Travel Sketching: Capture a Favourite Place in Watercolor | Nic Squirrell | Skillshare

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Travel Sketching: Capture a Favourite Place in Watercolor

teacher avatar Nic Squirrell, Artist and illustrator

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

11 Lessons (37m)
    • 1. Travel Sketching Introduction

    • 2. Why sketch?

    • 3. Materials

    • 4. Choosing a Location

    • 5. Explore and Assess

    • 6. Start Sketching

    • 7. Composition

    • 8. Preparing to Paint

    • 9. Painting the first layers

    • 10. Painting the details

    • 11. Final Thoughts

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About This Class


Travelling and sketching are both wonderful things, so let's combine them!

In this class we will start by choosing a place to sketch which means something to you, and either go there, or do a bit of armchair travel via Google Street View.  We will take a walk around and do a bit of detective work to discover all the things which give it a real sense of place.  

We will sketch the building shapes, windows, chimneys, doors, and all the little details, then mix them up to make a finished painting in watercolor which gives a real flavor of the location.

This class is suitable for anyone, and needs no special equipment.

Don’t forget to follow me to be kept up to date with my new classes.


Click for link to Winchelsea on Google Maps

Click for link to my photographs of Winchelsea, which you may use for reference if you like. They are not very beautifully photographed, but they are good to sketch from!

If you would like to do more urban sketching on Street View and join in with other artists to virtually sketch the same location, take a look at Bill Guffey's excellent The Virtual Paintout.  He also has a lot of information there about copyright relating to using Street View.


BossaBossa Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Meet Your Teacher

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Nic Squirrell

Artist and illustrator

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I am an artist and illustrator living in Kent, England.

I studied Creative Visual Art & 3D Design at the University of Greenwich and loved every minute of it.

My illustrations are on many products from prints to suitcases and everything in between.

I love drawing & painting on my iPad as well as using traditional media, particularly watercolour.

If anything stays still long enough, I will draw on it.

Follow me on Instagram to see what else I'm up to!

