Sketching with Watercolors on Location Learn how to get started urban sketching your city and travels
Starting in March of last year, I’ve been running an AirBnb experience downtown where I introduce people from around the world to sketching on-location. Also known as urban sketching. I’ve designed and created a travel watercolor sketch kit, as well as other helpful and instructional supplies. I wanted to share these pages with you because my guests always love them and to help you get started sketching!
What is Urban Sketching?
Urban Sketching, in a nutshell, is sketching (very loose drawing) on-location. Whether that’s outdoors at your favorite park, in front of some great architecture, or sitting having a cup of coffee at a cafe during your travels. Sketch with what you like to use and what you like to see. No pressure! This can be a mindful, relaxing, and creative activity, as much as a starting point for something much bigger.
Grab your supplies and head to your favorite spot. Sit or stand in a safe place that faces your subject and start sketching. See some of my favorite supplies, tools, and tips below.
Pack a kit that fits into your bag. I have different kits based on where I’m going and what my plans are. I have a small kit that I carry every day, a larger bag for those day trips and I customize a kit for trips based on how long and where I’m going. Put some thought into packing your kit. Choose a sketch book that fits!
You’ll need: A bag to carry everything and the right sized book
Sketch with what you love! A favorite way sketchers add color to their sketches is using watercolors. They come in tubes, pans, sticks, markers, and pencils. So many ways to experience the joy of watercolors. Sketchers also love to use fountain pens and water proof materials like markers and graphite.
You’ll need: Pencil, Waterproof black ink pen, eraser, watercolors, travel water brush, and paper towel.
Know Your Colors
Watercolors can be a tricky medium for some, but if you spend some time with it, I promise you will learn to love it too. Simple exercises, like the ones you see here can go a long way in bring you closer to watercolors. Create a color wheel with your favorite blue, red, and yellow to help you learn the basics of color theory.
Mix your paint with water to make it lighter. When applying it to your paper, paint starting in the lightest colors, moving to the darkest shadows.
Play with Colors
Watercolors are versatile and with the use of water, give you a wide range of values. Draw a tall rectangle and begin to add a color, first, without adding any water, then adding it little by little as you move down. The very bottom will use a lot of water and just a dab of paint.
In the next exercise, draw rows of squares. Make them as uniform as possible. That too is an exercise. Then, using your 3 primary colors mix combinations of 2-3 colors to learn what colors you can create.
More Ways to Watercolor
Watercolors are available in tubes, pans, pencils, markers, and sticks. Paint out of the tube is creamy and wet, pans are dried blocks, markers, sticks and pencils all have their own way of working on the page. Markers look very similar to regular markers but they can be moved around using a watercolor brush. Sticks are sort of like crayons, They leave a similar texture dry, but again, can be moved around and smoothed out with a watercolor brush. I like using sticks for roads, sidewalks, and buildings.
This is a topic that can get quite complex. I say, start slow and easy if this is new to you. If you choose to learn more about it, pay attention to your spaces as you walk through them and study the perspectives. One of my favorite books is from 1989 titled Perspectives (Artist’s Library series #13). I recommend it if you’d like to dive deeper.
For beginners, I talk about one and two point perspectives in my workshop. These are common views we encounter downtown and it’s a great start to teaching your eyes what to look for.
One of my favorite things to sketch is architecture. However, I don’t always have the same amount of time. Using the blocking technique, I can stay flexible on the details. I use my pencil to measure my building’s space and also to help me find its perspective. Once I have those sketched in, I can decide how much further I want to add details. You can keep it as a silhouette or continue measuring out and sketching the architectural details.
Once you have your sketch done and are ready to add some color, think about how you’d like to do that. Don’t be afraid to try something completely new! Here are some examples of using my favorite watercolors and a black ink pen. When I need inspiration I love browsing through instagram or some of my books. The Art of urban Sketching is a great book because you can see artists from around the world, what supplies they use and their techniques. it can really open you up to a brand new world.
All year around, nature offers us an ever changing landscape to sketch. Here in my home town of Chicago, we enjoy the most of each season and I try to reflect that in my sketches. Unlike man-made architecture, nature consist of irregular lines and shapes. It does however align to the same perspective rules. Keeping these things in mind, notice and study your natural subject and see its shapes. Flowers can be contained in an ellipse, round or flattened. Trees have an irregular shape but you can capture just that or enhance it with more details as they appear closer.
Do you love people watching? You may love people sketching too. Even if your focus isn’t people, they’ll add life and movement to your sketches. Birds, cars, and bicycles do too, but nothing more than people. Incorporate them into your sketch in varying detail and create your own style of people. Just as with all other objects, keep your perspectives in mind. Make sure your people are the right size by following the simple rule of adults 7-8 heads and kids 5-6 heads tall.
What to Expect
Expect your scene to change throughout the sketch, the clouds and the sun’s position, people, bicycles, birds, and cars will move, and you also may move. keep these things in mind and use your phone’s camera to capture a specific moment for reference.
How Do I Get Better
Practice shapes, lines, and colors at home when you have time. Create sketches of everyday objects, your sketching supplies and other examples I show above. Spend time outside sketching what you love. Stay loose and build on the things you love about your sketches. Don’t over work a sketch, move on if it’s not working. Don’t be judgmental of yourself or others and always keep an open mind to new ideas.
Thank you for reading through my tips and introduction to sketching outdoors, on location. I hope you enjoy this activity and I look forward to connecting with you on instagram or facebook to enjoy your creativity!
A Little History
Painting and sketching outdoors and on-location has been around since man was able to carve on cave walls. Capturing the every day, the moment, the mood, and more. In 2009 a community of sketchers came together. UrbanSketchers.org was founded by Seattle-based journalist and illustrator Gabriel Campanario. The community quickly blossomed with chapters now all over the world. Each chapter has their own facebook or web page where you can visit and join the group at their next event. If you enjoy traveling, meeting local people, and sight seeing, this activity may be for you.
Here are some sketches from my books. See more on my instagram page.