Below is a list of ideas to try out the next time you go out urban sketching. It is good to have some ideas in mind before you walk out the door. It helps to save some time and provide some focus.
What to draw when urban sketching:
- Your art supplies
- Major landmarks (to get them out of your system)
- Café (inside and out – good opportunity for a coffee break too)
- Street furniture (fire hydrants, lamposts, signage)
- Transport: cars, boats, bicycles, trams etc
I know when I’ve gone out into town to start doing urban sketching my mind can go a bit blank. I don’t know where to walk to, which area to start in, what to look for. Sometimes sketching comes naturally but sometimes I need some aims and objectives…a mission if you will.
My list below offers some ideas to sketch along with some examples from urban sketchers. I hope this will help to inspire you.
There’s nothing more fun that sketchbook spreads featuring a series of interrelated items or the same item drawn in a different way. Or just a few pages reflecting the time you spent walking around town or dropping into the local cafe for a coffee.
Your sketchbook is a record of your day, your travels, your life. It’s your visual journal and it’s your playground. Forget about perfect illustrations (I am so guilty of trying to strive for this) and just get out and play. Make a mess and have fun. Enjoyment is the goal!
If you are interested in taking some creative classes online for a super affordable price, check out Skillshare.
They have specific courses on Urban Sketching (for my recommendations on which to take see my post here) as well as courses on drawing, watercolours and other many other creative skills from photography to animation, creative writing to marketing.
Did you know I have a book?
The 60-page PDF ebook contains over 130 of my ink and watercolour illustrations from the last 3 years of my travels through 15 countries across 4 continents!
Draw Your Art Supplies
This is always a fun way to start your sketchbook. It gets you over the fear of using the first page and also serves a reminder to your future self which materials you used.
Check out my post here for some of my essential urban sketching supplies and which ones I have upgraded to take my sketching to the next level.
Sketch the Major Landmarks
Get them out of your system! There are so many other interesting things to sketch so get Big Ben or the Opera House (or whatever the famous landmarks are in your town) done and move on.
Sit on a Bench and Sketch the People Around You
I find people sketches so fascinating to look at and I love seeing them in other people’s sketchbooks or Instagram feeds. They don’t have to be perfect, focus on capturing the essence of the person, their movement or character.
While you’re on that bench, sketch the pigeons!
This exercise can really help you practice speed and only capture the most essential lines in order to capture your subject.
Sketch the Water Fountain or Statue in the Town Square
This is really good practice. Town square fountains or statues are usually pretty ornate. Learning how to represent water coming from the fountain in your sketch would be a really interesting challenge. Get into the habit of pushing yourself to draw things you wouldn’t normally tackle.
Go for a Coffee and Sketch the Interior of the Coffee Shop…
…then sketch the people in the coffee shop!
Cafe sketches are so fun to look at. There’s so much going on. I think trying to capture the clutter and the people but still making the sketch readable is a super interesting drawing challenge.
Are you looking for some inspiration on how to sketch interiors? Check out my post here for more information.
Sketch a church, if you are feeling brave, do both the outside and the inside…
Architecturally, churches can be super complex but I actually find the more ornate the building is the easier it is to capture as they have so many visual landmarks to indicate the building you’re looking at. Capturing some decorations with squiggles can be quite effective when you step back and look at the overall piece.
I decided to sketch the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, which is a very intimidating mass of gothic architecture but I slowly got the hang of how to capture the overall essence of the building using visual shorthand.
Learning how to do this really changed the game for me. I now feel confident taking on intricate architecture and producing an interesting sketch. Check out my post here for more about sketching architecture.
Sketch Different Types of Trees
Capture different trees you come across around the area. You could do a whole sketchbook spread of different trees or try different techniques to capture trees.
Capture different styles of lamp posts, or street furniture in general. Urban sketcher, Pete Scully, collects sketches of fire hydrants. It would be really fun to create a whole sketchbook spread of the same item around the area, the different characteristics and how they differ from street to street for example.
Sketch Different Types of Houses
Certain house styles make some areas very distinctive. Perhaps certain streets within the area have certain types of houses or architecture that make them unique. Perhaps the houses are painted in bright colours like Bo Kapp in Cape Town, or all the houses have Tudor-style facades like Tudor Road in London.
I have a separate post you can check out if you want some inspiration on how to sketch architecture.
I love drawing cars. I find it easier to sketch a car with character, like an old VW Beetle or Morris Minor. Try capturing cars from a fun or exaggerated perspective like the urban sketcher, Lapin. Get down low and sketch from one corner for example.
For more examples of urban sketching cars, I have an entire post on the subject.
Sketch a Bicycle
…if you’re in Amsterdam, you shouldn’t have too many problems finding one! Check out Will Kemp’s tutorial on how to draw a bike in pen and ink.
Bikes are fairly complicated objects, so learning how to capture one and simplify the shapes is a fantastic exercise to improve your sketching. Check out the amazing bike sketch by Miguel Herranz below.
Sketch a Boat on the Canal
Yes, the mention of Amsterdam sparked this idea! Or sketch a boat in the harbour if you are in a coastal area. Or a toy boat on the lake! Focus on the reflections and how to capture water effectively – I find this difficult! But it can be very satisfying if you nail it.
This was my attempt at sketching a boat recently:
Try a Wide-angle or Fisheye Perspective
Include your hands and sketchbook like urban sketcher, Paul Heaston. I think this could be quite hard to achieve at first. It will definitely require a bit of practice and some failed attempts. I think trying to take photos with your phone may help you visualise how the perspective translates to your piece of paper.
Try Different Techniques
- Sketch in pencil and then move straight to watercolour, add pen lines afterwards, or not at all.
- Sketch directly in watercolour, no pencil or pen! I tried this recently as Marc Taro Holmes hosts a 30×30 direct watercolour challenge each June. To participate you need to create a direct watercolour painting each day of the month (it can be a very small painting). The point is to force yourself out of your comfort zone. I didn’t make the whole month but the regular practice of this technique each day really helped my confidence in using watercolour. Check out a video of one of my direct watercolour attempts below.
- Draw directly in pen (rather than in pencil first) for a looser drawing, don’t worry about going off the page or not fitting things in, just go with the flow!
I hope you have enjoyed my list of ideas to sketch. I think it’s good to have sketching objectives. I also think revisiting certain objects or scenes can be a really good way to measure your progress, such as effectively capturing complicated items in the least amount of strokes while still conveying the essence.
Aimless sketching is also fun but most of us only ever have a limited window of time to wander around and sketch so having a loose plan doesn’t hurt!
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