Urban sketching is such an accessible form of artistic expression and one that is exploding in popularity. But beginners often encounter certain common mistakes. Here are some of them:
Overthinking and Perfectionism
Mistake: Trying to create a perfect and detailed sketch on the first attempt.
I think we are ALL guilty of wanting everything we do to be amazing, firstly for our own satisfaction but possibly to impress others? To hear them “ooh” and “aah”? Perhaps we don’t like admitting that the approval of others is important to us – but it’s human nature.
Solution: Embrace imperfections and focus on capturing the essence of the scene. Sketching is about expression, not perfection.
The thing that had the most impact on my sketching and that helped me turn a corner was when I simply learned to “let go”. I talked about it extensively when I launched my first online course, Sketch Your Adventures.
You can check out the mini-series here.
And you can check out my online course, Sketch Your Adventures, below:
Do you want to learn how to sketch your own adventures in ink & watercolour?
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I will show you my exact sketching process in ink and watercolour. I have travelled around the world in the last 3 years and this is my go-to system of creating beautiful yet quirky illustrations to capture the magic of my discoveries.
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.
This and much more are included in my course, Sketch Your Adventures, click the button under the image to find out more!
Ignoring Basic Drawing Skills
Mistake: Neglecting fundamental drawing skills like perspective, proportion, and composition.
When you are learning to draw, I highly recommend starting from the start. I see a lot of people jump right into urban sketching and choosing very complex scenes. Of course, they are unable to capture what they see to any level of satisfaction and then they get disheartened. This can make some people give up altogether, which is a real shame.
Solution: Invest time in practising basic drawing techniques to improve the overall quality of your sketches.
When I decided I would like to learn to draw in my mid-twenties I purchased a book called Keys to Drawing by Bert Dodson. I got some cheap sketching paper and some graphite pencils and I worked my way through that book. It was the best choice I could have made.
Whilst, I wasn’t amazing at drawing by any stretch of the imagination, I had a solid foundation on which to build. I continued to just draw way before I even considered painting or touching watercolours. This is something I will talk more about a little later in this article.
Another popular book people use when learning to draw is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.
Using the Wrong Materials
Mistake: Starting with too many or too few materials, or using materials that are difficult to control.
Again, so many beginners opt to jump straight into using watercolours when they decide to take up urban sketching. Watercolours can be unwieldy for beginners and take some to get used to. If you aren’t yet up and running with drawing, then jumping straight into painting with watercolour can be a bridge too far.
Solution: Begin with a small set of essential materials, such as a sketchbook, pen, and pencil. Gradually experiment with more tools as you gain confidence.
I would advise all beginners to start with just pencil, or ink. Get to grips with drawing first. Once you can draw some scenes to your satisfaction then it’s time to fall down the rabbit hole of watercolour, or any other medium for that matter. It doesn’t have to be watercolour.
Focussing on drawing with just lines is a foundational skill. Moving into adding colour, whether with paint or coloured pencils, markers or crayons, is an entirely different skill. There is much to learn and discover but take your time and enjoy the journey. I am still. learning all the time. Every time I sketch in fact. But that is the absolute fun of it. If we could master something like drawing/painting/sketching in a matter of days then it would be pretty dull.
Not Considering Light and Shadow
Mistake: Ignoring the importance of light and shadow in urban scenes.
Capturing light and shadow is where the real magic comes in. I think ignoring it at first while you master drawing in proportion and perspective is probably wise. But once you start to add tone, whether it’s with a pencil, pen or colour then you can give your sketch some depth and some life.
Solution: Pay attention to the direction of light and shadows, as they add depth and dimension to your sketches. Experiment with shading techniques.
When urban sketching, choose a subject that has some very obvious shadows. Sketching in the morning / afternoon and avoiding midday when the sun is directly overhead is a great tip to help you find something with strong shadows. Be smart when you are choosing something to draw. Find something that’s not too tricky. For example, a church tower that has some nice straight lines and probably casts simple strong shadows as opposed to a classical statue of a person riding a horse or something like that!
Exaggerate the shadows and highlights in your scene. Consider leaving the white of the page wherever the sun is hitting your subject and shade in the shadow areas super dark. This will bring strong contrast to your sketch and make it look super dynamic.
Neglecting Negative Space
Mistake: Filling the page without considering the impact of leaving negative space around and between things.
I would say leaving negative space is edging into more of an intermediate skill but if you can keep it in mind as a beginner then you are going to be ahead of the game.
I’m super interested in minimalist urban sketching, where sketchers often use a lot of white space and leave things unsaid (or “undrawn”) to draw more even more focus to the story they’re telling.
If you are interested in finding out more about ‘minimalist’ urban sketching, I have a video here introducing you to some of my favourite sketchers who use negative space to maximum effect:
Solution: Be mindful of the entire composition, including negative spaces. They play a crucial role in defining the shapes and relationships in your sketch.
It’s easy to focus on how you are drawing the particular objects in your sketch while ignoring the overall scene. Composition is just as much of a skill to learn as well as the technicalities of drawing and painting so if you can keep an eye on it at this stage then you will be creating awesome sketches in no time.
Mistake: Choosing complex scenes with too many details for a beginner level.
