Urban Sketching Without Leaving Home

You already know, of course, that I don’t do urban sketching. I can’t draw buildings, and I’d be much too intimidated to go out with any of our regional sketching groups. We have some very talented artists in the area.

I love seeing what these urban sketchers do. I marvel over the drawings they share in their Facebook groups. Yet urban sketching is not for me. I know this.

Recently I’ve been taking part in a free online workshop called Sketchbook Revival. You’ll be hearing more about this in upcoming posts. I haven’t gotten off to a very good start, however. Although the program is designed to inspire us, and give us a sense of freedom in our approach to art, I’ve struggled. The experience actually put me onto an emotional roller-coaster — one which was plunging downhill fast.

So when I tuned in this morning to check out the next video in the workshop program, I shook my head. I’m using a personal journal I made — another workshop project — and I’ve been making notes. Mostly derogatory, hateful notes about my artwork. Yeah, I know. That’s not a good thing to do, but I’m calling it art therapy. 

What did I write when I saw that we’d be doing urban sketching?

“Oh, boy. This should be awfulWatercolor. Urban sketching. Could it get any worse?”

Yes, those are the exact words I wrote. But being in a perverse mindset, being on an almost vengeful crusade to sabotage myself where art is concerned, I decided to follow along and see what I could do. After all, it couldn’t be any worse than the results I had the previous day (an acrylic painting I tore into pieces and tossed into the scrap bin) or the results from the day before that (a collage elephant that looks more like an overgrown puppy) or the hideous result from the session preceding that one (an old shoe that you really don’t want to see.)

Nope. It couldn’t get any worse, so I played along with renowned urban sketcher Shari Blaukopf as she demonstrated how she goes about creating little vignettes with ink and watercolor washes.

I actually liked my little ink drawing — a doorway she had photographed somewhere in Italy. I liked it so much I scanned it. Surely I would ruin it completely once I attempted to use watercolors.

But, no! I still liked my little vignette even after the addition of watercolor. I used my small gansai set. It’s always close at hand, so it’s become my “go-to” when I’m doing any quick watercolor project.

This was actually quite fun, and I was very pleased with it. Shari Blaukopf went on to do much more — deepening shadows, adding more finishing touches to the greenery — but one thing I have learned about my own personal approach to art is that I need to stop while I like what I’ve done.

The reason I so often ruin things in art is because I keep trying to fix little things or find ways to make something better. I chose not to do that today. I’d rather have a somewhat unfinished piece of art that I enjoy looking at than a finished work fit only for the trashcan.

So, my shadows aren’t deep, dark and mysterious. I lost some of my lights as my watercolor bled here and there. Even my attempts at playful splatters (a technique Blaukopf uses to suggest the presence of unseen things) were a bit careless. I still like this vignette.

I’m glad I pushed myself a little and gave this a try. It was so much fun that I’d like to do it again. I think I did pick up some helpful tips from the session.

  • Don’t worry about doing an entire urban scene. A little vignette can be fun and charming.
  • Start from the center and draw outward instead of trying to fit the image into a pre-determined space.
  • Focus on the interesting things and don’t worry about capturing every little detail.
  • Note where the lights will be and save them. Add in the shadows at the last.

Armed with this new knowledge — and my personal sketchbook — will I venture out in public now to sketch our historic square? Will I happily create vignettes of our town’s old architecture?

Nope. No way. But I will take a few reference photos to keep here on my computer, and on other mornings, I’ll grab my ink pen — I used a simple ball-point for today’s sketching — and my gansai, and I just might try my own version of urban sketching without ever leaving home.

29 Comments

      1. LOL… my worst story was spending hours — HOURS — desperately trying to draw a partly-opened door. It was an online exercise from some drawing site. I had such a headache from it! I never got the door drawn either. And there was another time when I tried to draw the Arena Chapel from a photo online. It looks (deceptively) simple. I just finally had to accept the fact that while I might learn to draw a few things, buildings and architectural features were never going to be included in my repertoire.