Nic Squirrell's website

Nic Squirrell on Society6

@NicSquirrell on Instagram

Squirrell Designs Facebook page

Nic Squirrell on Spoonflower


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1. Travel Sketching Introduction: Hello, I'm Nick. I'm an artist and illustrator. I love traveling and seeing new places. I particularly like drawing and painting houses and buildings from different locations, which can be a real flavor of the area. My commitments, money and time constraints mean we don't all get to travel as much as we'd like. Luckily, thanks to modern technology, we can take a stroll down any street in the world anytime we like, as long as the Google street view people have been there first. In this class, we'll be doing a bit of either real or armchair traveling. We'll begin by looking at how to choose a location to draw. Then we'll start getting a general overview of the area and how slipped beyond individual buildings and distill exactly what it is that makes that location different and recognizable. Then we'll be looking at all the little details which give a real sense of place. We'll make lots of sketches and then we'll pick from sketches in each color. Final piece fell will not be of any particular buildings, will give a real feeling of the place we've chosen. It's got to be a lot of fun. Let's get started. 2. Why sketch?: My sketch. Sometimes I sketch in order to make a painting later. Painting a sketch rather than a photo makes you choose which bits to focus on and which details to leave out. Helps you to hone your own style rather than trying to get a realistic likeness. You leave out some of the less important details and you add in some of your own vision and personality. Sketching also helps you to really look at and immerse yourself in a place and to remember it much better than you would just by looking at photos. Of course, sketching is fun to do and the more you do, the better you get. I just want to say a couple of things about sketching in public. When you first sketch in public it's really embarrassing, it's really awkward but most people aren't interested and the ones that are genuinely interested and would like to see what you're doing because they enjoy looking at other people's art. You can actually miss some [inaudible] people this way. If you really can't bring yourself to sketch in public, then you can also use your smartphone to take photographs and sketch later in your own quiet space when nobody is looking at you. But really if you're interested in urban sketching, you should just get over it and get on with it and the more you do, the easier it gets. 3. Materials: Let's talk about materials. For this class you can visit a location close to you, or if you prefer, you can use Google Maps with Streetview, so I'm going to count that as a material. You also need various materials. You can really use whatever you already have or prefer, but I'm going to show you my materials. First of all, I'm using my smart phone for taking photos on location to use later for reference. I've got a hardback sketchbook, which is great for sketching when you're out and about, so we don't need to rest on anything else. When I'm in my studio, I just use cheap copier paper to sketch on, but it's really nice to have a separate sketchbook full of travel sketches. Paper, I'm using a textured watercolor paper. You can use smooth if you prefer, the paint will behave differently depending on the surface. I'm using a fairly thick paper, it's 300gsm, 140 pounds so that it won't buckle when it's wet. In our case, I've got a mix of different brands of watercolor paints. I always used the professional quality rather than students, because they're much more heavily pigmented. They behave really nicely on the paper. They're less likely to fade or have color shift over time, which is very important if you're going to display them or sell them, less so if you're going to scan them to use on prints and products. I'm mixing my paints on a plane white plate, which I will not be eating off later. I've got a pencil. I like using these mechanical pencils, it's just an HB pencil, but it's got a really nice sharp tip. That's just my personal preference. I like drawing with fine liner pens, I've got an eraser, which really is just fitting the final drawing. Then I've got a couple of these water brushes which have water in the handle. This one holds quite a lot of paint but comes to nice fine point. I've got a finer one to do more fiddly stuff. I've got these really fine paint brushes, so zero, and then you can go find another one that's good enough for what I want it for, and then I've got this white opaque unit ball Sigma pen for doing some of the detail later. Last but not least, I have a horrible tissue covered in paint, which is great for mopping up any excess paint. I'm also going to be using a light box for tracing my sketches onto the watercolor paper, but you could use a window instead by just taping your paper into the window and tracing over it. Of course, you don't have to use the same materials as me at all. Just use what you have and what you're comfortable with. This of course is more about looking and observing to capture the feel of a location rather than drawing and painting it exactly as I do. I encourage you to draw and paint in your own style, relax, and enjoy yourself. Let's get started. 