’t access; community work that does not get enough attention; the list of ideas are endless.

The key is to find something that fascinates you.

A lot of these sorts of projects could probably do with help to raise awareness and some increased exposure for fundraising opportunities.

Urban sketcher Lynne Chapman has documented many different projects as an “artist in residence”.

And conducted projects such as “Interviews with people in workplaces”.

I think this is one of the most exciting options in the list, especially if you really want to stretch your skills and work on a larger project.

Perhaps there is a cause close to your heart and you can interweave your sketching skills with raising awareness for the cause.

#10 – Sketch outside!

If you can brace the cold and it’s not pouring with rain then you can still sketch outside (probably, unless its -20c, then I think you count me out, ha ha).

You may need to rethink your materials. Perhaps watercolour is not going to work out so well for you, although I hear (from Nina Johansson and others) that using vodka instead of water is one way to ensure your paint doesn’t freeze, or at least not quite so quickly – just make sure you don’t use the good stuff!

For quick sketching outside perhaps a simple pen and sketchbook setup is the easiest way to go, however, the UK winter doesn’t tend to get all that much colder than -5c at the most extreme, especially in the south.

For those of you who live in countries where it can get super crazy cold (I mean really I cannot even fathom it) like -20c or even -30c apparently even a pen is just not going to work out too well. So good old pencil it is then!

Final Thoughts

I really hope this post has given you a lot to consider in terms of where and how you can sketch throughout the winter.

If you want some more ideas and inspiration about how to urban sketch at home then check out this post.

If you are new to urban sketching then I have a super practical beginners guide right here.

If you already have a good grasp of the basics but are keen to hear some ideas on how you can improve, then check out this post.

If you would like urban sketching goodies in the form of tutorials, inspiration, secret projects and behind the scenes info then make sure to join my newsletter! Pop your email address in the box below. I email once or twice a month maximum. No spam. 

Oh and don’t forget to check out the Youtube channel!

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