The Best Places for Urban Sketching


What is Urban Sketching?

Urban sketching is the practice of sketching on location to record the world around you. This basically means sketching from life but generally with an emphasis on capturing a story, rather than a deliberately placed still life, for example. 

A non-profit organisation called Urban Sketchers grew from people around the world sketching on location sharing the work across the internet, firstly on the photo-sharing site, Flickr and then through a blog. 

To get a better idea of what ‘Urban Sketchers’ are all about you can read their manifesto here.

Do not be mislead by the term ‘urban’ – you do not need to live in a city and sketch city things. Many urban sketchers live in rural areas, or next  to the ocean and sketch landscapes or more nature-based subject matter. They are still sketching from life and recording the world around them. 

I think it’s easy for people to get hung up on terminology unnecessarily – people may call themselves all sorts of things – a travel sketcher, a nature journaler, a plein-air painter etc. While there are many similarities between all of those things, there are slight differences too.

But, who cares? They are just terms. Sketch from life, record the world around you. That’s all you need to know.

What Makes a Good Place for Urban Sketching?

Urban sketching can be done anywhere, any time. However, the things I look for in an interesting place to sketch are as follows:

  • Visual interest
  • Historical/political/geographical significance
  • There’s a story to tell
  • Lots to draw without leaving one spot – people, buildings, animals, foliage, etc
  • Busy places can be useful so you go undetected / people don’t notice you so much
  • Somewhere to sit – you can bring your own stool but that will make you stand out. This may not be a concern to you but for some people it is, so well placed benches are always a bonus
  • Lots of different vantage points or angles to draw different things from
  • Comfortable weather
  • Indoor options if the weather turns or is not good to start with

The Best Places for Urban Sketching

Below is a list of my top 10 favourite places to sketch.

Sketch From the Car

There are many bonuses to sketching from the inside of your car:

  • It’s mobile, you can park it anywhere.
  • You are in your own private bubble, no one can stand behind you and watch or comment.
  • It’s warm and dry, making it an excellent option for winter.
  • There’s the interior of the car to draw too!

Sketch On the Beach

From the cold to the warm…

Sketching on the beach is a great place to draw people. A lot of people are sunning themselves, reading books or sleeping so they stay still for long periods of time. Perfect targets!

People do also move around though, kids run and play, build sandcastles etc

You can draw the landscape itself, you can take a walk and find some interesting cliffs or scenery.

There are a number of other things on the beach to draw: lifeguards, dogs, seagulls, shells, seaweed. Get creative!

Murray Dewhurst, a.k.a kiwisketcher, took his Hahnemuhle The Grey Book to the beach and sketched a variety of subjects across a double-page spread with his trusty Posca markers.

Ramiro Fernandez Criado took another approach and sketched the entire beach scene in his sketchbook. I really like the mood he captured. The indistinct grey buildings that recede into the background are particularly effective in telling the story.

Sketch In a Cafe

I haven’t done too much cafe sketching myself but it’s something I really do want to do more of.

Of course, you have a wealth of humans to draw in all manner of situations. They are mostly in the same positions as they will be drinking, eating, chatting or working for a while. 

If you want to challenge yourself you could try and draw people coming in for takeout coffee as quickly as possible before they leave.

You can also draw your cup of tea or coffee (think Liz Steel), as well as any food you may order or even the condiments on the table.

If you’re feeling like attempting an even bigger challenge, you could try to draw the interior of the cafe to capture the whole scene, like @ngdiknam did in the sketch below.

Sketch In the Airport / On a Plane

This could also include bus or train stations as well as being on the transport themselves. Anywhere where you have to wait a couple of hours is a prime place to whip out your sketchbook. Again there will be plenty of people to draw sitting around doing nothing and not really moving very much.

You could draw the aeroplane (or bus or train if its there), the interior of the waiting room, or pull out very specific details from a scene that strike you and section them off in various parts of sketchbook spread so that together they tell a story. Like Lapin, you could even include some speech bubbles of funny or interesting snippets of conversation you overhear.