4. Choosing a Location: Let's look at choosing the location. Pick a place which means something to you. It could be your hometown or somewhere where friends or relatives live, somewhere you visited or somewhere you'd like to visit. Alternatively, you could just pick a place at random. For this class, it would be good to pick a town with plenty of variety in the buildings. We're looking at typical local residential architecture rather than particular landmarks and one of the kind of buildings. For example, this is a painting I made of typical Parisian buildings, just to show you what I mean. It looks like Paris, I hope. But it doesn't contain any major landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or Arc de [inaudible]. Instead it has cafes, boats, typical Paris rooftops and shuttered windows and balconies, we shall combine to give a prison flavor to the painting. Colors are muted, obviously, Paris isn't bright blue. None of these buildings exist as they are, but all the details do. [inaudible] side of paint include fishing villages in Devon and Cornwall in the southwest of England, or on the West Coast of Scotland, villages on the Greek island such as Santorini, ancient towns and cities in Croatia, Tuscany in Italy, Phenice, Japan and so many more. I'm sure you have plenty of ideas of your own. The worlds out there waiting to you painted. I'm just going to take a little road trip to a lovely town close to where I live. Feel free to join me. I've put a link to the town and the projects and about sections of class, that you can take a wander around in Google street view if you like. You may also draw from my photographs if you want to. There's a link to them as well. Once you've decided on your location, either go there with your smart phone or camera and sketchbook, pen or pencil, or going to Google Maps and from there into street view. 5. Explore and Assess: This is Winchelsea, which is a small medieval town in the English county of Sussex. It was built in 1288 after the original town was destroyed in a flood. It's all sorts of beautiful houses and buildings, which I thought would be really fun to draw and which are all quite typical of local architecture. So let's have a look around, see what we can find. So let's take a walk around and write down what you see. If you're not familiar with the location, you are looking for features which are on a number of different buildings, and this will indicate that they're typical of other local architecture. So a gate might look amazing, but it could just be a one-off piece that the owners liked from their travels abroad. We're looking for shapes and details which are representative of that area. So looking at the buildings themselves, what are the main shapes of the buildings? Are they generally one floor, two floors or more? Are the buildings tall and thin or white and low? Do they have windows in the roof? What sort of shapes are they? Are the buildings all crowded together, or are they very separate in separate gardens with walls around them? What colors are materials of the buildings? This is really important. Are they painted? Are they bricks, slate, stone? What shapes are the roofs? Are they tall or are they fairly flat? What colors and materials are the roofs made of? Do they have chimneys? What shape are the chimneys? Where about do they come out to the roof? What are the tops of the chimneys look like? Do they have chimney pots? Do they have little roofs on them? Are there a lot of TV aerials or satellite dishes? Are there a lot of very visible electricity cables? For example in Japan, this is often a real feature of the streets. What do the windows look like? What shapes are they? What colors are the window frames? Do they have shutters? What do the shutters look like? What colors are they? Are the windows, very obviously curtained, or do they have blinds or less curtains? You're looking for the really obvious things, but you're looking a little harder than you would if you are just being a tourist. Are there balconies, and what do they look like? Are they made of stone? Are they made of metal? What colors are they? What's on the balconies? Are there bicycles, furniture, flowers, bird cages? Do people have washing hanging from their balconies or windows or in their gardens? Do they have window boxes with flowers? Do they have potted plants and hanging baskets? Look at the doors. What sort of shapes are the doors and the surrounds and what colors? Do they have glass in them? What's the letter boxes look like? Are they in the doors, are they separate? Are they are on the wall? Are they in the gardens? Do the doors have steps up to them? Have a look at the trees and the hedges. Notice the shapes and the colors. Have a look at the walls defenses in the gate. Don't forget, we're looking for features that are on a number of the properties. Do they have swimming pools? Do they have verandas? Do they have outside tables and chairs? What sort of style are the house names or numbers? Is there a similarity between many of them? Have a look at the street. What do the street lights look like? Are there pavements or sidewalks that are interesting? Are they tiled or cabled or are they railings? Is there anything noticeable about the street itself? Maybe it's an avenue of trees. What kind of vehicles do people have here? Are there a whole load of mopeds, lots of bicycles? Are the cars small? Are there colorful rickshaws? Are there lots of animals? Are there lots of birds, dogs, cats, maybe farm animals? You're the artists, of course you can leave out anything you find ugly, unless it's very typical of the character of your place. Things that you decide to sketch and you decide to leave out, or what makes your painting very personal to you. 6. Start Sketching: Now make some sketches of what you've noted. For me, even though my final pieces often have very little detail, it's only by doing the initial sketches and analysis that I really get to know what it is that gives the place its character. Making these sketches will help you to remember what you're observing while helping you to avoid getting too lost in the detail. Sketch the main elements separately and do a few variations of each thing. The reason we're doing this is that we're not going to end up with sketches of a particular house or a number of particular houses, were going to be mixing them up later so that we're getting a general feel for the buildings in the area rather than misses making house up the road. We're going to look