Urban Sketching | A Beginner's Guide | Samantha Nielsen | Skillshare

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Urban Sketching | A Beginner's Guide

teacher avatar Samantha Nielsen, Watercolor Artist | Urban Sketcher

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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

    • 1.

      Urban Sketching | A Beginner's Guide


    • 2.

      Urban Sketching Supplies


    • 3.

      Warm up: Blind Contour


    • 4.

      Adding Color with Ease


    • 5.

      Composition Tips & Tricks


    • 6.

      Sketching and Shapes


    • 7.

      Class Project


    • 8.

      Urban sketching bloopers


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About This Class

In this class we will be going over exercises that will help you tackle your first urban sketch. Some of the supplies that will be helpful to have:

  • Watercolor Paper
  • Watercolor Paint
  • Ink pen (one that's waterproof)
  • Pencil
  • Reference photo of some architecture that inspires you!

While you can still complete the class with only pencil and paper, you will gain the most knowledge and skill if you have the supplies above. 


 Some of the supplies I am using in the class are:

  • Platinum Carbon Black Ink
  • Lamy Safari Fountain Pen (medium nib & fine nib)
  • Daniel Smith Watercolors
  • Round brushes and square wash brushes

We will begin the class by practicing a blind contour; a technique that will help you improve the way you see! Then, I will go over some composition tips & tricks for figuring out how to plan out your first sketch. I also demonstrate how to break a sketch down into shapes before you begin drawing. Lastly, I demonstrate sketching a cathedral in Prague through a time-lapse. 


This is the perfect class for you if you are new to the world of urban sketching and feel intimidated on where to get started. In the future I will bring you more specific urban sketching classes, based on understanding perspective, how to find your style, and more! 

Meet Your Teacher

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Samantha Nielsen

Watercolor Artist | Urban Sketcher


Hi there! My name is Samantha Nielsen and I'm a watercolor artist and urban sketcher based in northern Minnesota. I majored in art education in college, and taught high school art for 2 years before I transitioned to pursuing my dream of being a full time artist! I have spent the past 5 years sketching the world around me and bringing my sketchbook with me everywhere I go. I am so excited to share my knowledge of watercolor and urban sketching with YOU through Skillshare.

