Improve your storytelling by choosing the right urban sketching location

Hello Creatives! Today let’s talk about choosing a location for urban sketching. Most of the time, we’re sketching what’s in front of us, often for the pleasure of drawing, and sometimes we may feel like practicing with a new pen or technique. In those situations, the location doesn’t really matter.

However, location is important when you want to tell a story with your sketch. I’ve touched on the storytelling aspects of urban sketching in other posts, but today we’ll look specifically at things to consider when choosing a place to sketch when you want to tell a story.

Find the story first.

Let’s say this is the day you decide to focus on improving your urban sketching. You want to make it more than a pretty picture. You want your sketch to be an artwork that tells a story. How do you get started?

The first thing you need is the story! How do you find it? By thinking of your location as if you were a writer.

When I invent a story, I often start with a setting. I’ll think of a place that I’d like to be, say, a cozy cabin in the woods on a mountainside, and then I’ll start asking questions. Who lives there? What’s nearby? Why don’t they have any neighbors? How do they get their food and electricity? What could happen here?

Asking questions about the setting leads to ideas about characters and events that could be part of a plot. Eventually, the thoughts coalesce into a story.

In urban sketching, we don’t have to invent our own setting, it’s already given to us! All we have to do is ask questions that create mental connections to form a story. I’ll use a recent sketch of my own as an example.

The story of The Parson’s Table

The Parson's Table building

This isn’t a building that I would’ve thought of as a candidate for urban sketching. It’s situated in a place where you have to really look for it and turned in such a way that you can’t see the front facade unless you drive deep into a parking lot.

But I recently heard that the city and the building’s owner were in disagreement about what to do with the property, which brought the building to my attention.

When I arrived at the building, I was a bit disappointed. I expected something that was in better shape. It had a nice structure but it hadn’t been cared for. It wasn’t what I would call “pretty”.

However, once I started walking around the front of the building, my curiosity was piqued. I noticed a lot of things that made me ask questions.

a brick sidewalk full of yellow weeds

The brick sidewalk approaching the front doors was overgrown with weeds. But they were yellow. This doesn’t happen naturally in our sub-tropical rainforest climate. Someone had recently sprayed them with pesticide. Why?

broken bricks and a safety pylon mark a dangerous sidewalk

And the bricks here have been disturbed and need to be relaid. The hole is so dangerous that someone put a safety pylon on it to caution passers-by. Who was concerned about this hazard and why did they put a pylon here instead of repairing the hole?

a statue of a woman hidden behind plants

There were lots of overgrown plants in front of the building. Some of the bushes had grown up so high that they hid a statue of a woman that’s right in front of the building. The weed sprayer, then, wasn’t a gardener, else why would they keep the statue concealed behind plants?

hedges pruned into a giant x like a confederate flag

Yet someone pruned these hedges into a topiary. It must have taken a lot of time to do this. Why prune the hedges but not the rest of the plants? Who might have done this? And why is it in the shape of an X?

a photo collage of building parts that need repaired
a wooden sign standing in foliage

The front of the building wasn’t terribly run down. The awning needs attention, there are missing bricks and broken plaster pieces on the wall, and the wooden window casements are rotted. But the side lawns are mowed, the sign is clean and has a light pointed at it, and someone has put caution tape around the entrance within the last month or so.

Who put up the caution tape? Why? Are they going to repair the damaged walls? Is the awning collapsing? Were people trying to get in and the tape is to discourage them?

I could glean no answers to these questions from walking around the building. But seeing all of these discrepancies made me realize that there was a story here that wanted to be told. So I chose a place to sit with a good view of these oddities, and got started on the thumbnails for the sketch.

a hand using a pen to draw on a sketchbook

Use questions to find a story.

Don’t worry about which questions to ask. They should come naturally if you’ve found an interesting location. But the first question is a no-brainer:

What catches your attention?

In my example, the location came to my attention because of a news item. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re in a place by default, like when you’re on vacation or sketching close to home. In those cases, the first question to ask is

What catches my eye?

Look for a location that piques your curiosity. This may not happen quickly. If it doesn’t make you curious, it won’t make the viewer of your sketch curious.

Once you’ve found an interesting location, take the time to really look at it. Is there something that immediately draws your attention? Look closer and ask yourself more questions about it.

Why did it draw your attention? What makes it stand out? Can you capture that in a drawing?

Imagine you’re a photo journalist.

Ask yourself questions such as

Why would you be assigned to this location?
What happened here before you arrived, or what’s going to happen after you leave?
How did it get to be like this? Why will it change?

You don’t have to answer the questions. The trick is in recognizing that the questions exist. If you’re considering a location and you can’t figure out any questions to ask about it, consider it non-story-worthy.

What specifically seems “odd”, “off”, “missing” or otherwise “wrong” about the scene?

Figuring this out will help you recognize the star of your story: the object or person or part of the scene that you’ll want to draw attention to in your sketch. Make a note of this/these curiosities so that you can be sure to include them while drawing.

You may not know exactly what is giving you this feeling of oddness, but you’ll know that it’s there. If you can capture that feeling in your sketch, you’ll have captured a story. In my example, I saw that someone had been giving attention to specific parts of the building and landscaping, but not other parts. It made me wonder why. What happened here, and what’s going to happen next?

Doesn’t that sound like a story plot?

Stories are about conflict.

Once you have asked some questions, see if you can find conflicting information that brings up more questions.

Again, in my example, I noticed that someone had spent considerable time trimming the hedges. But they ignored the bushes that concealed a pretty statue. This led me to thinking of possible connections between the two observations. When I couldn’t come up with an obvious answer, I knew I had a story-worthy conflict. Then it was just a matter of looking for supporting evidence that this conflict existed, such as the well cared for sign and the dilapidated walls.

Once the mind is focused on asking questions about a location, it becomes obvious that the location has a story.

You may never know exactly what the story is about and that’s okay. Believe it or not, the best story you can sketch is the one that your audience invents in their own heads. So draw what you think is curious about the location! Don’t think it has to be perfectly clear. Let the images speak for themselves.

The most important thing to remember is this:

No questions = no conflict = no story.

I’ve summarized all of this in a free printable sized to 4” x 6” for cutting out and putting into a sketchbook. Clicking the photo will take you to the download. Or you can download it here.

Once you’ve found a location with a story, you’ll want to make sure that those curious details in your sketch are noticed! Look forward to more about that in another post. Today I’ll leave you with this thought:

Curiosity is a trait we all share. When we’re curious about a place, we create mental stories in response to the questions that come up. If you draw those things that you’re curious about in your picture, there’s a good possibility that the viewer of your sketch will also ask questions and make their own mental stories about what you’ve drawn.

This is how an artist communicates a message to other people and it’s a way to make your urban sketch into a good story.

Let me know if you try this. If you do, could you tag me on Instagram so I can see what you created?

Next week we’ll take a look at various brands of pens and how they perform for urban sketching. In future posts, we’ll dive deeper into more ways to improve our storytelling with urban sketching.

Until then, Happy Drawing!

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