Do you admire the simplicity of an urban sketch done solely with a pen?
Would you love to ditch your supplies from time to time and know that you could nail a sketch with nothing but a sketchbook and pen?
Do you want to know how to make a sketch with just these basic materials look great even though there’s no colour?
If you are looking for some inspiration as to how to simplify your urban sketching, try and get back to basics or know you can sketch anywhere anytime with just a pen, then this post is for you.
Why urban sketch with just a pen?
You may think you need loads of stuff to make a beautiful sketch each and every time but some of my favourite urban sketchers are those that simply sketch in ink, usually with one or a limited number of pens.
In fact, seeing such work is what sucked me into the world of urban sketching in the first place.
What if you could confidently take to the streets with a sketchbook and pen, knowing you can capture things around you without fussing over watercolour paint, a pot of water, which brush to use, wiping your brush on your jeans because you forgot a paper towel…and all the other distractions that come along with excess sketching materials.
The feeling of liberation from using minimal sketching tools is real. You are far more likely to sketch every time you leave the house if you only have a sketchbook and pen to do it with.
And then when you’ve really installed the habit and built the confidence to sketch wherever you are you can expand your tools.
Perhaps you need a bit of a ‘hard reset’ like shutting the computer down and unplugging it from the wall. Count to 10. Plug back in and switch on.
I think this is what leaving all your kit at home and just grabbing a small sketchbook and pen can do for you.
In fact, I may go on a watercolour detox soon and just use nothing but a pen for a week or so, or for like my next 10 sketches. I’m game, are you?!
Keep an eye on the Youtube channel to check out my results!
Materials for urban sketching with just a pen
A pen. Or pens.
Ok, ok, joking aside. I mean this is all you need but I like to try to be a little more helpful than that.
I think a small A6 (3×5 inches-ish) sketchbook is so beautifully portable. It literally can fit in your back pocket or handbag (purse for US folks). How cool is that? You can carry it EVERYWHERE.
If you prefer working a little larger or your eyesight isn’t what it once was, carry an A5 (5 x 8 inches – I think?!) book with you.
As you’re only intending to use a pen, then you do not need anything special, a sketchbook with some ‘normal’ paper in is fine. However, if you only want to do the pen experiment for a little while then go back to using your normal supplies (watercolour, markers etc) then you can just use the sketchbook you normally would.
I think psychologically a small cheap sketchbook helps to loosen up but maybe that’s just me.
Some of my favourite small sketchbooks for ink-only drawings are:
- Hahnemuhle Nostalgie Sketchbook (US | UK/EU)
- Stillman & Birn Alpha (US | UK/EU)
- Daler Rowney Hardback Sketchbook (US | UK/EU)
And don’t forget, sketching on tinted paper with just a pen can look great too, so here are some options on sketchbooks with tinted paper too:
- Stillman & Birn Nova series (US | UK/EU)
- Hahnemuhle The Grey Book (US | UK/EU)
- Hahnemuhle Capuccino Book (US | UK/EU)
- Strathmore 400 Series Recycled Toned Sketchbook (US | UK/EU)
If you’d like to read more about sketching on toned paper, check out my post here.
Ok, we could easily go down a rabbit hole here but I’m going to keep it brief as I want to get to the more inspirational part of this post!
You can use anything from a standard ballpoint pen through to a fancy gold nib fountain pen.
I think ballpoint pens are fun because you can actually achieve shading with them depending on your angle and pressure.
I love sketching with a fountain pen because (a) it looks cool – ha! and (b) for some reason it helps me to loosen up when I sketch. I’m not sure why but it does.
For more information on sketching with a fountain pen, you can check out my post here.
Another popular type of pen is a fineliner or technical pen. This is what I first started out with. Most urban sketchers will use this type of pen because they generally have waterproof ink in them, so they’re great for use with watercolours.
Fineliners come in a variety of line weights, so you would need to switch pen in order to achieve a different line weight. These pens have very consistent line weights as they are used for technical drawing (hence the name technical pen).
You can buy these pens in sets. The most popular brands are Pigma Microns, UniPins and Copic Multiliners but there are many options out there.
- Pigma Micron – set of 6 (US | UK/EU)
- Uni Pin – set of 6 (US | UK/EU)
- Copic Multiliners – set of 7 (US | UK/EU)
A black brush pen is super useful to block in big areas of colour in a sketch. When sketching only in pen and ink, contrast will you be your biggest help to achieve depth. Solid areas of black will help with this. A Pentel brush pen is a great option as it takes cartridges, meaning it’s refillable.
You could also carry a few markers in shades of grey if you want to add a tad more to your sketch than just ink lines. Don’t overdo it, 1 or 2 shades of grey will do the job. Faber Castell Pitt pens are a good choice as they are filled with India ink, they don’t bleed through the page of your sketchbook, they don’t smell and they are waterproof (just in case you get caught in the rain)!
I felt like I should touch on traditional dip pens. I have never used one myself and obviously, they don’t strike me as particularly convenient for urban sketching but nonetheless, I think you can create interesting effects with them and you may want to check them out.