I don't think there are enough words in the English language to express the joy I feel deep within my soul when I sit down in a coffee shop to sketch the scenes around me, or on a patch of grass outside a unique store front that needs to be painted. My sketchbook feels like it's another part of... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Urban Sketching | A Beginner's Guide: Hi there. My name is Sam Nielsen and I am a watercolor artists and urban sketcher based in northern Minnesota. Welcome to my third Skillshare class. This is the one I've been most excited for. This is honestly the reason I joined the Skillshare platform, is because I want to teach you about all things urban sketching. I've been sketching for probably about five or six years and it's something that I've become really passionate about. In this class, I want to teach you some of the basics so that you can get started in your own urban sketching journey. We will be going over exercises that will help you tackle your first urban sketch. While you can complete this class with just pencil and paper, you will gain the most knowledge and skill if you're able to also have watercolor paper, watercolor paint, an ink pen that's waterproof, and a reference photo of some architecture that inspires you. We will begin the class by practicing a blind contour, a technique that will help you improve the way you see. Then I will go over composition tips and tricks for figuring out how to plan your first sketch. I also demonstrate how to break a sketch down into shapes before you begin drawing. Lastly, I demonstrate sketching a cathedral in Prague through a time-lapse. This is the perfect class for you if you are new to the world of urban sketching and feel intimidated on where to get started. I hope you will join me in my first class on urban sketching. 2. Urban Sketching Supplies: First things first, I want to talk about supplies. Let's start with ink. Some of the pens I use are Lamy Safari fountain pens. I have a medium nib and fine nib. I also use Platinum Carbon Black Ink, which is waterproof, so it's really awesome with watercolor. I go over how to fill these fountain pens with ink in one of my previous Skillshare videos. If you need help with that, that's definitely a resource you can use. If you don't want to use a fountain pen, there are plenty of other options such as Microns. They are also waterproof and you can find a variety of different sizes. Now for brushes, I'm not particular to a certain brand. I just pay more attention to the shape of the brush. I really like round brushes and my trusty square wash brush. And I usually just bring a couple since we're sketching on the go. I just like to have a few to pick from. For paint, an awesome travel set is the Windsor and Newton Cotman set. It comes with a good amount of colors and it's just a nice pocket size. Daniel Smith also just came out with their version of a travel set and they have a variety of options to pick from; in terms of what type of color scheme you like. Now, this is something I haven't even used yet. I just got it. It's another little travel set, but now I can be selective about which colors and which brands I put in my tin. And I'm also super tactile. There's something just fun about having a metal case. Next, sketch books. If you're familiar with my Skillshare class. You know, I'm a fan of Stillman and Birn. I just love the paper. I personally like the Beta Series. You can find all different kinds. The Beta and Zeta seems to work best with watercolor. The reason I like the Beta a little bit more is, it's similar to a cold press paper. There's a tiny bit of texture and it seems it can just put up with a little bit more water and pigment. Next, I like to have some type of rush roll. A Way to hold my brushes where the bristles aren't going to get ruined. You can find several different options online. This one just happens to be my favorite. I also have some sort of pouch to carry miscellaneous stuff. I have my ruler. This is where I'll put my pencil and pens. I have some clips for windy days, keeping my pages down, extra lead, my eraser. Sometimes I'll also bring a little spray bottle with water. And usually separate from this, I'll bring at least one small container of water that I can dip my brush in. Depending on where I'm traveling. Occasionally I bring two. Keep in mind that while having all these supplies is helpful, it's by no means necessary. Really, all you need for urban sketching is some paper or a sketch book and a pencil. Don't let lack of supplies be a reason that you don't get started. 3. Warm up: Blind Contour: First, I want to teach you a technique that takes out the fear of drawing accurately and helps you get familiar with the scene that's in front of you. So in the corner of the screen you'll see a photo that I'm also looking at on my computer, but what I'm going to be doing is called a blind contour. So what that means is while you can see the photo that I'm drawing and the page at the same time, I'm only going to be looking at the photo. What this does is it takes out the communication between what my brain wants me to be doing and what my eyes are actually seeing. So in a sense, it teaches you how to get lost in the image in front of you and understand the shapes that you're seeing while not stressing out about what's happening on the page. So I'm going to start at the top of one of these towers, and the other thing I'm going to do is I'm not going to lift my pen, I'm going to keep one continuous line, that's the contour piece. Now, some people will go around just the outline of the shape. So for example, the cathedral that you see, I would just go along the outline. I usually like to kind of build it up piece by piece and get lost in some of the detail as I build my way down. Again, I'm not looking at my page, I'm only looking at the image in front of me. So I'm going to start at the very top, and what I'm looking at is the shapes that are formed on each of those three triangles at the top of the tower. I'm also looking at the negative space. So what that means is think of it as the air between the solid object, and I'm treating that as a shape as well. Now, this is kind of hard to do while talking at the same time so when you do this exercise, I would recommend finding a quiet space where you're not going to be distracted and you can just focus on what's in front of you. Think of it as getting in the zone. So if you're an athlete, if you're a musician, if you've had moments where you're practicing, whatever your skill or expertise is and it's almost like you forget that time is happening and you're just lost in the moment in front of you. If you can achieve that during these blind contour exercises, you're going to be seeing a lot more. So I'm done with that top part of the steeple. Now, I'm going down towards some of the