So, you’ve heard of urban sketching and you want to give it a go. You know that the essence is sketching from life, out on location but now what? What do you need to get started with urban sketching? What are the best art supplies for urban sketching?
To get started with urban sketching you need a few basic supplies.
At a minimum, you need paper and a drawing implement but let’s build a little further on this and see what the most essential things are to get started specifically for urban sketching with ink and watercolour.
Below is the list of things I am going to cover at a very high level. This is meant to be an overview and not an in-depth discussion on each item otherwise we may be here for the rest of the day. If you would like to dig deeper on specific supplies I shall highlight where I have more detailed articles available, such as on sketchbooks, brushes and watercolour sets.
Basic art supplies you need for ink and watercolour urban sketching
- Sketchbook – I have a round-up of sketchbooks I have tried and recommend that you can read here.
- Pen (with waterproof ink)
- Watercolour set
- Accessories: cloth, eraser, small pot for water, water spray
- Optional extras: black brush pen, white gel pen
Everything I am about to say is based on my own personal experience and opinions. It’s meant as a starting point for those of you who are just setting off on their sketchy adventures.
Speaking of which, if you to learn how to produce quirky ink and watercolour sketches (like those in the picture below) of the stuff around you or that you encounter on your travels, head over to sketchyouradventures.com.
I take you step-by-step on how to sketch in this style. I really believe it’s one of the most in-depth no-nonsense courses out there and you will be up and running in no time. There’s also some bonus content too. Check it out over on sketchyouradventures.com
Ink & watercolour starter kit
Etchr has this great starter set, while it’s not specifically aimed at urban sketching, it does cover a lot of the categories I just mentioned. You get an A5 cold-press watercolour block, 6 individual half-pans of watercolour paint, 3 watercolour brushes in sizes 6, 12 & 1/2, and two fineliner pens, one with a size 05 nib and one with a brush-tip. Also included is a watercolour guide with instructions on different techniques you can try and a mixing guide.
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!
Sketchbooks for urban sketching
I started with an A6 Moleskine. It was ok but I would HIGHLY recommend using something bigger, such as an A5 size (like this one).
A6 is just too small to be able to fit anything in with any amount of detail. It’s good for portability, you can slip it into your pocket. And it’s ok for sketching singular items or very basic landscapes but for anything else, you just won’t have enough room.
You do not need 100% cotton paper. These books are expensive and you will be scared to use them. I recommend sketchbooks by Pink Pig, Seawhite of Brighton or Hahnemuhle to get started. They are affordable but with good solid paper (around 200gsm) for ink and watercolour sketching.
Check out my Seawhite of Brighton A5 watercolour sketchbook tour in the video below:
As you advance you may want to try other slightly more expensive sketchbooks by Stillman & Birn, Strathmore or Etchr (although I’d argue there’s really no reason too).
I feel like the Hahnemuhle watercolour sketchbook is the sweet spot for me. It’s a reasonable price so I won’t feel too precious about it and it has good paper. If you want to read more of my thoughts on sketchbooks check out this post.
Pencils for urban sketching
Don’t overthink this, any pencil will do: HB or B are good choices. A mechanical pencil is excellent if you are sketching on location a lot as you don’t need to bother sharpening. These Rotring mechanical pencils have been my “go to” mechanical pencils from the very start of my urban sketching journey.
Pen & Ink for urban sketching
You must have waterproof ink if you intend to use watercolour over the top. I started with Uniball fineliners and they are still my favourites – I recommend this pack where you get a 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, 0.5 and 0.8 – this will cover everything you need. The numbers refer to the thickness of the line you can draw; 0.05 being very fine and 0.8 being quite thick. Any brand of fineliner is good: Pigma Micron, Staedtler, Derwent, Copic, Faber Castell etc.
You can also go down the fountain pen route. I’d recommend sticking to fineliners for a while. But if you want to try a fountain pen I highly recommend the TWSBI Eco.
Lamy Safari fountain pens are an incredibly popular choice but I personally prefer the TWSBI.
For fountain pen ink I recommend Platinum Carbon ink – there are other choices out there but I haven’t tried them as Platinum Carbon ink does the job for me!