Many beginners run before they can walk in this regard. You simply cannot expect to sit down and sketch an entire street scene immediately, especially from life. Not being able to record what you see in your sketchbook to the standard you desire is a sure-fire way to demotivate yourself quickly.
Solution: Start with simple subjects and gradually progress to more complex scenes as your skills improve. Break down intricate scenes into manageable components.
I know it’s all so very exciting and you don’t want to draw a bloody apple, you want to get to the fancy architecture or the sprawling market scene but just like learning anything, you have to start with the small basic things first. These are the building blocks on which advancing your sketching skills rest. While it is important to push yourself and stretch outside of your comfort zone, do it progressively. Start with simple objects first at home and build up to more complicated things over time.
Perhaps even make a list of things to sketch so that you can plan your progression and when you have time to sketch you always know what’s next on your list.
If you want to get started with urban sketching but are too nervous to sketch in public, or you just want to practice sketching from real life then you can check out my FREE 7 Day Urban Sketching at Home challenge here.
Rushing the Process
Mistake: Trying to finish a sketch quickly without taking the time to observe and enjoy the process.
It’s easy to just rush through a sketch as we are keen to see the finished result. As beginners, we often be disappointed by the results but the true gift of urban sketching is the time spent doing it rather than what we end up with in our sketchbooks.
Time and continual practice will get us to the point where more often than not we are happy with what we have done. However, I often find the real joy comes from the time spent sketching and being in the place I am recording rather than the results of the sketch.
Solution: Slow down and savour the experience. Pay attention to details, and don’t be afraid to take breaks to refresh your perspective.
Enjoy where you are and what you are experiencing. If you are with people, enjoy the conversations that flow when you sketch side by side. I was out with Urban Sketchers Johannesburg last week and while I enjoyed my surroundings I didn’t do an amazing sketch by any stretch of the imagination. I was trying out a style. It didn’t work as well as I wanted it too. BUT. I had the best morning. I had an extremely interesting conversation with a fellow sketcher I didn’t know very well about travelling around the country in a vintage Russian sidecar and after sketching a whole group of us went for lunch and it was just so much fun.
I know not everyone lives near an existing urban sketching chapter and I certainly resisted sketching with other people for a long time. I do prefer doing things by myself more often than not. But since moving to Johannesburg I have genuinely discovered a real joy and affection for sketching alongside others. So, I do recommend it.
As with any activity, slow down, enjoy the ride, savour the experience and let go of expectations. This will make it far more enjoyable.
Not Experimenting with Styles
Mistake: Sticking to a single style without experimenting with different techniques.
The day I realised that urban sketching comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes was an exciting one indeed. This was before the wonderful books now available that have collated some of the most interesting sketches from around the world. Two books I highly recommend checking out are The Art of Urban Sketching (which you can find on Amazon here) and The World of Urban Sketching (which you can find on Amazon here). They are big books and are truly worth savouring.
Before this, there was just the internet. Ha.
But scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest you can find all kinds of styles, mediums and subject matters recorded from life on location. It is such an exciting time for urban sketching and I encourage you to explore different styles and see what excited you the most. Your tastes can and will change over the years too!
If you would like to check out some of the urban sketching styles I have collected on Pinterest over the years, then you can check out my board here.
Solution: Explore various styles, from loose and expressive to more detailed and realistic. This experimentation will help you discover your personal artistic preferences.
Find out which urban sketching styles excite you. Figure out which urban sketchers inspire you and the learn from them. So many have Youtube videos, Skillshare classes, Domestika classes, their own online course and even in-person vacation workshops!!
Here are some Domestika classes by some of my favourite urban sketchers which are usually priced at under US$10 each. If you want a further 10% off use my special code at checkout: TARIA10
Some of my favourite online classes
- Watercolor Portrait Sketchbook – Carlos Rodriguez Casado
- Expressive Architectural Sketching with Colored Markers – Albert Kiefer
- Experimental Watercolour Techniques For Beginners – Ana Santos
- Urban Sketching: Express Your World in a New Perspective – Lapin
Mistake: Avoiding challenging elements like perspective, people, or moving objects.
I am guilty as the next person for avoiding things I find difficult to sketch. Like people. But when you challenge yourself regularly and push outside of your comfort zone, you improve.
Solution: Embrace challenges and use them as opportunities to learn and improve. Practice drawing people, cars, and other dynamic elements to enhance your skills.
What do you find difficult to sketch? If it’s people, like me, then go sit in a cafe or waiting room and just draw people. We often find ourselves waiting somewhere whether it’s at the doctor’s office or the airport. Have a sketchbook with you. It’s a great way to pass the time.
There are also sketching challenges you can join. Sticking with the example of sketching people, Marc Taro Holmes and Liz Steel host a OneWeek100People challenge where, you guessed it, you have to try and draw 100 people in the space of…well, 5 days. This is a great way to join in with a community of other people across the world.
Remember, learning urban sketching is a journey (it’s a well-worn cliché for a reason), and everyone progresses at their own pace.
Don’t be discouraged by mistakes; instead, view them as valuable learning experiences. I label every sketch I do as an “experiment”. I find this helps so much in regards to taking pressure off myself. It also makes things more fun.
Sometimes things you try will work and sometimes they won’t, but seeing your sketchbook as a playground or laboratory changes the way you look at your sketches.
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