Can you practice urban sketching from photos?


Urban sketching using photos is not really urban sketching. The definition of urban sketching is drawing on location (inside or outside) from direct observation to record the world around you.

However, you can practice the skills required for urban sketching by using photo reference. Sometimes there are very valid reasons as to why you may want or even need to sketch from a photo rather than sketching on location.

People can get very hung up on terminology and labels…forget that, sketching is sketching. It’s great to have a label to band those who sketch on location together but this is not used to exclude people who, for whatever reasons, cannot always get out to sketch on location.

I’m certain urban sketchers organisation would always favour inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

Some people may not be able to sketch on location every time they want to for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Lockdown restrictions
  • Bad weather
  • Temporary or permanent disability which prevents mobility
  • Age – too young or too old to sketch outdoors alone or wherever they want
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of transport

What if you would work on improving your urban sketching fundamentals from the comfort of your own home?

It can be pretty scary sketching out in the world, especially if you are new to the activity or if you’re feeling a bit rusty.

Practising some key techniques at home using photo reference can build the confidence to get out there and record your world.

The best news is I have a ton of advice and resources that can help improve your urban sketching skills and get you out and about in no time!

By sketching from photos you can build your confidence to take your sketching skills to the outside world as well as learning what to look for in a scene.

If you are interested in learning more about how to practice urban sketching at home, check out this post.

For further inspiration and encouragement, join my 7 Day Urban Sketching at Home Challenge by joining my mailing list. Just enter your email address in the box below and you will receive a daily prompt of what to sketch including a demo video of me sketching the same prompt:

Why practice urban sketching from photos?

There are a variety of reasons why you may not be able to get out to sketch in the real world, I mentioned a few in the section above.

There are some real benefits to practicing urban sketching from home and from photos:

  • Time to work on the fundamentals of drawing
  • An atmosphere free from real or perceived judgement
  • You can sketch a variety of subjects you may not otherwise get a chance to sketch in real life
  • You can virtually sketch anywhere on the planet thanks to the Internet
  • Study a photo to find a good composition
  • Practice with a variety of mediums that would be too much to carry out on location
  • Experiment with different techniques
  • Develop your own style
  • Build confidence with constant practice

What are the disadvantages of sketching from photos?

Practicing sketching from photos is fantastic but as stated it’s not urban sketching itself, which may not matter to you whatsoever, there is no pressure from anyone to engage in urban sketching.

However, if you do want to try urban sketching then there is no substitute to getting out there with your sketchbook and drawing from life.

Sketching from photos is not the same as urban sketching because:

  • You don’t get the same immediacy as you do as sketching on location
  • You need to quickly respond to the world around you, make quick decisions and use your intuition
  • You need to learn to look for the right angle and the story by physically moving around and positioning yourself
  • You can’t perceive the same amount of detail from a photo as real life
  • It’s difficult to capture atmosphere unless you are sketching from real life, where you can perceive the scene with all 5 of your senses
  • It’s hard to tell a story when all you are seeing is what the photographer decided was important
  • There is no way to do reportage using photos
  • You have to learn to edit and think on your feet when sketching from life

Word of Caution

This may be a little pedantic to mention but be cautious about copyright infringement. This only matters if you’re creating a sketch directly from a photo that you then go on to sell. If you are using photographs just to practice your sketching, then go for it. But if you do intend to sell any sketches done directly from photographs, it becomes a bit of a grey area in terms of copyright. So just be careful! 

How to practice urban sketching from photos

Find a photo resource

I like to find a whole bunch of photos I can sketch from and save them so I don’t have to find a photo every time I sit down to sketch. This saves time and decision fatigue as you already have a choice collection ready to go.

Places to find photos to use for sketching:

  • Your own photo collection
  • Royalty-free photo websites such as unsplash.com, pexels.com
  • Google Maps – using street view you can zoom in and look at buildings in locations anywhere in the world.
  • Pinterest is such a great resource, I have a board called Sketching Reference which you are most welcome to follow and use photos from (none of them are my photos but you there’s no problem to use them as sketching reference).

