If you want to document a unique building or beautiful location, you might instinctively pull out a camera or your smartphone to take a picture. But if you really want to capture the essence of that location—its mood, movement, and feeling—try sitting down and taking the time to draw it. 

This form of art, called urban sketching, is a unique way to appreciate the world around you. And because of its loose, imperfect nature, urban sketching is ideal for beginners and advanced artists alike.

Quick Links

What Is Urban Sketching? 

This illustration style focuses on capturing the people, places, and things around you. Urban sketches are typically created in a quick, loose style that embraces imperfections, and they’re generally completed as you observe a scene in real time. 

Many urban sketch artists find inspiration in bustling, bright, people-filled cities, but despite its name, urban sketching doesn’t have to be limited to cityscapes. You can certainly find inspiration in residential areas, as well. 

public market sketch
Urban sketches often depict busy, bustling areas, like this scene at Pike Place Market in Seattle. 

Urban Sketching Supplies

While you might assume you use a pencil to do any kind of sketching, most urban sketchers actually use ink to create their drawings. If you’re just learning to create urban sketches, though, you can start with pencil and graduate to ink later when you’re more comfortable.

And while you can certainly leave your sketches black and white, you can also opt to make a more colorful scene by adding watercolor paint. 

Ink Pens 

Based on your preferences, you can use sketch with a fountain pen or other permanent ink pen. It’s important to choose a pen with waterproof ink, especially if you plan to add watercolor paint to your composition. For more flexibility and variation, it’s helpful to have a few different size pen tips, so you can incorporate both thin and thick lines in your drawing. 

Paper or Sketchbook

You also need a canvas for your drawing. Whether you opt for loose sheets of paper or a sketchbook, it’s best to choose a paper that’s designed to accommodate mixed media—i.e., heavier weight with some texture—so it will stand up to watercolor paint without warping. 

New to Drawing? 

Mastering Illustration: Sketching, Inking & Color Essentials

Watercolor Brushes and Paint 

If you want to add color to your sketches, you’ll also need watercolor paint and brushes. A travel watercolor set, which includes half pans of paint, is compact enough to take with you on the go while still offering a good range of hues. As far as brushes, simply choose a couple of different sizes, so you can paint both large areas and small details. 

watercolor sketch of art supplies
A sketch depicting urban sketching supplies, including ink pens, a sketchbook, and watercolor paints and brushes. 

Locations to Sketch

You can find inspiration nearly anywhere, but if you need some ideas for where to create urban sketches, consider the following locations. 

Religious Building 

Churches, temples, and cathedrals often boast impressive and complex architecture, which is fun to capture in urban sketches. 

Transportation Hubs 

Airports and train stations are abuzz with activity, which makes them ideal subjects for urban sketching. Plus, they often feature unique architecture and art installations. 

Cafes 

If you want to sit in a relaxing environment and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while you sketch, cafes and restaurants are ideal locations. You can find plenty of interesting things to sketch inside the cafe, but a window seat can also give you a view out to the street outside. 

Intersections

You may think an intersection of two streets is nothing special—but this is where you can often get a unique, long perspective down a street that includes a variety of buildings, as well as cars and people. 

city street watercolor
At an intersection, you have the opportunity to capture multiple buildings, as well as the movement of cars and people. 

Side Streets

While main roads may have more people and activity, you can find some hidden gems, like unique residential buildings, down side streets. You’ll also have a little more room (and privacy) to draw. You may also find colorful gardens, allowing you to add greenery to your urban sketches

Shopping Centers 

If you want to capture people and activity, shopping centers are great locations to try. Whether you visit a shopping mall or a farmers’ market, you’re bound to see a variety of customers, merchants, and wares. 

How to Sketch Urban Landscapes

So, you’ve gathered your supplies and found a location to sketch. How, exactly, do you get started? Here are a few tips. 

Step 1: Identify Horizon Line and Vanishing Point 

To create the basic composition of your sketch, first identify your horizon line—in other words, what is eye level in the image—as well as the vanishing point, where parallel lines (like the two outer edges of a street) converge in the distance. This will allow you to draw the scene with more realistic proportions and perspective. 

Step 2: Simplify the Scene Into Geometric Shapes 

Next, break down elements of the scene into basic geometric shapes. For example, you may envision a building as a simple rectangle, while an awning may look more like a triangle. A set of descending steps may become a series of parallel lines that grow increasingly close together as they near the vanishing point. Whether you actually draw these shapes on your paper or simply envision them, this exercise can help you map out the scene you want to illustrate. 

sketch of building
Simplifying your scene into basic shapes, like triangles and squares, can help you map out your composition. 

Step 3: Begin Drawing 

Now, with your pen, begin filling in the details of the scene. It can be helpful to start with what you see at eye level, and work up or down from there. Throughout the sketch, maintain a loose, sketchy style. Don’t worry about making the drawing hyper-realistic; it’s more about capturing the mood and feel of the scene. And if you make a mistake—which you inevitably will, as you’re using ink—simply incorporate it into the sketch and keep drawing. 

Step 4: Add Color 

As an optional last step, add color to your sketch with watercolor paints. Aim to use just enough color to add dimension and texture—you don’t have to paint every shape in the drawing. Keep your strokes loose and organic, and don’t worry if you paint outside of the lines; that only adds character to your composition. 

Once it’s complete, you can leave it on paper, or you can digitize your sketch to share it online. 

watercolor ocean front town
Use color to accent your sketch, but don’t be afraid to leave white space as well. 

Find Beauty All Around You

Urban sketching is a great way to find inspiration in the everyday world around you, or it can be a unique method to document your travels. Wherever it takes you, urban sketching will empower you to pay closer attention to your surroundings and appreciate the beauty in things you may never have noticed before. 

Use Light, Shade, and Shadow for a More Impactful Scene

Travel Sketching Essentials: Capture the Light!