How to Sketch in Public: Overcoming the Fear


Ok, lets just clear this up. It’s scary drawing in public.  People can actually see you, drawing…and judge you. Scary.

At first.  Then…you get used to it, I promise.

And then, it’s not scary at all.  It just feels like a normal thing to do.  People aren’t judging you. They probably don’t even notice you.  Ouch. It’s true though.

Why Sketch in Public?

Well, you’re here because you’re interested in urban sketching right?  And the essence of urban sketching is sketching on location and sketching from life (you can see the Urban Sketchers manifesto here).  So that basically means sketching in public.  However, just because it’s called urban sketching does not mean you cannot go out into the countryside where there are fewer people loitering around and sketch there.

Perhaps we have just distilled the fear of sketching in public: other people.

Urban Sketching in Public – First Steps

Ok, let’s get the basic defence mechanisms listed here:

1. Sit somewhere inconspicuous

A bench in the shade under a tree away from other people.

In a cafe with your back against the wall so no one can creep up behind you or see what you’re doing.

2. Wear sunglasses

If people cannot make eye contact as they approach, they may be less likely to bother you.

3. Wear headphones

As above, if people know they can’t hear you they will be less likely to approach.  Also, you can block out people’s comments if they are passing behind you, looking at what you’re doing.

I’m a huge music fan (fun fact: I was a bass player in a progressive metal band for 12 years) but I absolutely love listening to podcasts and audiobooks while sketching too.  Want some awesome art-related podcast recommendations? Well my friend, look no further than my suggestions here.

4. Sit somewhere very busy

If somewhere is very crowded and busy people are less likely to stop and notice you. Just don’t get stepped on!

5. Look inconspicuous

Think twice about wearing your leopard print dress and red heels, or your most floral shirt (you’re not Lapin) and pink stripey flares (the ’70s called and want their outfit back). Seriously though, be inconspicuous.  Dress simply and do not draw attention to yourself. 

These are defence mechanisms against the general public.  The general public is an unpredictable bunch. They can be incredibly kind and wonderful but once in a blue moon, they can also be scary and, you may suspect, a little judgy.  I worked on a cruise ship once. I know how strange the public can be.

Urban sketcher, Ian Fennelly, puts a more positive spin on things in his video below, discussing how magical it can be to engage with the public and how your sketching can be a gateway to connect with people.

How to Build Confidence

When I first started inching away from my front door in order to go and sketch somewhere other than my bedroom I would fill a few pages of my sketchbook with some partially completed drawings.  

That way I already had some reasonable sketches to go out into the world with.  Then when I would sit down somewhere in public, I could just pick up where I left off and carry on drawing.  This helps with the fear of opening your sketchbook to a blank page and just clamming up because you don’t know what to do next.

Of course, this is not urban sketching in the strict sense BUT that’s ok, we are just trying to build confidence in the activity of drawing in public.

Finding a good vantage point and then drawing what’s in front of you to a standard that you don’t think other people will think you’re rubbish is actually quite a lot of pressure at first. 

Why not ease yourself into the actual sensation of drawing in public first with a sketch you’ve already started. You can carry on sketching from your reference photo, doodling or whatever you were partway through.  

Once you stop feeling so conspicuous sitting in a cafe or on a park bench and drawing in your sketchbook, you will be ready to take on drawing from life.

Start Small

If you are inside, draw a cup, the ketchup bottle, the set of condiments in front of you, cutlery, your plate of food or the naughty cupcake you ordered to reward yourself for being so brave (ha ha).

If you’re outside, draw some plants, trees, your footwear, the lamp post, the list goes on.  If you are looking for some inspiration on what to draw or exercises to try when you’re out sketching, check my post here.

It can really help to have a focussed list of ideas, especially when you are just starting out and your nerves get the best of you and your mind goes blank.  I remember often wondering around mindlessly while trying to find just the right spot to draw something. I would just be so fearful, I couldn’t find anywhere to sit with a good view (or at least that’s the excuse I kept telling myself).  The list in my post will break down your walls a bit and get you thinking (and looking) at the endless possibilities.

Grab a Friend (non-sketchers are fine!)

I remember another moment when I was first dipping my toe into sketching in public.  I was with a friend who doesn’t sketch. It was a nice day and he was keen to sit in a beer garden outside his local pub to watch some rugby.

I don’t like rugby. But I like beer. And I had my sketchbook.

He knew I was trying to get up some courage to sketch in public. Let’s be clear, it is not only the act of being perceived as looking like an idiot by getting your sketchbook out and drawing but the second wave is when you think people are looking over your shoulder and thinking my 5-year-old nephew holding a pen between his toes could do better than that.

View from the beer garden
Sat in the beer garden with my sketchbook

While he drank beer and watched rugby, I sat opposite him but looking past him towards a gorgeous victorian building (London is filled with incredible architecture every way you turn your head). I also drank a beer (that helps with confidence too by the way 😉) and I sketched…and it was amazing! Not the sketch (although I really did love the end result) but the process. I felt so liberated.

No one really paid attention as they were watching the game. Occasionally someone peeked over as they went to the bar, but it really was a fleeting interest and I felt comfortable just ignoring them. No one asked me anything and I felt like my friend was a protective shield. I felt more confident with a wingman, even though he wasn’t sketching himself. 

I painted the sketch at home, getting my paints out felt like a bridge too far at the time!