Edit your photo reference

Even though you are working from a photo, you can still compose it how you see fit.

Don’t be afraid to adjust the photo by cropping it, enhance the contrast to make it easier for you to identify the darkest darks and lightest lights or make it black and white for example if you want to practice making a monochromatic sketch.

Make the most of working from a photo by manipulating it to fit your practice session.

Most photo libraries on your computer or phone come with basic (and even advanced) editing functions that will allow you to change a variety of different elements.

Experiment with different mediums

Make the most of being at home and sketching from a photo by using the time to experiment with different mediums. You may always reach for the same supplies but by changing things up you may discover you actually prefer a different medium, or it may make you more confident in using your usual supplies.

For inspiration on urban sketching with different mediums, check out these posts:

Urban sketching with markers

What You Need To Know About Urban Sketching with Gouache

Urban sketching with watercolour pencils

Urban sketching in pen and ink

Experiment with techniques

As well as experimenting with different mediums, you can also experiment with different techniques.

In the video below, I sketched a house from a photo I found on Pinterest (which you can find on my Sketching Reference board I mentioned earlier). I decided to do a tight illustration but once I had done so I really felt like trying the same subject again but approaching it in a completely different way.

I splashed some watercolour down, blocked in some of the big shapes with wet in wet technique and once it was all dry I drew with my fountain pen on top and then added some more paint after that.

Be bold, you have the time and resources to do whatever you want when you are practicing at home. Make the most of it!

Here are some ideas of how to go about experimenting with different techniques to get you started:

  • Tight and detailed line drawing
  • Loose sketchy line drawing
  • Sketching directly in watercolour, no lines!
  • Splashing some watercolour down and then drawing on top
  • Monochromatic sketch
  • Use a limited palette of colours – read more about that in this post

Study Urban Sketching Styles

Take a look at some different styles of urban sketching. Analyse what makes each style so distinctive. Take some inspiration from a different style each time you sketch so you are trying out different ways of doing things. This is an excellent way of making the most of your practice time.

For example, take inspiration from Liz Steel and sketch very loose and quick directly in watercolour.

Or, take a look at Ian Fennelly’s work and see how he interprets a scene with layering grey markers and expressive colours.

How about James Hobbs who tends to draw entire scenes with a thick black marker?

Have you checked out Stephen Reddy’s work? He draws detailed scenes but in a bubbly cartoony way which is so fun to look at.

Or maybe you prefer a slightly tighter and more accurate style like Stephanie Bower who is an architectural illustrator, urban sketcher and master of perspective.

When you sit down to sketch from a photo, think about how you can get the most out of your sketching practice. By taking inspiration from different sketchers and their styles you are more likely to stumble across different ways of doing things that you enjoy and that may blend together to intuitively become your own style.  

Join a Virtual Group

For regular inspiration, encouragement and social interaction you could join a group online who engage in ‘virtual sketchwalks’. The most popular I know of is the Virtual Sketchwalk Facebook group, they have over 1,000 members from all over the world. It’s a very active group that provides ideas on themes, locations and photos to sketch from.

You can join in and sketch from the photos provided or just use it as a place to show others sketches you have done or both. Anyone can join the group, just make sure you adhere to the rules and make sure you are posting relevant sketches to the group.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post has been useful to you and given you some ideas to think about further.

If you are at home and can’t get out for whatever reason at the moment do consider practicing your urban sketching skills recording the things around you in your sketchbook from direct observation.

If you don’t know where to start or want a bit of inspiration, join my Urban Sketching At Home 7 Day Challenge!

I guarantee you will be a more confident urban sketcher by the end of it.

If you would like to join in, click here and enter your email address. I will send a challenge each day along with a video of me sketching too!

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