Watercolour sets for urban sketching
This is a HUGE topic so let’s keep it simple. I wouldn’t bother with student-grade paints. I started with this Winsor & Newton Cotman set (which is student grade). I guess it was ok (compact, cheap) but I couldn’t understand why my paintings were so washed out.
When I tried Daniel Smith and White Nights, I realised it was my paint. Daniel Smith is expensive (for good reason, it’s extremely high quality) so don’t start with this (unless you can afford to and want to). It took me years to pluck up the courage to buy some!
I HIGHLY recommend the White Nights range. They are affordable and produce lovely bright colours. I have had my set of 14 for the past few years (replacing the colours as I finish them) and I honestly don’t need anything else!
I haven’t tried them personally but I hear Royal Talens Van Gogh sets are very good and also a good price. Roman Szmal also seems to be growing in popularity. Again, I haven’t tried them but have heard good things.
Don’t get a huge set of watercolours, remember you need to carry them around with you. The long tins of 24 colours get annoying after a while (speaking from personal experience). A set of 12 colours is a good number. You don’t need white or black. Look for a set with warm and cool yellow, red and blue; a green (for convenience); a couple of browns and a Payne’s grey. Something along those lines will get you up and running.
The sets of 12 from any of the brands I just mentioned will do you well. It may seem a bit of an outlay at the start but it will be worth it and the paints will last you at least a year if not longer. Then you can replace them individually as you need, whether with the same colour or something else you want to try out.
Watercolour brushes for urban sketching
Which watercolour brushes to use for urban sketching is another huge topic. I have a post all about brushes you can check out here.
You can get synthetic, natural or a mixture of hair. Synthetic bristles are hardier and keep their shape better but don’t hold as much water traditionally as natural hair brushes. Natural hair is more delicate. Brushes made from a mixture of synthetic and natural hair take the best aspects of both and blend them together. A brush with mixed hair is designed to carry more water but is also more sturdy.
Saying that I have a completely synthetic squirrel brush from Princeton and it’s fantastic. It is designed to emulate squirrel hair. I highly recommend checking Princeton brushes out.
To start with I recommend a round brush of size 10 or so, a medium round brush about size 6, a flat 1/2 inch brush (great for painting straight edges) and a smaller brush for details. My absolute favourite brush for painting small details is the Rosemary and Co dagger brush which is a blend and also a travel brush (very handy for those who travel and paint).
Do yourself a favour and spend a little bit of money on your brushes. You will buy them and they will last for years. You do not need to go crazy and buy natural hairs brushes for hundreds of dollars. Get what you can afford. I guess what I’m saying is don’t buy those cheap $1 bundles of brushes from the craft store that say they’re watercolour brushes. They will not help you.
Daler Rowney, Etchr and other brands do nice sets of watercolour brushes for reasonable prices. This may help you figure out which brushes you use most and then over time, if you want, you can upgrade.
I use water brushes too – especially with watercolour pencils. My personal preference is the Pentel version (which you can find here on Amazon). They are also very handy for quick watercolour sketching on the move as the water is contained within the handle.
Accessories for urban sketching
I have a cloth made from bamboo that I carry around. It’s better for the environment than using paper towels all the time. When it gets too dirty I wash it.
I personally prefer kneadable erasers. They may not erase as well as the white plastic ones but they are gentle on the surface of your paper. If you erase too hard you can damage your watercolour paper.
Pot for water
I like this collapsable container from Faber Castell. The only issue is if you have nowhere to pour your dirty water out. A lot of sketchers carry a small glass or plastic container with them.
I carry a small spray bottle which used to have something else in it. I use it to activate my paints. This is handier than you would imagine and I hate leaving the house without it. If you don’t have one knocking about you can re-use then you can buy one.
invaluable to clip your paper down out in the elements.
Optional extras for urban sketching
Black brush pen
I really love adding sold black into some sketches, like in window areas etc. I always carry a black brush pen with me. The Pentel pocket brush is fantastic because it uses cartridges so is reusable. I also have a Copic brush pen which is not reusable but I have had it for 2 years so far and it hasn’t run out yet.
White gel pen
A white gel pen is always good for highlights, or drawing window frames over the black windows I put in with the brush pen. I’ve not found one I love yet but I have the Signo and the Sakura gelly roll. Both are ok. I also sometimes carry a Posca paint marker in white too.