Dip pens can be lots of fun because the nib is so flexible you can achieve a variety of line weights depending on the pressure you exert and the angle you sketch at.
Examples of Urban Sketching With a Pen
When I saw the work of James Hobbs, I got so excited. This was before I even knew what urban sketching was, or that there was an entire world of people recording life in a sketchbook. His use of a black marker with simple thick lines depicting the London skyline drew me in immediately.
I was so inspired.
I want to pass that inspiration on to you. Or rekindle it if you also had that feeling before too. It’s so easy to get sucked into multiple art supplies and complicated techniques, sometimes a return to ‘basics’ or simplifying things can really ignite something.
James Hobbs has written the book on and pen and ink sketching. No, seriously, it’s called Pen & Ink (you can find it on Amazon). The book features not only his own artwork but over 34 other artists too from all over the world.
James is well-know for carrying a sketchbook and thick black marker pen to record the world around him, from architecture through to protests.
He inspired me from the very start, the less you have the more you sketch. I also get the feeling from him that things don’t need to be perfect, just get it down. Don’t worry about perspective, just use you eyes and observe.
I find this liberating and as a beginner, it encouraged me to get out there and start sketching. Incidentally, his other book, Sketch Your World is one of my favourite books on urban sketching. To see what my other picks are, check out this post.
I first came across Will Kemp when I was a lynda.com subscriber (old school!) and he had a course on there about urban sketching, which was pretty amazing considering the type of content on the platform.
Will has his own online art school and teaches a multitude of mediums, however, he remains a passionate urban sketcher.
You can check out his youtube video below in which he demonstrates how he approaches an urban sketch in pen and ink. He shows the 4 pens he uses and why. It’s an excellent primer on urban sketching in pen.
I love Ian Sidaway’s watercolour work, it’s so graphic. I came across Ian Sidaway through Sketchbook Skool. He has produced a number of books teaching watercolour techniques. But another aspect of his work that really caught my attention was his fineline sketches.
I think I came across them by accident on Pinterest of all places. I followed the breadcrumbs and realised Ian has a whole blog displaying his fineline sketches, mostly of trees. It’s fabulous to rummage through his numerous sketches over the years, you can check it out here.
What I found most useful about looking at his sketches is how he used hatching to achieve texture, contrast and visual interest.
If you’re interested in keeping your own fineliner sketchbook of trees, I found the video below a super useful tutorial in capturing them in pen and ink. It’s a great project as there are pretty much trees everywhere, they’re a fairly universal subject matter. Oh…and they don’t move!
I’m totally in love with Rolf’s work. Similarly to James Hobbs, he tends to use a thick black lines in his sketchbook. I particularly love his sketches of crowds such as the one below.
Rolf tends to capture everyday scenes to tell a story. He has a book available called One Hour Wait, published by Pushing Your Sketching Boundaries. The book collects over 2 years worth of Rolf’s sketches done while he waited at the bus station in Berlin. You find a copy here from the publisher.
I love Dwayne’s sketches of commuters on the bus. A true proponent of a one pen and a small sketchbook he has an incredible knack of capturing such a strong sense of character.
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Pen & Ink Techniques
This could and should be an entire blog post in it’s own right but we will just cover the different techniques to be aware of and I shall give you some great resources to check out to expand your knowledge in each area.
One of THE best free resources I have come across when it comes to drawing in pen is Alphonso Dunn’s youtube channel. I’m fairly confident you are probably already aware of Alphonso but if not, I urge you to go and binge watch his videos. He even has a series specifically on urban sketching. AND he has an entire book dedicated to sketching in pen and ink. It’s called Pen & Ink Drawing. You can find it here on Amazon.
This is an excellent video by Alphonso Dunn to get started with in order to understand shading in pen and ink and the different kinds of mark-making you can use to achieve this:
Hatching and Cross Hatching
Alphonso Dunn really does dominate Youtube in terms of pen and ink tutorials but for the sake of variation and the incredible effect hatching and cross-hatching can be used to, check out the phenomenal work of illustrator Dan Nelson below. He explains his hatching process as well as working with a dip pen which I found interesting to learn more about.
Conveying texture in pen and ink is vital to make your sketch look more realistic and more dynamic. The video below is part 2 of Mr Dunn’s teaching on how to achieve texture with pen and ink, however, I think this lesson is a little more engaging as he gets into creating texture on different forms and achieve light and shadow, otherwise, as he points out, texture is just drawing a pattern.
Did you know I have a book?
The 60-page PDF ebook contains over 130 of my ink and watercolour illustrations from the last 3 years of my travels through 15 countries across 4 continents!
I hope this post has given you a lot of value in terms of inspiration as well as practical advice to action.
Personally, I’m keen to get out there and start my fineliner sketchbook project of trees!! Ha ha.
If you would like to see more from me, please do check out my Youtube channel. If you would like to hear from me once or twice a month, then please do join my sketchy newsletter! Pop your email in the box below and I’ll send you occasional golden nuggets of urban sketching-related goodness right to your inbox.