brick, and again, I haven't looked at my page. It's natural for this to feel uncomfortable if you've never done it before. I'm to the point where when this is a regular part of my routine, which isn't always, it's very comfortable. It's just like how you'd stretch and warm up before a strenuous exercise. But the very first time you do it, the first couple times, you're going to be fighting the temptation to look at your paper, and I think that will kind of prevent how much you can get kind of lost in this exercise, but don't let that discourage you. Just like anything else, it takes practice. So now there's these tiny little squares on that second steeple, and you might find that if you just commit to the lines you're making and you don't get stressed about what's happening on the page, this might end up being a sketchy really like, and that just goes to prove that drawing is much more about understanding how to see than understanding how to make your hand operate, and since this exercise can kind of take out the fear of what's happening on your page, if you're a beginner to sketching, you might notice a difference. So I'm getting towards the top of this tower. The other thing I should have pointed out is when you first started whatever scene your sketching with a blind contour, think of where your hand is starting on a page. So the top of that left steeple is in the upper left corner of my page so that's also kind of where I started, and there's a big archway towards the bottom, and now, just from my peripheral vision, I think I'm getting kind of close to the edge of the page. I want some of these red buildings in here, so I don't think this is actually accurate with where they are, but that's okay because it's not about the end product, it's just about seeing what's in front of me, and that I'm going to be done. One thing you might notice with your first contour sketch is if it's uncomfortable, you might have a hard time getting lost in some of these details. So if it looks a little bit bare, if it looks a little bit elementary I guess, just keep trying. I would say, before you do anything else in the rest of this class, pause this video and do five contour sketches and with the last one, set a timer for ten minutes and force yourself to continue sketching. So for example, this clearly didn't take me ten minutes, but if it had, let's see I get to about this point at around my three, four minute mark. I wouldn't have looked at my paper, I just would have chosen another section that's in front of me and gotten lost in the detail even more until my timer goes off. You'll be amazed if you make this a daily part of your practice, how much this will help you improve your sketching in daily life. 4. Adding Color with Ease: Now in the past, I've been tempted to speed up painting parts of the video, because I don't want to bore you and I want this to be worth your time. But I'm also trying to remember that this is something that maybe comes naturally to me. So it could be helpful to show you exactly how my hand is moving on a painting. Since this is a blind contour, I want to keep my brush marks similar to my line work. So what I mean by that is I'm not thinking too much about where I'm placing the color. I'm just keeping it loose. I am thinking about how much white space I have. So what I try and do with my paintings is not make the background, especially the sky and the edges a perfect square. I like to have it more energetic. Now this is hot press paper, it's not going to take up or hold as much color as I typically like to work with. But for this video, it'll serve its purpose. Now I'm going to come in and add a couple areas that I want the color, to pop. And I can always add more, but I'm getting to the point where I don't want to add too much because it's much harder to take the color away. So now I'm going to focus on the building.And right now, I want to get a basic wash down. I'm just noticing where colors land. I want that to be more brown. So I'm blocking out color. Next, I'm going to add some color on these steeples. That is maybe too blue. So here's a trick when you have black in a painting, it's always better to mix your black rather than using black straight from a tube. What happens with a black that's already pre-mixed for you is it's going to create a dead spot in your painting. If you have all this life anywhere where that black is, it creates a stopping point for lack of a better description. But you can mix black. Usually I like to use a brown and a blue as long as you're using two dark pigments and one that is a warmer tone and one that is a cooler, it's going to create a nice black. So I mixed this burnt sienna with my cobalt blue. You can tell it has a blue tint, which is totally fine. But for this, I want it to just be a little bit of a different tone. You can also mix the three primaries; so yellow, red, and blue will make a black as well. So I'm going to go over these steeples here. Another thing that you can do, which I messed up here, is leave the wider your paper as an opportunity for a highlight. So rather than coming in with a white gel pen or white paint on top, let the paper do the work for you. So, I'm letting all this breathe. If I do a really loose line drawing such as a contour and then I come in and keep my paint super tight. It might have an interesting effect, but personally I like to let my paint and my ink work together as a team. That's totally made up. It's not there. It's okay. Get in some of those red roofs there. Now, I would recommend using cold press paper, if you are someone that really likes a lot of water and a lot of pigment, which is me. But today I chose hot press. So we're going to make it work. Next, I'm going to come in with my color, my brown again. I'm going to build up some shadows. Now, the other thing that will take your painting to the next level is picking some light source. So in the photo I chose, there isn't too much of a light source; it's a gray day. But I'm pretending my sunlight is over here so that all my shadows are consistent. That's something I'm still working on, especially when you're making up where shadows are. But if you at least have some idea, it's going to make your painting a lot better. Okay, I'm going to switch to a different brush. This brush holds a lot of water and a lot of paint, which is awesome. But sometimes when I want to work with a little bit more detail, it can get in the way. So I'm switching to a brush that just has synthetic air. And I'm making my pigment from a last couple layers a lot stronger. The other thing that will take your painting from good to great, is contrast. So not just having flat colors, having very light lights and very dark dark's. 5. Composition Tips & Tricks: Sketching is all about drawing on location, capturing the scenes that are in front of you in real life. I want