I just finished the 4th and final demo from Ian Fennelly’s Urban Sketching for Beginners course. As well as talking about some of the things within this sketch, I’d also like to think about the bigger picture and what I have personally learnt from this course. Here are the best 5 things I learnt from Ian Fennelly’s course that I hope to remember and integrate into both my mindset and sketching process.
This sketch for module 4 of the course is of Wyle Cop in Shrewsbury, England (each demo has featured a different aspect of the same town). This is Ian’s final sketch:
I tried a different strategy again for this final module. I decided to watch the entire module and then take the reference photo, Ian’s final sketch and knowledge of the colours he chose and then went my own way with it.
As I mentioned in one of the previous videos in my mini-series about this course (which you can find over on Youtube), I think the key to learning from an artist with such a unique and distinctive style as Ian is not to copy him but to try and learn techniques or ideas from him that you can integrate into your own sketching process.
For beginners, this is obviously going to take some time as you won’t feel you have your own process yet. And actually, if you are a complete beginner, I think this course is going to be a little intimidating (in my personal opinion) and I suggest sticking with trying to copy Ian but also not beating yourself up if it doesn’t look like his sketch because no matter how hard you try, it will never look like his. So, do what you can and take from Ian’s style what you want.
I still feel I don’t have a defined process yet but I think its because I like to experiment lots and I haven’t really settled on on distinct style. To be honest I don’t think I ever will. I get bored easily and I like to change things up. So I’m embracing this self-knowledge and shall keep trying different things (and sharing them with you of course).
My final sketch may or may not look anything like Ian’s but that’s ok. I didn’t really want my sketch to be the point of this post. I wanted to share some of the big things I learned from Ian during this course.
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We will work through 3 projects, step by step (pictured below), all of which are real-life examples of things I have sketched along my travels. I provide the photo references you can work from.
We will start by choosing a composition, laying in the initial pencil sketch, adding ink lines, layering watercolour and adding the final touches.
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Here are my biggest takeaways from this Urban Sketching for Beginners course that I will be doing my best to integrate into my sketching process. Some I already knew but going through the course and hearing Ian’s perspective has validated or confirmed some things I was doing, which is always good.
- Forget the details, the main thing that effects the success of your drawing is perspective – especially in street scenes which are the main focus of this course.
You’ll see that Ian places a lot of emphasis on getting the sense of perspective correct as this will make or break the sketch in terms of believability. He can play with wonky walls and squiggles for hanging baskets but if the overall scene isn’t in perspective then its not going to work. He does exaggerate perspective sometimes but again, the overall rules of parallel lines radiating from vanishing points is adhered to and therefore it works.
If you would like a basic and brief overview of perspective, do check out my free guide to perspective here.
- Simplify tricky details and suggest things instead.
If you take this course it will become apparent that Ian does not draw every last detail he observes within a scene. He takes huge liberties with just indicating things with squiggles – like any kind of foliage: trees, hanging baskets etc. He loosely approximates shapes of lanterns or church spires and also simplifies things like shop fronts and doors especially as they recede into the distance. Zoom into one of Ian’s sketches and you’ll see what I mean. And the fantastic thing is has taught me is that it doesn’t matter, you can totally get away with not drawing things accurately. The human eye can still tell what it is and it doesn’t detract from the overall sketch – if anything, it actually adds more personality.
- The third major thing I have learnt and have been trying my best to put into practice within my own work is that tone is more important than colour.
As we all know Ian’s use of colour is not literal or realistic to what he sees. And that’s what attracts most of us, at least in the first instance, to his work.
How can he use bright purples and greens yet we still completely recognise the place he has sketched?
If we get the darks and the lights where they need to be then colour doesn’t matter too much. In terms of colour, Ian uses a limited palette of 3 colours for each module. He shows how he uses the colours and mixes them together to get interesting and more realistic tones. I haven’t practiced much with using a limited palette but after completing this course, I understand how to use 3 colours together and also in a very non-traditional way, which is refreshing.
- And speaking of traditions…Don’t be afraid to break traditional rules and experiment.
The way Ian uses white would be frowned upon by traditional watercolour artists but this is not traditional art, this is mixed media and experimental. This is Ian’s world. This is how he sketches and how he uses his materials to achieve his wonderful style. So bear in mind as you experiment that some things will be unexpected successes and some things will make a mess – but that’s ok – not every sketchy adventure runs smooth. That’s why it’s called an adventure.
- Another major thing I have learnt from Ian is to not be afraid to sketch what’s not there or edit what you see.
I knew this anyway and also teach this concept myself (in my own course, Sketch Your Adventures) however its nice that Ian validates this in my mind but Ian takes it even further as well. From his lessons I learnt that if you need to move a road sign to make your sketch look better, do it. If you want to include a shop or pub name, you don’t need to copy the exact lettering style, just do it your own way. Don’t worry about the exact number of windows on buildings, it’s more important to get the shapes right and tell the story. As Ian says in the course – “life’s too short to count windows”.
- Finally, as a bonus tip: don’t be afraid of using black.
Ian adds black with his tombow marker to great effect – it really adds drama and contrast. Leaving areas of white (i.e. unpainted paper) and adding some areas of pure black amplify the contrast and drama in a sketch.
If you would like more information on the art supplies I use and recommend, head over to my Recommended Stuff page. In addition to art supplies I share my favourite books and courses too!
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I was very happy with the drawing I did for this module. I think I went a bit too far with the drawing stage before applying the watercolour though… I probably should have painted before adding the black areas and doing some of the hatching but that’s ok. I just got carried away.
The painting stage is the bit that makes me anxious! I don’t have the same colours as Ian so it’s never going to look quite right (but again, I remind myself, the idea is to not produce an identical sketch – even using the same colours, it will never happen).
I guess the anxiety is because Ian’s painting process is so abstract it’s not very easy to follow along. So I decided to do my own thing while looking at Ian’s final sketch (included at the beginning of this post).
He has very distinct areas of cool tones (blue) and warm tones (orange-y brown). I wasn’t very happy with my choice of orange (actually a cadmium red light) as it seems quite a cool orange and I could have done with something warmer.
I don’t mind how my sketch came out but it definitely doesn’t have the impact of Ian’s sketch. I don’t think I left enough white space so it feels a bit flat tonally. Also I have to be very gentle using my FC pitt artist pens on top of the watercolour and on this paper – it doesn’t seem to like it very much.
The Pitt artist pens don’t blend nicely like the Tombow markers do so some of the shading is not as smooth as I would like it to be. Again though, I’m happy with the drawing and sense of perspective.
I always learn well by doing and I enjoyed drawing this scene. I lose myself when it comes to sketching, just like Ian says he does during the course. I agree with him that drawing is a mindfulness practice, you forget about everything else for a while and zone out, only concentrating on the lines you’re making or the areas you’re painting. And it’s fun. Ian loves drawing so much (he says it a lot throughout the course) and this permeates the entire course.
If you want to learn from someone with a completely unique style, who uses materials in a non-traditional way and who loves every second of what they’re doing, then I would certainly recommend this Urban Sketching for Beginners course.
Some of my favourite online classes
- Watercolor Travel Journal – Alicia Aradilla
- Artistic Watercolour Sketching: Dare to Sketch – Felix Scheinburger
- Travel Illustration: Recreate Your Favourite Place – Alex Green
- URban Sketching for Beginners-Ian Fennelly