drawing of a Holland America ship in a Caribbean port

Storytelling With Urban Sketching: Start With the Basics

Some of you might know that I intended to teach a class in urban sketching this fall at our local art center. That is no longer happening, but not because I lost interest in the subject. When I asked friends and colleagues if they’d take the class, I discovered many people never heard of urban sketching. And since my class was “how to create better stories with urban sketching”, I felt like it would be better to delay the advanced stuff until I knew I had some students who already understood the basics.

In keeping with this idea, I’ve decided to spend most of the summer focusing on urban sketching in my blog posts and on the YouTube channel. Yep, you heard it right, I’m going back to video making, mostly because there are just some things that are easier to understand when you see them in action rather than looking at photos. But the videos won’t be as quirky or as long as they were at the beginning of the year. I simply don’t want to spend my time editing video when I could be writing or drawing.

In addition to all this, my husband and I are going on an extensive trip this month. It will be the first time we’ll be travelling with the pups, which will be a learning experience for all of us. If things go well, I’ll sketch the places we visit and use those opportunities as part of the video series.

But today, let’s begin with an introduction to urban sketching.

What is urban sketching?

Urban sketching is a fancy term for ‘drawing the world around you’. It isn’t a new art form. If you think about it, primitive human drawings on cave walls is a form of urban sketching. The cave dwellers drew the events that were happening in their lives.

That’s urban sketching in a nutshell: capturing a moment of time with a drawing, and, in particular, having mundane subjects. The goal of urban sketching isn’t necessarily to turn out a beautiful picture. An urban sketch is a record of your experience. If you think of it in the same way as a photojournalist (only you draw the pictures instead of using a camera), you won’t be far from wrong.

a green and yellow watercolor painting in a sketchbook
Urban sketching doesn’t have to be pretty. This one, completed within fifteen minutes, reminds me of how hot it was on the day I made the sketch and how the paint dried almost as fast as I put the brush down.

In fact, the term ‘urban sketching’ wasn’t coined until 2007-08 (it still isn’t in any dictionary that I’ve found), when Gabriel Campanario, a news artist for The Seattle Times, decided to create a Flickr album for everyone who loved drawing the places they lived and visited. In 2008, the urban sketchers blog was started, and the whole movement snowballed from there. In 2009, Urban Sketchers achieved nonprofit status, and in 2010 they held their first International Urban Sketching Symposium in Portland, Oregon. They now number in the thousands.

If you’d like to learn more about the official organization, head over to the Urban Sketchers website after you read the rest of this post. But you don’t have to belong to the organization to be an urban sketcher. Anyone, anywhere, can do this.

How does urban sketching use storytelling?

Whenever you draw anything, there’s a story involved. For example, my choice of pencil or pen or using a colored marker immediately communicates something about the way I’m feeling or what I want to say about the subject I’m drawing. If I’m sketching my neighborhood with heavy red lines, I’m actually using the color and line weight to communicate the mood I’m experiencing while drawing. My experience is the story.

seascape watercolor paintings in a sketchbook
Urban sketches can include notes about why you were at the location or what you were doing

This is the type of storytelling inherent to urban sketching. To be an urban sketcher is to be a storyteller. Whether or not you do this effectively is really up to you.

I happen to love storytelling in all of its forms. I love reading, I love hearing stories, I love seeing movies and plays. I love urban sketching and have been practicing it for many years. What I’ve noticed in my own work is that there are times when I’m drawing my location because I want to create a pretty picture, and there are times when I’m trying to communicate something about the place. Once in a while both intentions seem to happen at the same time, making me feel pretty good about my work.

black and white drawing of a windy palm tree and lighthouse in a sketchbook
This urban sketch tells the story of a very windy afternoon spent near a lighthouse.

But most of the time, I get a story or I get a pretty picture, and end up frustrated because I couldn’t achieve both. It’s taken years to figure out that basic art skills can be deliberately used to enhance urban sketching stories. I’m talking about simple things like choosing focal points, color, tone, and perspective. When a sketcher makes deliberate choices about these things, they have a better chance of producing a pretty picture with a good story.

So why don’t more urban sketchers use these techniques to emphasize the story behind their picture?

I think the reason is that many urban sketchers believe they have to draw everything exactly as they see it. This isn’t by accident. The fourth clause in the Urban Sketcher manifesto says “We are truthful to the scenes we witness”. I believe many sketchers interpret that to mean that they can’t change anything in their sketch. That there are “right” colors, “right” tones, and the “right” things to put into the drawing so that they are truthful about what they record.

I don’t agree.