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    1. 🙂 Thanks. Yeah, I ruin so many things because I want to “just fix this a little bit…” and wham! Right now I’m going through a real whirl of emotions in my art, so I’m being extra kind to my “inner child”. I’m making myself put things down and walk away before I can ruin them. I think it’s really helping me. I also gathered up most of the “ruins” I had sitting around the studio and moved them away so I don’t see them. It feels much better to look at drawings and paintings I like than to be surrounded with things I’ve “ruined”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. absolutely. The good thing about deleting photographs is that I never see them again. I can always go back to the original, unlike you, but when I see something that bothers me and I cannot fix it, that’s all I see from that point on. The delete bottom is awesome! Goest to the trash and puff….

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Looks great! 🤙🏻
    Your blog provided me a lot of insight. I plan to offer painting and drawing classes virtually and have been struggling with the best format and ‘curriculum’. I want people to experience more fun, less frustration. I think some tips and discussion, followed by a brief demonstration, and then question and answer seems best? I’d love your thoughts on this…what format seems most helpful and less intimidating to you?

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    1. Sorry for such a late response! I definitely agree that any art class or program should be fun, or if not “fun” at least a pleasant, positive, and encouraging experience for all participants. That’s not always in an instructor’s control, however. I know I’ve sometimes had very unhappy experiences — not online so much but with in-person workshops — and maybe there are a few lessons I’ve learned that I can share. First, be sure your class members know exactly what they need. Having a materials list prepared ahead of time makes this easier, especially if you give information on substitutions. If you’re working from a reference photo, you might want to make that available, too, and please, be sure any reference photos are available for download with no copyright restrictions and that they’re large enough and clear enough to see! This is one of my biggest online frustrations. So often a class or demo features a small reference photo where I can’t make out the details. Do you plan to have participants work along as you do the demo? If so, I would suggest having someone on-hand to monitor the chat box/comments section so that you can answer questions as they arise. If not, then the Q & A session afterward would be great. For me, the friendliest approach is having a live demo with chat. This is the format used for the “Gettin’ Sketchy” sessions from The Virtual Instructor. I’ve enjoyed those immensely — except for the problems with reference photos. The casual format gives me a chance to really get acquainted with the two hosts. I’m able to leave comments, ask questions, and participate during the art demonstration. The episodes are all recorded and can be accessed at any time on YouTube. Another suggestion I hear often is “Can we share our artwork?” You might consider having a place where students can upload their versions of the demo, but if you do, please be sure to offer a word of encouragement to everyone who shares their art. One thing I’ve learned is that nothing feels worse than having a piece of art totally ignored. Even if it’s truly awful, a good instructor should be able to find something encouraging to say. I hope these ideas and suggestions are helpful in some way, and again, I apologize for the slow response.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wonderful advice!! Don’t sweat the timing of your reply, it’s perfect. Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. It can only help me be more successful in creating a positive art experience so I’m very grateful! You rock 🤙🏻

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Awww, thanks for that! 🥰
        I haven’t started yet. I’m still working out the best structure & format. When I came across your blog I was excited! You really helped me understand some of the more critical aspects of this idea. Can I keep you posted? I’d love to have your honest critique when the time comes 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I sort of felt that exact same way! I don’t do “urban sketching.” I’m awful at buildings, and windows, and doorways, so I was very pleased with this “vignette.” Especially because I had so much fun creating it.

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    1. Yes, thank you! I really liked it. Usually things like this are so difficult for me, but this time I just relaxed, had fun, and came away with something I think is quite charming. I’m glad you like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for visiting, now following, my blog, Judith! This is a lovely sketch, you’ve caught something that has the feel of your own experience of it, not just the “facts”. This is something I’m trying gradually to work on, to loosen up and gain clarity over what it is that has caught my eye.. or heart/attention, really. Not always easy. I’ll look at more of your site later… it’s bright, sunny and cold outside now, time for a walk before another stint of video editing… Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I’m not good at urban sketching, so it was fun to “loosen up” a little and do this “vignette”. I think the most important thing I learned from it was that I don’t have to try to capture every detail or every architectural element. I just need to get a few loose strokes down on the paper to “suggest” what’s there. It was very enjoyable to draw and paint. It’s cold here, too. I’m wanting to go hiking in our park, but I don’t think it’s quite warm enough for that. Enjoy your walk!

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