Have Sketch Materials in Your Bag at All Times

Another of my first public sketching experiences actually happened by accident. I believe, embarrassingly, I had a bad argument with my boyfriend so I grabbed my bag, stormed out and walked to the pub (hmmm… a lot of my sketching in public stories involve pubs…).

The pub is actually a restaurant too.  I ordered a coffee and settled down to read my book and calm down.  I kept looking around and thinking, “that would be good to draw…or that…or this…”.  

I continued to read. I put my book down again. I looked in my bag. Lo and behold, there was a small A6-sized notebook (with blank pages) and a mechanical pencil.    

Gingerly, I brought the materials out and put them on the table.  Looking around nervously I opened the little notepad. I picked up my pencil and slowly and surely started mapping out a sketch of the shelf next to me with these amazing Belgian beer bottles lined up on it.

At first, I was almost covering up the page with my sleeve when anyone approached my table like at school when you didn’t want anyone to copy you…or for the teacher to see you hadn’t written anything down! But then, I got into the flow and the sketch started taking shape.  I got into the details of the sketch and I lost myself.

By the time I had finished, I had lost over an hour and I felt so peaceful. I didn’t care anymore that people might be looking at what I was doing (they weren’t). I had just enjoyed the moment.  

If you are interested in finding out more about how urban sketching is an awesome form of mindfulness and a huge benefit to your mental health, check out my post here).

This feeds into the idea of keeping your urban sketching kit minimal.   All you need in order to start is a small sketchbook, a mechanical pencil, an eraser and a pen. No excuses. Go forth!

Keep the Sketch Simple

This story above raises another piece of sage advice.  Keep it simple. Gah, yawn. Yes, I know. BUT… Just aim to sketch with one medium to start with.  Just sketch in pencil, or draw in pen. Do not worry about watercolours for now. Getting your watercolour paints out takes things to a whole other level.  Get comfortable with drawing first.  

Sit in the Car

If you have a car, this is a really useful stepping stone to sketching in public. The car provides a literal protective bubble around you but you’re still in public, well, unless you’re parked in your garage!  Sitting in the car also helps with staying warm. I know urban sketchers who live in countries with cold winters sit in the car so they can carry on sketching on location.  

I did the sketch below when I was sitting in my car during my lunch break at work.  This was at the start of my urban sketching journey and sitting in my car each lunchtime really helped me to get into the habit of drawing regularly.

Sketching a car from the car!

The time limit of one hour also helped me to overcome any messing around and to get going with the sketch.  The fear of the end result can be debilitating and prevent you from getting started. The key is just to get sketching.  You’ll never get anywhere if you’re too scared to start. The sketch is not going to turn out how you want it too. It rarely does.  Even now (for me at least) 6+ years in, I don’t really know how the sketch is going to turn out – but that’s exciting don’t you think?!  You never quite know what’s going to happen! 

Join a “Sketchcrawl”

You may already know what one of these is but in case you do not, its like a pub crawl, but instead of drinking your sketch instead, moving from place to place. 

Whilst you can pubcrawl by yourself, it is infinitely better when you’re with other people (and less worrying). The same is true of sketchcrawls! It’s way less scary drawing in public when you’re in a group.

Find out of there’s a local urban sketching group near you.  Such groups tend to centre around cities or large towns but you never know, you may be able to find one in smaller areas.

I used to have to travel quite a way to join a group but it was worth it to just be amongst like-minded individuals. I am shy and a bit of an introvert but so are a lot of people.  Once you break the ice with one or two people, you start to relax and enjoy the day.

If you cannot find a group near you, or travel to join one, you could always look for a local art or sketching group near you and suggest a day of urban sketching as an activity.

Or you could put your own notice up that you are looking for people to join you to sketch on location. Not everyone knows what the term “urban sketching” refers to (although they should)!

Obviously trying to organise your own sketching day takes some confidence but you could mention on your notice that you are a beginner and that you’re just looking for people to join you for a few hours of sketching.

Suggest some locations and ask people to get in touch with you for more details or to discuss. You can advertise in various place on the internet, such as the Facebook group for your local area or go old school and put a notice in local shops, or as mentioned earlier, get in touch with some local art groups.  

Perhaps you already have friends who are artists or sketchers or used to be…one of my friends was excellent at art at school but never took it any further.  When I started talking to her about urban sketching and going out to just draw whatever you come across she became very interested.

We went for lunch one day and afterwards found a bench and sketched what was around us without any fear of judgement.  We just had some fun. It even made me feel more confident to mess around and try different sketching techniques as we just wanted to see what kind of art we could make.

Closing Thoughts…

Sketching in public can be a scary prospect but once you realise no one is really paying attention you soon build your confidence.  If people do wander over to take a look at what you’re doing, more often than not they will be super impressed with what you’re doing and say something along the lines of “I wish I could do that”.

Fun is the name of the game.  Never feel pressured. If you go out for walk and you just don’t feel comfortable to sketch, just keep on walking and enjoy the stroll.  This is the point of having your sketching tools with you all the time. That way you can sketch whenever you feel! Confidence will come with time.  Just keep trying and just keep smiling.

Get in touch…

Want to discuss urban sketching? I’m always keen to meet new sketching friends!

You can email me hello@urbansketchingworld.com (I always reply!) Or find me on Instagram @urbansketchingworld

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