Being truthful doesn’t mean you have to be a human camera. A camera doesn’t have an experience. The photograph can only record visual aspects of the scene that is in focus. It can’t record the feelings of someone on location, nor interpret scents and sounds into a visual form.

watercolor painting of a view of the mountains in Puerta Vallarta
This sketch has very little detail and is far from accurate. But it captures the feeling I had when I looked out at the mountains from my hotel window. The large white-roofed warehouse seemed out of place against the natural backdrop. Does it seem out of place in the picture?

So don’t think that truth in sketching means accuracy. Otherwise why bother sketching when a camera is going to portray a scene exactly as it appears?

Truth, as applied to art, means being sincere. In fact, if you look up the meaning of the word truth in Merriam Webster, the third definition is

Truth: sincerity in action, character, and utterance

As artists, we have the skills to visually convey sincerity. We know how to use color to convey feeling, how to maneuver our subject matter to draw attention to what’s important, and how to use lights and darks to create drama. In short, manipulating our drawings, with the intention of sincere communication, adds to the story of the sketch.

Wow! This is great. How do I get started?

The best part about urban sketching is that you don’t need any fancy supplies to begin. I’ve drawn on napkins, the back of theater programs, on lined notebook paper, using whatever I’ve had on hand to draw with, usually ball point pens or pencils.

a pen and ink drawing of a castle in Scotland
A pen and a sketchbook is really all you need to get started sketching. A little water brushed onto non-waterproof pen can add tone.

If you fall in love with urban sketching, it won’t matter if you have a sketching kit with you or not. However, most of us like to play with all kinds of art supplies. Many of us can’t wait to try out a new pen, a particular paint color, or a blank sketchbook.

The problem with some of us is that we have too many pens, paints and sketchbooks. And since urban sketching requires that you’re somewhat mobile, carrying a heavy kit can be burdensome. So much so, in fact, that the thought of dragging a backpack of stuff out into the hot sun to sketch could stop you from actually doing it.

The best way to get started is to take one sketchbook and a pencil, or a pencil and pen. When you’re first starting out, you have a lot of other things going on that you’ll have to contend with in the environment. You may feel uncomfortable sketching around strangers. You might be sweltering hot or freezing cold and can’t get your hands to draw straight lines. What will you do if it starts to rain? It’s far better to keep your kit extremely simple until you’ve gotten into a good sketching habit and learned how to deal with all these other things that come with sketching in public. A simple kit means you don’t have to deal with any art supply decisions. You just draw.

After you’ve done it a few times, you’ll know what to add to your kit because you’ll think about it while sketching. For example, maybe you find out that you’re having to redraw thick lines all the time, and you think “I sure wish I had a wide black marker for this”. Then you know it’s a tool that you’ll actually use in your kit without having made the mistake of buying a $70 set of markers that sit unused at the bottom of your pack.

You’ll also discover the types of paper you prefer. I’ll be discussing all kinds of materials in the next blog post, but those will be supplies that work for me. The only way you’re going to find out what works for you is to get out there and practice.

Hmmm….where have I heard that before?

Once you have your pen and a sketchbook, go to your favorite park. Go at a time of day when you know you can get a seat on a bench. Or bring something light to sit on, like a small towel. Draw a tree. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, just draw any tree you see.

Then draw another one on the next page. If you have time, draw a third one.

Why draw a tree? Because it’s going to make you figure out how to simplify what you see. If I go out to my park and try to draw every branch of a tree, I’ll be there all day. Remember, we aren’t cameras and we don’t have to capture every twig on our paper. Draw the trunk, draw some round shapes for foliage and add in some branches. Figure out what about the tree is interesting and spend most of your time drawing that part. That’s the first step to telling a story with your sketch: start with the most interesting thing you see.

And then what?

After you’ve spent an hour drawing at the park, go home and put your sketchbook away. Think about how you felt while you were drawing. Did you enjoy it? Do you want to do it again?

If so, you’re an urban sketcher. Congratulations! Share your practice sketches on social media and tell the world how much fun it is. Then go do it some more.

a lighthouse-like building in a port
Once you fall in love with urban sketching, you’ll want to do it everywhere you go!

Research other urban sketchers and find some you like. Try to figure out what it is that attracts you to their sketches and do the same thing in yours.

Check out these urban sketching YouTubers. They are my favorites, but by no means are they the only ones out there! Who are your favorites? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to add more to my watchlist!

Next week I’ll show you what’s in my kit. Then we’ll look at how to choose a good location, as well as some other basic urban sketching tips, before diving into ways we can be more effective storytellers with our urban sketches. Check back every Tuesday for a new post! And don’t forget to leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your urban sketching experience!

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