Urban Sketching Mastery: Practical Tips & Techniques
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. Choose the right sketching tools
  2. Observe and choose your subject
  3. Start with basic shapes
  4. Add details to your sketch
  5. Use values to create depth
  6. Apply color to your sketch
  7. Capture the urban atmosphere
  8. Practice perspective drawing
  9. Sketch people and vehicles
  10. Experiment with different styles

If you're fascinated by the buzz and life of city streets, then urban sketching might just be your thing. With a sketchbook in hand, you're not just exploring urban sketching styles, you're diving into a vibrant, visual diary of your surroundings. From towering skyscrapers to bustling cafés, every nook and corner of the city holds a story waiting to be sketched. So, let's get started on your journey of mastering urban sketching with some practical tips and techniques.

Choose the right sketching tools

Before you embark on your urban sketching adventure, you need to make sure you're equipped with the right tools. The magic of urban sketching lies in its spontaneity, so having a compact and portable sketching kit is key.

Pencil: Start with a basic HB pencil for light sketching. As you gain confidence, explore harder pencils (like 2H) for light outlines or softer ones (like 6B) for darker and bolder lines.

Pen: A good quality waterproof ink pen is a must. It gives your sketches a crisp, clean look, and works well with watercolor.

Sketchbook: Choose a sketchbook that suits your style. If you prefer landscapes, a horizontal format might work better. Like to capture details? Go for a sketchbook with thick, smooth pages.

Color: Watercolor pans or pencils are great for adding color on the go. They're easy to carry and quick to use, making them perfect for capturing the vibrant hues of city life.

Remember, exploring urban sketching styles isn't about having the most expensive tools. It's about finding what works best for you and using it to capture your unique perspective of the city.

Observe and choose your subject

Urban sketching is as much about observing as it is about drawing. With a city teeming with life, choosing what to sketch might seem daunting. But here's a trick: Start small. You don't have to sketch the entire cityscape in one go.

Perhaps it's the old bookstore on the corner, with its weathered sign and stacks of books visible through the window. Maybe it's the food truck parked by the park, with its vibrant colors and mouth-watering aromas. Or even the group of friends laughing at a café, their joy radiating around them.

Look for elements that catch your eye, that tell a story. Observe the play of light and shadow, the colors, the textures, and the atmosphere. Feel the rhythm of the city, its energy, its life. As you explore urban sketching styles, you'll find that the city is not just a backdrop, but a character in your sketches.

So take a moment. Breathe in the city air. Let your eyes wander. There's a whole world out there waiting to be captured in your sketchbook.

Start with basic shapes

When you've chosen your subject, it's time to get sketching. But before you dive in and start adding all the intricate details, take a step back. Look at your subject and break it down into its basic shapes. Is that building a rectangle? Is the tree a mix of circles and triangles? Understanding these shapes forms the foundation of your sketch.

Start by lightly drawing these shapes on your page. Don't worry about getting them perfect—this is just the initial layout, a map to guide your sketch. It's a simple yet effective technique that can help you capture the essence of your subject.

Remember that sketching is not about creating a detailed replica of your subject. It's about capturing a moment, a scene, a feeling. So don't stress if your shapes aren't perfect. They're not meant to be. They're just the first step in your journey of exploring urban sketching styles.

So grab your sketchbook and start with the basics. You might be surprised at how these simple shapes can transform into a vibrant urban scene.

Add details to your sketch

Once you've got the basic shapes down on your page, it's time to start adding detail. This is where your sketch starts to come alive and your style begins to shine. But where do you start? What details do you add? Well, let's break it down.

First, focus on the larger details. For instance, if you're sketching a building, add in the windows, doors, and any prominent architectural features. If it's a tree, sketch in the branches and larger clumps of leaves. Remember, you're not going for photo-realism. It's about capturing the essence of the scene.

Next, start adding in the smaller details. This could be anything from the texture of the bricks on a building, the individual leaves on a tree, or even the patterns on a passerby's clothes. It's these small details that can add a touch of realism to your sketch and make it uniquely yours.

While exploring urban sketching styles, you'll find that each artist has a unique way of adding details. Some prefer a more minimalistic approach, while others love to fill their pages with intricate details. There's no right or wrong way to do it—just what feels right for you. So don't be afraid to experiment and find your own style.

Adding details to your sketch can be a lot of fun, but it can also be time-consuming. So don't rush it. Take your time, enjoy the process, and watch as your sketch slowly comes to life.

Use values to create depth

Imagine you're standing on a bustling city street. Skyscrapers tower above you, people are rushing by, and vehicles are whizzing past. It's a dynamic scene, full of life and depth. Now, how do you capture that depth in your sketch? The answer lies in using values.

Values are simply different shades of gray between white and black. By using these different shades, you can create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality in your sketch. Let's explore how you can do this.

First, consider your light source. Where is it coming from? This will determine where your highlights (the lightest values) and shadows (the darkest values) will be. For instance, if the light is coming from the left, the left side of objects will be lighter, while the right side will be darker.

Next, start laying down your values. Use lighter values for objects that are closer to the light source and darker values for objects that are farther away. Remember, it's not about getting the values perfect—it's about creating a sense of depth and form.

Exploring urban sketching styles, you'll notice that some artists prefer a high-contrast style with stark differences between light and dark, while others opt for a subtler range of mid-tones. Experiment with both and see which you prefer.

Remember, sketching is a journey, not a destination. So don't be discouraged if your first few attempts don't turn out as you hoped. Keep practicing, keep experimenting, and you'll soon find yourself creating sketches with depth and realism.