at the building shapes, the roofs, the chimneys. We can separately draw in the chimney so we get the details. You can draw windows. Looking at the walls, the fences and the gates, the trees, the shrubs, the potted plants, etc. 7. Composition: So let's think about composition. You are the artists so you have the choice, and you can do this however you want. Here are just some ideas that you might want to consider. So first of all, you could dot your houses around on the page. As many or as few as you want to fill the page. You can make them large, you can make them as small as you wish. Then the second way of doing it would be maybe support them along a line. You can have them touching, you can have them separate. You can have to do both and again, as many or as few as you want. You probably wouldn't want it too long, otherwise you just have a little small line going on in the middle of your page, but the choice is yours. If you're doing let's say, a townscape, you might want to pop your buildings and pull behind each other. So I start with one and then build around it and then put some more behind and another way of doing it is to start with a grid and then put in some roofs, vary the heights. So you get the idea. You can choose whichever appeals to you most or you can do it your own way. It's going to depend very much on the kind of place that you're drawing as to which is going to be the most appropriate. I think I might go for the long line for Winter Sea because it has that feeling. So here are some examples of different layers that I've used in the past. This one's a scattered layout, this is the great colony of Helike and then Havana in Cuba. This one is stacked layout for Monte San Savino in Tuscany in Italy and that's just an ink pen on water color paper. Then Morocco, it's a stitched collage, and a stacked layout and then a couple of grid layouts. First of all, watercolor, and then the example that I showed you earlier of Paris, which is also a grid layout. 8. Preparing to Paint: To excuse the lighting, it's raining here, and this is as good as it's going to get for the next couple of hours. Now I'm going to start by sketching out my main shapes on a piece of paper. This is just rough. It's just to get the composition. I've decided to put my houses in two rows for this one. I think it'll look right for which you'll see. Just the absolute basic shapes just for the composition. I'm doing this in pen on a rough piece of paper. Without adding any more details, I think I'm going to go with this as my composition. If you don't like you can just draw it at the top, re-draw it. Then I'm going to start adding the details once I've got that mapped out. Just pop in a few windows and doors, and the details in there, just to get the positioning right. Just paying attention to where the windows and doors tend to go in these things because we've drawn them all. It's foremost in my mind. The windows tends to be right up against the roof there. The doors go all the way up the lower half. I haven't quite decided on the materials of each of these buildings yet, but we'll work that out in a minute. I'm looking at just blocking in the main details. It's all drawn out, it's just the basic details and shapes ready to trace through. You don't have to trace it. You could just go straight in with your drawing obstacles, color paper. If you don't have a light-box, you can take this up on window and take paper on top. I'm going to trace it through on my light-box. I am using an HB pencil. It's just a mechanical pencil because I like pencils really sharp. I'm not going to press very hard because I don't generally erase my pencil lines afterwards. I just want them very lightly on there. I'm just tracing over everything that I want to include. Of course, I could always make few changes to what I've got underneath there. Let's turn the light-box off and see what it looks like. Then the other thing I'd like to do before I start is to just try out my colors. I'm not necessarily going to be mixing these up into the final colors I'm using, but just make sure that my colors work together. They look like I want them to look for the project I'm doing. I don't like to use too many colors in the painting because I think it keeps them harmonious if you just limit the colors you're using. These are going to be my main colors for the buildings. Then there'll just be a few accents for maybe the doors. The shadows, just a very dilute version of the indigo. I've got my color palette there. You also look obviously different depending on what you're painting. What's your places like, whether it's the Mediterranean, or whether it's an African place. Everywhere has very different colors associated with it. Let's just block in some colors on my sketch so that I know once I start painting that everything's going to be in the right place. I say block in. This is very rough. It's like a plan. Because when you're painting, it's easy to get carried away with what you're doing and not see the bigger picture. I want everything to work together really. That's why I'm doing this. The roofs are pretty much all tile. Like clay tile. There was one slate roof, but because there's only one, I'm not going to use that. Again, I'm not really looking at details here. I'm just looking at where the main colors are going to sit related to each other. This is just cheap copier paper, say it's not taking the paints well. The idea of it is not to make a beautiful painting at this point, this is a working plan. I'm looking for balance. I don't want every house to be the same. If they're similar, I don't want them to be right next to each other. Also remembering the features of the area and how most of the houses were. In fact, most of the ones that I drew had these clay tiles at the top and then a variety of different materials at the bottom. Not all of them. Some of them were same all over, some of them had the weather boarding at the top, white boarding. There was a variety within the colors of the roofs as well. I'm going to bear that in mind. I might adjust this as I go as well. I might not end up with these exact shades. But this is really just all about balance. I'm going to leave white because again, that's a typical feature of the area. I've got this very pale stone color. As we saw, there's quite a lot of variety just within each building.I think that's going to work as it is there. Got it all planned out, I think that it's pretty good. I'm ready to get going with the actual painting. 