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A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Vibrant Watercolor Urban Sketches

Urban sketching can bring you closer to the city you live in or help you explore a new place. While you certainly can sketch on the go with just a pen and paper, adding watercolor to your urban sketching routine adds more color (literally!) to your art.

Washington DC Urban Sketch

Lear how to create urban sketches with watercolors that will take you back to that moment every single time.

Step 1: Curate your on-the-go sketching set

Urban Sketching Supplies

With urban sketching in particular, preparation is key. Your process begins way before you set pencil to paper. For a successful outdoor sketching experience, you need a plan for what you need.

The first few times, you might carry more supplies than you really need, but over time you’ll get to know your style and what your essentials are.

To start, curate your most used and most essential supplies. For example, you certainly don’t need 5 brushes. Personally, I like to carry two or three, because the few extras come in handy when I’m painting quickly and don’t have time to clean the brush for each color.

The very basics include:

  • Sketchbook or pad
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Pen and ink
  • Small watercolor set
  • One or two brushes
  • Mixing palette
  • Container of water

Step 2: Consider what you want to capture

This step also falls under the “preparation” category. Before you begin sketching, select the scene you want to capture and the angle you want to draw it from.

Ask yourself: does the view that you are about to draw inspire you, or will you be bored by it after a couple of minutes? Before you put pencil to paper, observe the scenery in front of you. If it inspires you and it makes you feel something, I bet it will be a moment you will want to capture in your sketchbook and remember it forever.

Step 3: Time to pick up that pencil and sketch!

After all the prep work, you can finally start drawing! I like to begin by drawing some basic perspective lines as a guide and drawing basic proportions for landmarks or structures.

My personal preference is to focus on still things first — such as buildings, roads and trees — since I can look at them for long periods of time without them changing. Afterward, I’ll focus on capturing moving things such as people and cars.

Of course, you don’t have to follow my approach. Sketch the scene in whatever way makes sense to you. Just know that you don’t need to capture every little detail in your pencil sketch.

Step 4: Apply ink

Beach Sketch<

Once you’re done with the pencil sketch and you’re ready to lock it in, you can start outlining with an ink pen. I like using a fineliner pen, and occasionally I like to experiment by combining thicknesses.

For instance, this time I inked my whole sketch with a 0.3mm Prismacolor fineliner and later added some thicker lines with a brush tip pen over some of the palm trees. I didn’t really end up liking how those turned out, but that’s OK because sketching is the best time to try something new. 

Step 5: Add layers of watercolor

Beach Sketching

Take a moment to look at the scenery and start noticing colors and shadows (instead of shapes and proportions).

Decide which is the most predominant color and mix it on your palette. In my case, it was the sandy beige of the sand. Paint those areas with a light wash of very diluted color.

Once those are dry you can start painting areas with a slightly thicker wash of colors. And lastly, you can focus on painting details with colors mixed in the thickest consistency you want to work with.

This technique allows you to have more control over watercolors. It also gives your sketches more depth and richer colors. The key here is to always allow your paper to fully dry between layers.

Step 5: Cleaning up your supplies

Last but not least, comes the clean up. To keep your brushes in the best condition possible, give them quick wash or rinse before packing up all your supplies. It’s always a good idea to carry a few paper towels when you are doing urban sketching with watercolors. They can be useful to wipe your brushes while you paint and to dry any brushes, palettes or containers after you’re done.

Christmas Beach Sketch

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and that it will inspire you to try urban sketching if you haven’t done it before!

Urban Sketching Class

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