15 tips for staying safe while urban sketching

In today’s post, let’s look at staying safe while we’re out urban sketching. It isn’t something to take lightly.

Why should I worry about safety while I’m urban sketching?

I mean, I don’t worry about safety when I go to the store, so why should this be any different?

Because safety isn’t something we should take for granted! When I travel, especially, I don’t know if the place that I’m sketching is safe. I’ve never been there before. That’s when I wish I knew about the things I could do to keep me safe while I’m sketching.

The problem is that I’m not in the habit of keeping my bag close or watching out for myself while I’m sketching in familiar places. So it also isn’t a habit when I’m in a strange place, which means I put myself at risk for an unforeseen and potentially unsafe situation.

I want to add that, even though this post is focused particularly on places you’ve never been before, or don’t go to very often, or have a higher danger level than your neighborhood (like a major metropolitan area), it’s a good idea to practice these safety tips wherever you are. If it becomes a habit, it won’t be difficult to remember.

I’ve broken the list into three sections:

Before you leave home
While you’re sketching
When you finish sketching

Before you leave home

Perhaps the most important tip of all is to anticipate what you might encounter during your sketching adventure. I know that sounds like common sense, as do all of these tips, but you’d be surprised at what you will forget when you’re excited about going urban sketching. I’m usually more worried about what I put into my kit than remembering my sunscreen. There are a hundred things that could be going through my head as I get ready, but the priority should be safety.

  1. Be prepared for the elements by checking the weather forecast. Wear appropriate clothing as well as shoes that you can comfortably walk in, perhaps farther than you anticipate. Take an umbrella, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses or whatever is necessary for sudden changes in weather conditions. If you think you’ll be out after dark, wear bright clothes and take a small flashlight. Cell phones can be used as a flashlight if you have enough battery power and the right app. Consider wearing layers if you’ll be out during transition times, such as dawn to day or day to dusk.
  2. When getting ready, it’s also important to let someone know where you’re going. If it’s someplace you’ve never been before, let someone know where you will be and how long you think you’ll be gone. When you’re lost, it’s nice to know a friend will check in to see if you’re okay!
  3. If you’re in an unfamiliar area, plan your route ahead of time. Know where the dangerous neighborhoods are and avoid them. Take a friend if you have to go anywhere that might be questionable. If you’re going to a dangerous city (these are the most dangerous cities in the U.S., but any place can be dangerous if we aren’t alert) take extra precautions to research the area you intend to go. Make sure it isn’t considered a high risk area.
  4. Don’t take valuables with you unless you have a safe place to lock them up in your car. Stuffing your wallet into your bag isn’t a good solution. It doesn’t take long for a potential thief to wait for you to get distracted with your sketching, then grab your pack and run.

This is a also a good reason to pack minimally. To begin with, lugging around a bunch of stuff restricts your mobility. But the more stuff you’re carrying, the more likely you’re going to be distracted while figuring out how to deal with it once you get there. Save the pochade box for en plein air work and take a smaller kit for sketching!

  1. If you drive to your sketching location, don’t forget to ensure that anything left in your car is put out of sight of passers-by, and, for heaven’s sake, lock your car! I don’t know how many times friends of mine have told me that they’ve had something stolen from their car, then admitted that they’d left it unlocked! Sometimes crime happens only because it’s an easy opportunity. Don’t let yourself be a victim because you don’t feel like locking your doors. And don’t think that, because you’re in a “safe” little town, there’s an exception, because it’s a human instinct to take advantage of a situation no matter where they live. Lock it!
  2. If you’re in cold weather, you may want to consider taking gloves and sticking close to your car or to a warm shop. Take frequent breaks to avoid frostbitten fingers. When it’s extremely hot, take lots of water and seek air conditioned shops nearby to avoid heat exhaustion. There have been many times that I’ve sketched while sitting in my car for protection against the elements. It’s not ideal, but it’s safe.

I think that covers everything about preparing and getting to your location, but if you can think of any more tips, please leave them in the comments!

When you’re at your sketching location

Probably the biggest safety hazard to urban sketching is that your attention is distracted. You’ll likely run a bigger risk of sunburn than you will of getting mugged. But we can’t foresee the future, so even though it’s not likely we’ll run into problems, we should know what to do to prevent them and/or deal with them if they happen.

a white man wearing a hoodie and gloves, smoking a cigarette, looks at a young girl with long dark hair while she is unaware
  1. If possible, locate yourself so that your back is against a wall or unapproachable in some way. A hedge, a store front (but not the door, obviously), and the inside corners of building walls are also good spots. The idea is to eliminate the possibility of anything sneaking up on you, whether it’s a person or a runaway skateboard.
  2. Sit in a comfortable position and remember to stand up every 20 minutes or so. It’s important to keep the blood flowing in your legs, especially as we age! If you’ve brought a chair or mat, don’t put it in a pedestrian walking area or any area that obstructs normal traffic flow. Be courteous of windows you may be blocking, as well. Would you want to buy a lunch at a restaurant with a view, then have it blocked by someone outside the window?
  3. If you are uncomfortable with people approaching you while sketching, it helps to wear headphones (even if you aren’t listening to anything) and/or sunglasses. But don’t let these things block your ability to notice what’s going on around you. It’s still important to keep tuned in to your environment while you’re sketching. Again, we don’t want anything sneaking up on us!