9. Painting the first layers: Just putting in a few more details, I've popped in a few trees behind the houses because there are lots of trees in Winchelsea. people like their gardens in the UK. We'll start by just blocking in a few of the shapes. Let's put some of those trees in the background, but very dilute paint. You paint only flows in the wet areas, so you can add more paint to the wet bits and that'll spread around but it won't go any further. Pencil lines underneath the paint become permanent so you won't be able to erase this later. The ones that are outside the paint we can erase, I'm not that worried about erasing lines particularly but anything I haven't painted over, I will erase later. This water brush has got quite a thick end to it, but it goes on to a really fine point, so it's really nice for doing detail with. This went over the edge of my chimney there, so I'm using a tissue to blot it up. I'm going to start blocking in some other things. I've got small trees today, so maybe I'll just do them next. I'll add a little bit more color to the ones I already have. Since it's slightly different green mixed with indigo into it just to give a bit of variation. Because I've already let the other green dry, I'm going to get my sharp edge between them. Let's put another layer on top of this one just to darken it down a bit. Because I use a little water there was dry, lighter than I paint them. Starting with the shadow onto some of these. This one is still wet so I'm just letting it paint spread for a little bit, adding a bit more color using plain water to get the blend. Now I'm going to go in and paint some of the roofs and block them in. I'm deliberately not telling you what color paints I'm using because I want you to choose your own mix and make your own painting. This isn't a class that's about paints things in my style. It's a class about looking, serving, and then interpreting things your own way. Of course, you don't actually have to paint things exactly as you see them and as colors they are. Although I think, it's important to know what the local colors are in order to get the sense of place. I'm choosing to play this very true to life because I think that it gives a better feel of this particular place. But if you are painting somewhere that was very Mediterranean and a colorful place anyway, of course, you can exaggerate your colors. This is very English and quite subdued and so I've chosen to go for those subdued colors. I'm blocking in some of the tiled, it sits here. I'm going to put a white gutter, but I'll do that later. This one we'll leave without paint. But I like to do things differently on different houses because it just adds a bit more interest. 10. Painting the details: Time to put the windows in. I'm not going to paint every single pane separately. You could, of course, and sometimes I do. But for this, I'm going to paint the windows as one solid block and then I'm going to go in later with a white pen. Now, I'm going to use this Uni-ball Signo pen to put the windows in. Looking a bit more house-like now. Let's put a few more details and now I'm going to put in some more chimney pots. Now, I'm going to have a look at the doors now. Some of the doors have little roofs over them. Whatever, what they're called maybe they're porches just to stop the rain falling on you when you're unlocking the door. I'm going to use my teeny weeny little brush. This is a zero brush. I'm going to put some shadows in. I'm going in with my big brush and some just plain water and then I'm going in with just a very light color. Then I'm going to use my tissue to block that, so there's just a little bit of it left. This is going to effectively ground our houses and have them plot-around. Just the same down here. This is just to give a little bit of shadow and indication that the houses are sitting on something. It's very pale, so it's not very obvious, but it does make it look better. Then I'm going to do the same thing here behind this white house because it needs a bit of definition against the ground, so let's put a really pale indigo wash behind it to be even paler than that. Then I'm just going to blend that into clean water, but I'm going to just push it into less like a tree shape. It just leaves a suggestion of a shadow there to bring out the white against the background. I'm going to go in and strengthen some of these little details, like my doors need a little bit more definition. Then, it would be nice to have a little bit more detail on some of these brick and roof. I'm just giving little hint to the texture. It's going to adjust the levels of some of these trees. I'm going to be setting a few more details with a pencil to strengthen some of my existing mounts and putting a few little bits of texture in. That's it. I think that's all done now. 11. Final Thoughts: I hope you've enjoyed the class, I certainly have. Once you start sketching buildings, you'll find yourself looking differently the places you go to and you'll remember them better too. I'd love you to post some of your sketches or your finished painting or both in the project section of a class, and let us know your chosen location. Can't wait to see them. Please feel free to post any work inspired by this class on social media using the hashtag nicssquirrelskillshare. That's all for now, happy sketching and I'll see you soon.