If you would like to read more on designing a dynamic sketchbook spread, check out this post.

Sketch In a Museum 

Once more, lots of people sketching opportunities at museums although they will be less likely to be sitting around, however, it could be a challenge to try and sketch people passing through the exhibits.

The exhibits themselves are excellent subject matter to draw. For example, if you visit the Natural History Museum there will be lots of animals, skeletons and bones to draw, they won’t be moving so this is a great way to sketch them.

Sketch at a Vintage Car Fair

If cars are your thing, or if you want to try and get better at sketching cars, visiting a vintage car fair is an excellent way to draw super interesting old cars. Again, they won’t be moving anywhere for a while if they’re on show so you can sit and sketch them for a while without fear. You may even find the owner wants to buy the sketch from you! It can and does happen.

If you feel a bit intimidated about sketching in public this way, never fear, it is totally normal. If people do talk to you it’s generally to say nice things. You can always say you are an art student (no matter your age) and you’re practising/completing an assignment. It takes a bit of the pressure off if they think you’re learning…which to be honest, we all are.

If you want some more tips on overcoming the fear of sketching in public, check out this post.

Sketch At Home

If we learned anything from 2020 as urban sketchers it was that there are a million things to sketch at home!

You could sketch:

  • Each room of the house, like Ian Fennelly during lockdown. I also had a go, you can check out my sketch of the living room on Youtube here.
  • Sketch the garden – you can watch me sketching our garden on Youtube here
  • Family members
  • Pets
  • The food you make
  • House plants
  • The garage
  • Your car
  • Gardening equipment
  • The contents of your bathroom cabinet
  • Self-portraits

The list could very much go on. For more inspiration about urban sketching at home, check out my post here.

Sketch at a Festival

It could be a music, arts, literary or any kind of festival – it doesn’t matter. There will be so much going on there will be no shortage of things to draw. You could even turn it into a reportage project and create a narrative around the time spent sketching there. You could even turn it into an ebook. 

If you want to know more about reportage illustration, check out this post.

If you would like to know more about how to make an illustrated PDF ebook, then I have a post about how I made my book right here.

If you would like to know more about or purchase my ebook which contains over 130 of my ink and watercolour sketches from 3 years worth of travels around the world, you can do so here.

Sketch While Waiting for Anything

You will never be bored waiting for anything ever again as long as you have your sketchbook and a pen with you.

You can sketch while waiting for:

  • doctor/dentist
  • at the bank
  • passport/driving license renewals
  • post office
  • anywhere where there’s a queue
  • laundrette
  • a friend
  • public transport

You can even try to sketch while getting your hair done!

Sketching on Holiday/While Travelling

This is hands down my favourite time to sketch. I travel by myself a lot so not only do I spend a lot of time alone or waiting for things, I only have my own schedule to worry about so I can take as long as I want in certain areas to sketch whatever I want.

Sketching while taking a trip can form a really beautiful journal-like sketchbook, recording the moments you took the time to sketch and bringing back sharper recall of where you were and what you were doing while making those sketches.

If you would like to know more about how to start and keep your own travel sketchbook, check out my post here.

You can also take a look at several of my travel sketchbooks on the Urban Sketching World Youtube channel.

Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed this post and found it useful. Let me know where your favourite places to sketch are, tag me over on Instagram – @urbansketchingworld

If you want to get a peek at my personal sketches, I post every other day over on Instagram, come say hi! @lookingouttosee_ 

If you want a copy of my travel sketches from all over the world between 2017 – 2020, you can grab it here! 20% of the proceeds of this book go to the awesome charity Cool Earth, a charity that works alongside rainforest communities to halt deforestation and its impact on climate change.

If you would like to stay in touch and hear what weird and wonderful things will be going on in this here urban sketching world then join my newsletter by popping your email address in the box below. I email once or twice a month maximum with interesting urban sketching-related treasures.

What to Read Next...