How to Start an Urban Sketch


We have covered how to start a sketchbook with various ideas to kick things off but let’s drill down a little further.  Some of you may be asking, “how do I start an urban sketch”?

How Do You Start an Urban Sketch?

There are many ways to start something creative like a sketch.  This is a suggestion of how to get started when you feel entirely lost.  After you are more practised you may want to try other ways of starting a sketch.  In fact, I really encourage you to experiment with this, as over time, it can be a way to discover a unique style all of your own.

  • Choose a layout (e.g. landscape/portrait/square)
  • Start sketching the foreground elements
  • Fill out the background elements
  • Use foreground elements to measure against and try to get the right proportions
  • Focus on the shapes, draw what’s actually there, not what you think objects look like
  • Squint to see large shapes and not details
  • Use colour to create emphasis
  • Add darks and drop shadows – important to add contrast and visual weight to objects

It’s useful to have a roadmap to use in order to start a sketch but as mentioned, as you get more comfortable, don’t be afraid to try a different process to the one outlined above.

Should I Sketch in Pencil First?

You can map out your sketch in pencil if you want to.  As a beginner, this is absolutely going to feel like the safest option. Beginner or not, many sketchers use pencil guidelines to start with.

Personally, I always map out my sketches in pencil first.  I would love to get to a point where I can go straight into sketching with a pen, especially when I am sketching on the fly and want to be loose and quick.  However, when I’m sitting down to sketch a scene for an hour or more, I want to make sure I get everything to fit on the page and get things in a reasonably correct perspective and proportion. I don’t want to waste time making mistakes that could have easily been avoided by using some quick pencil guidelines first.

I have learned over time that using a pencil first can really help to ensure the sketch is going to ‘work’ for the reasons above.  I have also learned to not to go too mad with the pencil sketch.  Just sketch out the large shapes and map out where the key elements of the sketch will go, then put the pencil down and move to pen (or watercolour depending on how you prefer to work). 

Once I pick up my pen, I start to add the details.  I feel confident in doing this as I know everything will fit and things are in the right place.

The biggest mistake I used to make when I started urban sketching is to do the whole sketch in pencil and then go over the exact same lines in pen.  This makes for a very tight drawing, it’s not fun to just trace your lines and it wastes time!

How to Choose a Layout

You have a couple of techniques that can help you choose which layout to use for your sketch. Some formats of sketchbooks lend themselves better for a certain layout.  For example, I am currently working in a landscape Moleskine watercolor album, as such it is very much suited to sketching in a wide-angle landscape format.  You can turn it so you can paint in a long portrait format.  This is fine if you have a large sketching area such as a table but can be tricky if you are out sketching and just using your lap for example.  This is where wirebound sketchbooks can come in useful as you can fold them over easily.  

Note: If you want to read more about my sketchbook recommendations for urban sketching you can check out my post here.

The two techniques can that can help you decide on the layout of your sketch are:

  1. Take a photo with your phone
  2. Thumbnail sketches

Take a Photo With Your Phone

This can be a quick way to decide on your layout and composition if you are in a rush or you are getting a bit stuck with how to frame your subject.

Most camera phones also have an option to turn on gridlines, so your screen is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally.  This really helps with composition when taking a photo (or creating a sketch).  After a time you won’t even need the gridline to naturally feel where the divisions of these lines fall and what makes for an engaging or dynamic composition.

To read more about the fundamentals of composition in urban sketching, check out my post here.

Take a photo of your intended subject holding your phone in a landscape orientation, or upright for a portrait orientation.  See what you think works best.

Taking a photo of your subject never hurts, just in case something happens and you can’t finish your sketch then and there, you may wish to come back to it and at least you now have a photo for reference.

Thumbnail Sketching

The best way to figure out your layout, composition, values and other elements of the sketch is to produce a few thumbnail sketches.

I have a whole post on why thumbnail sketching is important and how to do it here.

This does take a bit more time than simply taking a photo, however, thumbnails are far more useful device, especially if you are intending on spending a couple of hours on your sketch.

Why Sketch Foreground Elements First?

The foreground elements of a sketch are likely where you wish to draw the eye and where the main emphasis will fall.  When we look at a scene, things in the foreground are larger, clearer and more detailed.  As our eye travels further back through a scene, things become fainter in colour, detail and form (very much so if your eyesight is as bad as mine)!

Therefore there is some logic to starting with the key elements of your sketch.  They are the elements that require the most detail and will be the feature.  If you do not like the elements that will be the key feature of your sketch, change position!  It’s a challenge in itself finding a scene that you wish to sketch, finding a comfortable place to sit for the next hour or more, and dealing with fluctuating elements such as subjects moving, the weather, the general public or pigeons.  But this is also where the fun lies!  