to show you some scenes that I have created that way and things that I'm thinking about as I sketch. Even though you're not seeing the live process, I hope seeing the completed sketch and me explaining kind of my thought process is helpful to you. So for this example I went to a local coffee shop and what I had decided to do is I really loved the display on this wall and I really wanted that to be my focus. But one thing you can do to kind of increase the energy and make your sketches, just feel engaging as a viewer is adding in different elements so it almost feels more like a collage of images. What I mean by that is I focused on this back wall, but then what I did is I drew my coffee for that day. It's much larger in this scene there's some spatter on the edges, I was trying to capture this as almost like a memory of the day. I find that when I'm sketching things that I go through in life. I remember so much more so, I ran into a friend who was also sketching there that day. I remember what kind of coffee I had I remember the overall feel in the atmosphere. I remember the power went out, mid sketching, it's so much different than taking a picture. It's like you're almost capturing your memories on the page. So that's one example, focusing on a scene as the whole and then picking a few details that you're making Pop. I do have another example of a collage, so I kind of took this literally, and just in terms of imagery. So I have multiple images from a scene. Downtown where I live. I also chose to put a sticker of some lamp posts that I found there. I put some different textured paper on the page, and then almost. For me became kind of like a journalling process, just how you'd write down your thoughts. It's like capturing these little time capsules throughout your day. Now, this is another sketch I did on location, but I wanted to show you a couple of things with how I handle the white of the paper. I'm continuing to try and improve my overall composition, even though it's a sketch, even though it's just in a sketchbook. Even though it doesn't necessarily have the pressure of a completed piece or a commission. I still want to use the artistic skills. I have to make good judgment about how I'm creating the scene. So one thing I did in this scene is I kept the horizon line low. I tried to have the main focus a little bit lower versus right in the middle. Now the other thing I did is I also left some white of my paper. So not just around the edges, I left the white of the tree. And because of this, it kinda makes everything else pop. So don't feel like you need to treat every area of the sketch the same. Don't feel like you need to give the same amount of attention in detail either because the areas that have more detail and pop of color only pop because of the areas that are lacking. 6. Sketching and Shapes: Now that we've learned how to get familiar with the scene by creating a blind contour and also some tips and tricks to help improve your composition, I want to talk about one last thing that will help take your sketches to the next level and that's the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a way to activate a few crucial points in making a composition more visually pleasing and balanced. It's often used by photographers to capture a perfect photo, but it's something that will help you when creating a sketch as well. You'll notice that this grid is divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically. Where the red dots are, are where your points of interests should be within your sketch. For more interesting composition, placing your horizon line in the bottom third or top third instead of right in the middle will also help. In this image, however, you'll see that my horizon line is right in the middle of the page, as well as my point of interest, the cathedral. Now, this photo shows a composition that would be more balanced to the viewer. This doesn't mean that you can't break the rules and have your focal point right in the center of your composition, but often in art, it's better to understand the rules first so that when you're breaking them, it's with intention and purpose. In a moment, I'm going to show you a time-lapse of sketching this cathedral, but because it's sped up, I want to show you how my mind is breaking down everything into a shape before I sketch it. It's important that you work from large to small. Meaning first sketch out the overall shape, find your horizon line, and then work your way towards the detail. This cathedral or church is made up of rectangles and triangles. Now, there's some more complicated perspective involved as well, but I'll teach you that in another class. For now, let's just focus on simple shapes. The bottom is constructed of a rectangle. There are four more rectangles on top of that to make up the tower. At the very top, large triangles with smaller triangles surrounding it. Until you're used to sketching, it might be helpful to look at each scene in this way to make it feel more manageable. Now, I'll show you that process in double time and notice that I start with pencil before ink. 7. Class Project: Now, it's time to get sketching. For your class project, I would encourage you to start with a field line contours to loosen up. Whether it's from a photo or real life, this is a great exercise to make part of your daily sketching routine. Next, I want you to tackle an actual urban sketch from life. It's a different experience drawing from life. This is the essence of the Urban Sketchers' motto, "sharing the world around us, one sketch at a time." Remember to start by breaking your subject down into shapes. Working from your shape outlines to structure, and then to detail. Maybe pick a location that feels comfortable to you. If it's stressful to be around people that could potentially be watching you, find a spot in nature or away from a crowd, or you can just get lost in the process. In the future, I will be teaching classes about understanding perspective, and how to incorporate that into your sketch. But until then, thank you for taking this class. A happy sketching! 8. Urban sketching bloopers: Hi there, what did I just do with my hand? Hey, how you doing it? Sometimes I wonder if people take these classes just to watch the bloopers, see what kind of dream work it's going to be this time. My name is Sam Nielsen and I don't know what I am, an urban sketcher. It's going to get all the crazy out before I do anything wrong. I am so excited to teach you the beginning steps of what am I teaching? I promise anyone. Urban sketching is one of my biggest passion, and then after I teach urban sketching, I'm going to eat some teeter-totter hot dish. Why am I the way that I am. I am an urban sketcher. Did you get my website? Come out, did you get it? I just contemplating if I should make my paintbrush and do a big mustache.