Apply color to your sketch

Now that you've mastered the art of creating depth using values, let's add another layer of complexity — color. Color not only adds vibrancy to your sketches but can also enhance the depth and realism of your work. In the world of urban sketching, color is your best friend, so let's get started.

First, you'll need a basic color palette. Now, this doesn't mean you need to carry around a box full of every color under the sun. A small, compact set of watercolor paints or colored pencils can do the trick. The key is to choose a range of colors that can be mixed to create other hues. Red, blue, yellow, black, and white are a good starting point.

Next, apply the same principles of light and shadow you learned in the values section to your color application. Where is your light source? The areas closer to the light will have lighter, more vibrant colors, while those in the shadows will have darker, more muted colors.

When exploring urban sketching styles, you'll see that some artists favor bright, bold colors, while others opt for a more muted, realistic palette. Don't be afraid to experiment and find what works for you. Remember, the aim is not to replicate the scene exactly, but to capture its spirit and energy.

Finally, be patient with yourself. Working with color can be tricky, and it takes time to master. But with practice, you'll soon be adding a splash of color to your sketches that brings them to life.

Capture the urban atmosphere

Urban sketching is not just about drawing buildings or objects, it's about capturing the spirit of the city. You're not just an artist—you're also a storyteller. Your sketches should evoke the sounds, smells, and energy of the urban atmosphere. So, how do you do that?

First, take a moment to really absorb your surroundings. What's the weather like? Is the city bustling with activity or is it a quiet day? Are there any distinctive smells or sounds? All these factors can influence the atmosphere of your sketch.

Let's say you're sketching on a rainy day. You might want to use cool colors and smudged lines to reflect the damp, chilly environment. Or perhaps you're sketching a lively market scene. Bright, bold colors and dynamic lines can help capture the energy and movement of the scene.

Exploring urban sketching styles will reveal that each artist has their unique way of capturing the atmosphere. Some might emphasize the hustle and bustle with heavy, chaotic lines. Others might focus on the tranquility found in a quiet park corner using soft, gentle strokes. Developing your style is part of the journey, and capturing the urban atmosphere is a key part of that.

Remember, your sketch should tell a story. It's not about creating a perfect representation of the scene, but rather capturing a moment in time, complete with all its sights, sounds, and emotions. That's the magic of urban sketching.

Practice perspective drawing

One of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of exploring urban sketching styles is mastering the art of perspective drawing. In the bustling cityscape, buildings tower overhead, roads stretch into the horizon, and people and vehicles move in every direction. How do you capture these dimensions on a flat piece of paper? The answer is perspective drawing.

Perspective drawing is all about creating a sense of depth and three-dimensionality. When done right, it can make a sketch come to life, drawing viewers into the scene. Here are a few practical tips to help you get started:

1. Use vanishing points: These are points in your sketch where parallel lines appear to converge. They help give the illusion of depth and distance. If you're drawing a street, for instance, the buildings will seem to get smaller as they get closer to the vanishing point.

2. Draw objects in proportion: Objects closer to the viewer should appear larger than those further away. This is known as foreshortening. It's a tricky technique to master, but with practice, it can greatly enhance the realism of your sketches.

3. Include overlapping elements: When one object obscures part of another, it creates a sense of depth. For example, if you're sketching a busy street, you might draw a pedestrian overlapping with a car, which in turn overlaps with a building.

Perspective drawing can seem daunting at first, but don't let that deter you. With time and practice, you'll start to see the world through a new lens—one where everything's in perspective.

Sketch people and vehicles

When delving into urban sketching styles, you'll soon realize that cities are more than just buildings and streets. They're teeming with life—people going about their day and vehicles zipping past. Including these elements can add a dynamic, vibrant feel to your sketches.

1. Simplify complex forms: People and vehicles can be complex to sketch. A practical approach is to break them down into simpler shapes. For instance, a person can be seen as a combination of circles, triangles, and rectangles. A car could start as a rectangle and two circles for wheels.

2. Convey movement: Cities are bustling with activity. To capture this, try to depict movement in your sketches. This could mean sketching a person mid-step or a car with blurred lines to indicate speed.

3. Add diversity: Cities are melting pots of cultures and lifestyles. Reflect this in your sketches by including a variety of people and vehicles. This will not only make your sketches more interesting but also more representative of the urban experience.

Remember, people and vehicles aren't static objects—they're integral parts of the urban landscape. By including them in your sketches, you add a layer of authenticity and vitality that truly captures the spirit of the city.

Experiment with different styles

Exploring urban sketching styles is a bit like tasting a variety of dishes at a global food festival. Every style has its unique flavor and charm, and the more you sample, the richer your experience becomes. So, don’t shy away from dabbling in different sketching styles—you might find some that truly resonate with your artistic sensibilities.

1. Quick and loose: This style is all about speed and fluidity. It's perfect for capturing bustling city scenes where everything is in constant motion. Your lines do not have to be perfect—just let your hand flow with the rhythm of the city.

2. Detailed and precise: This style is the exact opposite. It's slow, deliberate, and detail-oriented. Think architectural drawings with precise lines and angles. It's great for sketching intricate facades and ornate structures.

3. Abstract: This style gives you the freedom to play with shapes, lines, and colors. It's less about capturing the city as it is and more about expressing how the city makes you feel.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules in urban sketching. Feel free to mix and match different styles until you find your unique voice. After all, the goal of exploring urban sketching styles is not to mimic others but to discover your own unique expression of the urban landscape.

If you're interested in improving your urban sketching skills, check out the workshop 'Top Tips For Sketchbook Studies' by Rachelle Meyer. This workshop will provide you with practical tips and techniques to enhance your sketchbook studies and master the art of urban sketching.