5 Awesome Watercolour Exercises to Improve Your Urban Sketching

Have you wondered how you can practice your watercolour skills but not in a boring traditional way? Well, check out these 5 gems to get you comfortable with those tricksy paints…

1. Make a Mixing chart

Before you do anything. Make a watercolour mixing chart (see my post on how to do this here). Ok, I know, I bang on about this all the time so I won’t labour the point further. I have a video of me making a mixing chart with my White Nights paints (with terrible audio – I apologise).

I just have not got around to making a newer version yet. But you still get the idea. I also have a video where I make a chart from the Daniel Smiths Essential Set.

And then one step further on from this I have a video using the same Daniel Smith set showing how to mix neutrals.

So – lots of colour mixing but it is so much fun and there is literally no better way to learn what you can do with your watercolour set.

Ok that watercolour exercise was more along the traditional lines but you really should do it, I promise you, it will be the biggest jump forward in using watercolours you’ll make. Stick with me for the next few suggestions as they’re less conventional and super fun.

2. Pareidolia Exercise – Felix Scheinburger

This next exercise comes from Felix Scheinburger’s Domestika class, Artistic Watercolour Sketching. I am a huge fan of Felix and was SO excited when he released his Domestika class. If you need a bit of a kick up the bum to let go and express yourself and not worry about the end result….Felix is your man.

Felix Scheinburger Domestika

In the class, he shows a fun exercise where you can make random splashes of colour (well – he uses coffee but that’s sacrilege in my book) and then turn them into things. This is a great way to warm up and loosen up – and – just have FUN.

3. When Colours Bleed – Laura McKendry

If you want some more expansive inspiration than the nuggets I am sharing in this video I highly recommend checking out a class by Laura McKendry, a well-respected illustrator, artist and art educator. She teaches at one of the top art schools in Europe. Her class, Creative Watercolour Sketching for Beginners is an excellent source of inspiration. Her course is absolutely laden with fun exercises you can try with watercolour. One of my favourites is ”when colours bleed” – this is a great way to explore wet in wet techniques and record what different colours do…

Harmonious colours

Start by choosing 3 or 4 harmonious colours (colours that would sit near each other on a colour wheel, or are variations on the same hue (colour)). You might want to mix these up on your palette before you start painting. Explore different ways of combining these colours, by placing colours next to each other, in different orders/different quantities, in different concentrations of paint – allowing them to bleed into each other. Fill a double page in your sketchbook with a line that meanders across your page, circles or straight lines, or any choice of abstract shape you like.

Discordant colours

In contrast to the first part of this task, see what happens when you apply a neutral or dilute ‘dirty’ colour to your page followed by a vivid colour or colours. Choose a vibrant colour or combination of colours – remember they will need to be more concentrated (more pigment, less water) than usual because you are adding them to a wash which will dilute them a little. Keep this simple, painting circles, abstract shapes or stripes in tones of grey, before adding in colours. Try adding one colour at a time, or play around with a couple.

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4. Paint in Monochrome

For this exercise pick one colour. Using that one colour try painting a simple object. Laura McKendry paints a paper aeroplane in her class (the one I mentioned above). Try and find a simple subject that has distinct lights and shadows. That will help you to paint it with just one colour.

You can also blend the previous exercise into this and add a second colour in wet in wet. I really enjoyed the results and it’s a good way to practice quick watercolour people sketching too!

Speaking of people sketching – have you heard of peoplesketching.com?! It is the ONLY (and best) video library of people in motion specifically aimed at sketchers. So if you want to practice your people sketching, head over to peoplesketching.com.


Take it a step further and try painting a whole scene with one colour! That’s what I did with this scene of London.

You can find a black and white photo, or make a photo black and white and this will help you paint a monochromatic scene from it. This is obviously a more advanced exercise but it’s so useful to help with understanding tone: i.e. lights and shadows.

Some of my favourite online classes

5. Abstract Watercolour Backgrounds – Jenny Adams

Ok, so this one is more of a suggested way of starting a sketch and I have been having SO much fun with it lately. I think I may be a bit addicted. Ha. It is something I have done and also shown before but recently I have been really getting into it thanks to watching a class by German urban sketcher Jenny Adams, called Modern Urban Sketching Techniques with Mixed Media. Basically, it involves painting random abstract backgrounds in watercolour and then drawing on top.

More specifically – I pre-painted 3 different sketchbook spreads. I actually feel like I painted my backgrounds too brightly. I think it’s better if they are a bit more subtle. I got a bit carried away with my Ecoline Liquid watercolours so bear that in mind if you try this out.

However, what I will say is that two of the urban sketches I have done recently on top of those backgrounds came out really well – I LOVE the effect. I am used to painting watercolour first but usually, it somewhat resembles my subject matter. I really enjoyed painting these random backgrounds days before I went out to sketch or even knew what I would be sketching – so I urge you to have a go at this, it is SO much fun.

If you are interested to find out more about the specific techniques I have used in the sketch above, along with many other examples, stay tuned as I will be releasing a full course on the subject very soon! Join my email newsletter so you are kept informed.

If you like using mixed media to urban sketch with or you’re curious as to how to go about it then check out Jenny’s class here. If you want to see more experiments and sketchbook explorations like this from me then do consider coming to join the fun over on Patreon.

Check out my ebooks with hundreds of ink & watercolour travel sketches from all over the world. Get some inspiration for your next trip…

I hope that’s given you a bit of inspiration as to what you can try out in your sketchbook with your watercolours.

If you want even more ideas of what you can try in your watercolour sketchbook, check out this video.

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