Speaking of people approaching, it’s been my experience that an approach always starts with eye contact unless the person comes up behind me to discreetly look over my shoulder. Once they’ve made eye contact, the passer-by is usually just curious. Once I tell them that I’m an urban sketcher, they often go on their way.

Sometimes a passer-by will ask if they can look at my drawing. I don’t usually offer to show them unless they specifically ask. Then, I say something like “I don’t like to show my work before it’s finished”, and they tend to move on. You may wish to show them your work, but don’t feel obligated.

Sometimes a person may be concerned that you’re sketching them, but, more often, I’ve been quizzed when someone thinks I’m sketching their children. It’s rare, but if the parent sees that your sketch doesn’t look anything like their child, they’re okay with it. I’ve never had anyone tell me to stop sketching because they’re in my drawing. But I’ve read that some cultures are offended by it, so I’m cautious.

I’ve also read that some sketchers wear sunglasses so that the people around them can’t see what you’re observing while you’re drawing. Sunglasses are usually an impediment for me and I don’t typically wear them while drawing, so I don’t know if this works.

My headphones work great, however, at keeping most people away. I just have to make them obvious. I was sketching in Charleston one time when I had my headphones on while listening to music. I guess they may have been hidden by my hair or hat, because I got one of the worst scares of my life when someone came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder to ask what I was drawing! So the bigger the better with headphones, and make sure they can be seen by anyone looking at you. I can’t promise they’ll stop a curious stranger, but they may act as a deterrent to an unwanted conversation.

  1. Panhandlers can be a problem anywhere. In countries other than the U.S., panhandlers may be called vagabonds or beggars, or simply “the homeless” but their purpose is the same: they want something from you, probably money. They seem to be particularly attracted to single women and young people, I think because these two targets are most likely to give them what they want.
a white male sitting on concrete while holding a cardboard sign with the word HELP handwritten on it behind a money collection pail

I’m not a police officer, but everything that I’ve learned from official police sources says the same thing: don’t give a panhandler anything. Tell them no, or tell them you don’t have anything to give them, and they will likely leave you alone. There are other places where they can get more and better assistance than the dollar you’re handing to them.

For more information on how to respond to panhandling, check out this Columbus Police Department tip page.
For more information about the problem of panhandling, who does it, who gives them money and what panhandlers do with it, check out the Arizona State University’s guide here.

  1. If you aren’t carrying or wearing any valuables and have a minimal sketching kit, you probably won’t be an attractive target for a mugging. In any case, play it safe. Keep your supplies close to you and loop your pack straps around your ankles to prevent anyone from running away with them.

Supply security is more likely to be a problem due to wind or location issues. Take a clip or rubber band to keep paper from blowing away and have a means of tucking away loose toweling or napkins when using water. Another reason to take a small kit: when you don’t have much to carry, it’s not only easier to keep everything close and controlled, it’s easier to pick it up and run for cover if it starts raining.

  1. Use your peripheral vision and take frequent “eye” breaks to re-establish your situational surroundings. Try to take notice of anyone paying particular attention to what you’re doing. Chances are, they’re probably curious about your sketching, but they could also be scoping you for a possible grab and run. Be smart and pay attention to your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s better to get up and go than to wish you had.

When you’re finished sketching

  1. Make sure you take a quick look around when picking up your supplies. Paint brushes and pencils have a way of falling into the oddest crevices to hide. Be mindful of what you brought and what you take out of your pack during your sketching session so that you can take a quick inventory when you’re ready to leave. If you’re distracted while searching around for that missing pencil, it could be another opportunity for someone to do a grab and run with your backpack, so don’t forget to keep your peripheral vision tuned in.
  2. Pick up any trash or empty water bottles and dispose of them properly. This sounds obvious, and it really isn’t a safety tip, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. If there isn’t a trash can nearby, take them with you to dispose of at home. It’s good for the environment.
  3. Finally, consider whether or not you should dump out used watercolor water in your sketching location. There are some places that take urban runoff seriously. Some watercolor paints have heavy metals in them (I’m thinking of cadmiums, titanium, and cobalt in particular), and your watercolor water will be contaminated if you use these kinds of paints. When in doubt, take your dirty water with you to dispose of properly.

We all want to have fun while we’re sketching, and following all of these tips might sound like a lot of needless worry. But, in my opinion, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Do you have any safety tips you’d like to share?
I’ve tried to be thorough when I researched and wrote this post, but I’m sure that I haven’t covered everything. If you have some safety tips that you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments! We’d all appreciate it!

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