When sketching the foreground elements, start with the big shapes, do not get too caught up in sketching all the small details.  A simple and effective way of not getting caught up in the details is to squint your eyes so you can only see the main shapes of things.  Or, if you have bad eyesight, just take your glasses off!

Once you have sketched the main shapes of the foreground elements, you can use them as a point of reference to judge where and how large your background elements should be.

You may wish to paint in the big shapes with watercolours or just sketch them in with a pen.  This is totally up to you and depends on what style you are aiming for in the end.

For more information on urban sketching styles and how to achieve them, you can check out my post here.

How to Create Emphasis in your Sketch

An interesting sketch is one that draws your eye around and through the image. We can do this by creating emphasis in certain areas.  The use of emphasis can also help to tell a story with your sketch.  

You can create emphasis in different ways, playing with proportions, level of details and colour.

Colour is a great way to emphasise certain areas of a sketch and to start experimenting with drawing attention to certain areas of a sketch.  To start playing with this technique try the following:

  1. Only colour the foreground elements, leave the background as outlines.
  2. Only use one colour in your painting, for example, just paint certain things red and leave everything else as outlines.  See Simone Ridyard’s work as an example of using selective colour.
  3. If you are painting a scene, try using colour on all of the buildings and trees but leave any people or cars as negative shapes with no colour or details at all, just the outline contour of the object. Danny Hawk does this really well in his work.
  4. Use shades of grey and black to colour your sketch and use colour on a key object or feature.
  5. Paint the sky with a really bright colour, such as yellow or pink (something other than blue) and then use shades of the colour opposite to your sky colour on the colour wheel for the rest of the sketch.  For example, if you paint the sky yellow, use shades of purple to colour the rest of your sketch.

How to Add Contrast to your Sketch

A common mistake beginners make is not creating enough contrast in their sketch.  Everything feels a bit flat.

What do we mean by contrast?

To ensure you have lots of contrast in your sketch you need to make sure your lights are very light and your darks are very dark.  This is a very simplistic explanation but it’s all we really need to keep in mind. This can apply to both colour values but also to mark-making (such as the use of line weight and cross-hatching).  

Do not be scared to use very dark shadows.  Do not be afraid to paint dark shadow values over your sketch.  You may feel hesitant to paint over your beautiful sketch but be bold and take risks.  I think you will find the addition of strong shadow shapes will make your sketch really pop.  

Conversely, it can be really hard to leave the white of the paper for intended highlights when you get painting.  A great way around this is to use a white gel pen or white gouache right at the end of the sketch just to add a few pops of white in a few areas.  Exercise restraint!  It can be tempting to overuse white.

Another tip to help create contrast is to make sure you paint in layers. This is something that alluded me when I was starting out with watercolours.  I thought the sketch should look fantastic with one pass of watercolour and didn’t understand why my painting looked flat and ‘washed out’.  I wondered how other sketchers achieved such vibrant colours and contrast.

The first pass of your watercolours will tend to look flat. In order to tackle this you need to build up the layers, working from the lightest values through to the darkest.

For more essential watercolour painting tips for urban sketchers, check out this post.

When I started out, I think I knew this advice in my head but forgot to put it into practice.  This is why investing in decent quality watercolour paper is essential.  You need to be able to go over your painting in a few layers.  Poor quality watercolour paper will not be able to handle this.

There are other factors as to why you watercolour sketch or painting may appear flat too.  We will explore this in more depth in another post.

If you are sketching in pen and ink only, there are still ways to create contrast (and therefore depth) in your sketch.

One such way is to vary your line weight.  This means using thinner pen lines for some areas of your sketch, and thicker lines in other areas.  

How do you know where to use thin lines and where to use thick lines?

Alphonso Dunn has a great video on how, why and where to vary your line weights in a drawing that I recommend watching.

Use thicker lines to outline areas that are in shadow and to suggest weight.  Thicker lines give an object more visual weight, and therefore emphasis, as we discussed earlier.

Use thicker lines to describe objects that are closer to you and thinner lines for objects further into the background.  This creates a sense of depth as well as contrast.

Final Thoughts…

I hope this post was valuable and helped by giving you a roadmap on how to get started with a sketch each and every time.  The idea is to help you get unstuck and give a structure (if you need it) on how to get going.

If you’d like to stay in touch and receive more urban sketching bounty direct to your inbox, including inside information on some of the urban sketching projects I’m working on and how you could do the same, pop your email address in below. I only email twice a month, promise!

Recent Posts