What should you have in your urban sketching kit?
I thought about how my urban sketching kit had evolved from when I first started to now, in 2023. I also thought about how my urban sketching kit differs if I’m staying near home with only sketching things in my backpack versus travelling overseas when I have limited space and am carrying all my other things such as clothes, toiletries and my laptop.
Here are the things I have in my urban sketching kit:
- Stillman & Birn Beta 8 x 10 sketchbook
- White Nights Watercolour Tin (14 colours)
- Mechanical pencil
- Lamy Safari fountain pen
- Sailor fude nib fountain pen
- Platinum carbon black waterproof ink (to refill the fountain pens)
- Pentel waterbrush
- Escoda Travel Watercolour round brush size #10
- Rosemary & Co Dagger Travel brush
- A mixture of fineliner pens (brands and sizes)
- Pentel Pocket brush pen
- White gel pen
Wow, it wasn’t until I listed everything out that I realised I have way too much stuff, ha ha.
Which sketching supplies did I upgrade and invest more money in?
- Invested more money in my sketchbook. I am a very big fan of Stillman & Birn sketchbooks, particularly the Beta series and the Zeta series. The 8 x 10 inch book may be a little large to carry around depending on your trip and what else you’re carrying but they’re available in all different sizes. The paper is excellent though and a big step up from a cheaper book such as a Moleskine watercolour album.
- Upgraded from using student-quality watercolour paints to artist-grade paints. I went from using Winsor & Newton Cotman to artist-grade Winsor & Newton paints and now I actually use White Nights but this may change again as I explore different brands. This feeds into my next point…
- Tried out making my own pans of paints from tube watercolours. I bought this Daniel Smith set of essential colours, 3 warm shades and 3 cold shades of the primary colours. I watched some Youtube videos on how to best turn the tube paints into solid pans so I could create my own custom paint set.
- Invested money into watercolour brushes. After a lot of research, I selected Escoda watercolour travel brushes in three different sizes: #2, #6 and #10 – after a few years I can tell you I only use the #10!!
- I bought a Rosemary & Co dagger brush, mainly because Liz Steel sings their praises so much…and they do a travel brush version! Yay! This is one of my most essential brushes.
- White gel pen & white gouache. Lapin uses a white gel pen to great effect, he uses it to outline buildings or faces sometimes and it looks great. They are useful to add a few delicate highlights. I find white gouache so much fun to use, especially when trying to paint water. See my sketch below of the Twelve Apostles – I used a white gel pen and white gouache to give this effect.
Check out my ebooks with hundreds of ink & watercolour travel sketches from all over the world. Get some inspiration for your next trip…
My Top 3 Recommendations to Upgrade Your Urban Sketching Kit
This would definitely be the first thing I would recommend upgrading. Get a sketchbook with the best paper you can afford. 100% cotton paper is arguably the best quality you can get for watercolour sketching but it’s hard to find sketchbooks with this type of paper and if you do, they are very expensive. Most widely-available watercolour sketchbooks are a blend. The higher the percentage of cotton the better (and more expensive the book).
I would very much recommend trying out Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. Strathmore or Hahnemuhle sketchbooks are also good options. I have not tried them personally but they both have an excellent reputation and I have seen many other urban sketchers use them.
Check out my post about the best sketchbook for urban sketching for more detailed information.
I think you can get along for a while with student quality paints if you are using good paper. I have seen a professional artist using student quality paints but on high-quality paper to great effect.
However, I did see a very satisfying difference by switching to artist-grade paints, predominantly the vibrancy. Pair this with a decent sketchbook and it really does lift your sketching to the next level.
It makes sense that artist-grade paints are more vibrant. The key difference between student and artist grade paints is the amount of pigment used in the paints.
I saw a particular difference when I purchased my first Daniel Smith paints (the essentials kit). They are so incredibly vibrant and punchy, up to that point in my sketching journey I didn’t know watercolour paint could be so bright and bold!
With this set of paints (3 warm primary colour and 3 cool primary colours) you can produce so many different colours, arguably everything you need really.
If you get a set like this, the first thing you should do is make a colour mixing chart like below so you can get first hand experience on how the colours work together and what colours and shades you can get by mixing them together in different quantities.
Doing this exercise improved my knowledge of colour mixing instantly. It’s not the same watching someone else doing it, or grasping the concept theoretically…DO the exercise yourself! Plus…it’s fun!
Do you want to learn how to sketch your own adventures in ink & watercolour?
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I will show you my exact sketching process in ink and watercolour. I have travelled around the world in the last 3 years and this is my go-to system of creating beautiful yet quirky illustrations to capture the magic of my discoveries.
We will work through 3 projects, step by step (pictured below), all of which are real-life examples of things I have sketched along my travels. I provide the photo references you can work from.
We will start by choosing a composition, laying in the initial pencil sketch, adding ink lines, layering watercolour and adding the final touches.
This and much more are included in my course, Sketch Your Adventures, click the button under the image to find out more!
For a long time I was just using the Pentel Waterbrushes that have a hollow handle you can fill with water. As you squeeze the handle water comes through the nylon brush fibres and you can paint. It takes a bit of practice to get the amount of force required to squeeze the handle to get the amount of water you require. But once you get the hang of it these brushes can be your best friend for travelling light and sketching on the move. What I will say, if you are going to buy these brushes, but the Pentel brushes, or ones of an equivalent value/brand quality, like Derwent. I made the mistake of buying super cheap craft waterbrushes initially and they just do not work. Squeeze the handle and water just goes everywhere.
Obviously waterbrushes are never going to be able to compete with expensive watercolour brushes and won’t give you the high-quality results you may want to achieve if you’re looking to push your urban sketching (or general watercolour painting) skills to the next level.
I still wanted paintbrushes that were convenient to travel with though. This is when I discovered travel brushes that detach in the middle and the brush part can turn around and sit inside the hollow handle so the bristles are protected. Genius.
There are some extremely high quality (and expensive) watercolour brushes on the market made with real animal hair, made with synthetic materials or made with a blend. To go deep into the differences between them are beyond the scope of this article. The most important thing for a watercolour brush (in my opinion) is that they can hold a decent amount of water and they do not lose their shape, i.e. they still go back into a point.
After a bit of research, and taking into consideration my budget I decided on Escoda Reserva brushes.
The art store I wanted to buy them from had sold out of the set I had my eye on, but I realised I could buy the brushes individually to form my own set of 3 for about the same price. I think what took me longest was to try and decide what sizes of brush I needed. It’s really hard to make this decision based on photographs on websites.
Again based on a bit of research to see what brush sizes other urban sketchers I like use, I decided on a small brush for details (#2) and medium-size brush (#6) and a big brush for washes (#10).
I am into my second year of owning these 3 brushes and can honestly say I made the right decision firstly on spending this amount of money (approximately £50 / US$75 for the three brushes) but also the sizes I picked. They cover every situation I need.
Some of my favourite online classes
- Exploratory Sketchbook: Find Your Drawing Style – Sarah Van Dongen
- Experimental Watercolour Techniques For Beginners – Ana Santos
- Creative Watercolour Sketching for Beginners – Laura McKendry
- Watercolor Portrait Sketchbook – Carlos Rodriguez Casado