Materials for Urban Sketching: How to choose them

Urban Sketching Materiali

A list to help you select your materials for Urban Sketching

Urban Sketching is an artistic practice based on live drawing that aims to document the world around us and the experiences we have in the very moment they happen. This immediacy, aimed at capturing the essence of a place or an event, reflects on the materials that can be used for Urban Sketching.

This form of artistic expression offers numerous benefits, the main ones being:

  • Improving observation skills
  • Developing the ability to capture details
  • Strengthening visual memory
  • Establishing a deeper connection with the surrounding environment

Furthermore, urban sketching promotes creativity, relaxation, and the sharing of experiences with a community of like-minded artists.

Those who engage in this practice are called Urban Sketchers and have the characteristic of using quick and spontaneous strokes to capture on paper, in a personal and free manner, what they are experiencing. For this reason, the materials are equally personal and free. There are no rules.

In fact, experimentation is one of the defining characteristics of an Urban Sketcher. However, a basic list of materials for Urban Sketching could be the following one that I created based on my own experience and the Urban Sketchers I have met over the years.

1. Choosing a Sketchbook for Urban Sketching

Urban Sketching is often done using a sketchbook, which provides support and allows for a more or less organized collection of drawings. The sketchbook is usually compact for easy portability, ensuring that no drawing opportunity is missed.

Personally, I go through phases and often change the format of my sketchbooks. However, I pay attention to the quality of the paper. In my opinion, it’s worth using medium or high-quality paper, at least 200 gsm for mixed media techniques. This allows for ample experimentation with materials.

In my case, as I mostly work with watercolors and I prefer sketchbooks with quality paper. The sizes vary, but I often use a small sketchbook to carry around and a larger one for official Urban Sketching outings.

2. Pencil and Eraser

Pencils are extremely versatile tools for every artist as they allow for quick scene capture, composition work, and creating finished sketches. Personally, I use an eraser very rarely, but when I do, it must be of good quality to avoid damaging the paper.

On the other hand, I always carry a pencil with me, and from experience, I prefer a soft pencil or even charcoal. Using a dark pencil constantly trains the hand to be light, and it also prevents paper damage.

Charcoal is particularly useful for capturing dark tones and quick textures. There are dry charcoals that can be smudged with hands or water to create interesting textures, and there are oily charcoals that remain indelible even under subsequent watercolor application.

3. Pens: A Must for Urban Sketching

Waterproof ink pens are very popular among sketchers. These tools allow for crisp and defined lines without worrying about smudging when watercolor is applied. They can be used before or after adding color or even exclusively, adding detail quickly and creating easily readable images.

For those who also use watercolors, the simplicity of pen lines can be one of the most challenging aspects to master in order to preserve the freshness of the sketch.

4. Colored Pencils and Markers: Adding Color to the Sketch

These tools are very common as they allow for adding color with great control, even in challenging situations. Personally, I would recommend them for working on a small scale and when aiming for a high level of detail.

To fully harness the beauty of these mediums, it’s necessary to learn how to blend them to create shades and overlays that make the drawing more interesting.

5. The Magic of Watercolors in Urban Sketching

Water-based colors are widely used to quickly add color and vibrancy to drawings. There are portable watercolor sets available that include a selection of essential colors and a compact palette, making them easy to carry and use on the go. As a person learns, they will refine their own color choices to create a recognizable palette. When working with watercolors, it’s important to remember to bring a water container and a cloth to dry the brushes, which we will discuss in the next point.

Another option is watercolor pencils or pastels, which are very versatile and allow for utilizing the advantages of both mediums. However, they are best suited for working on smaller surfaces.

6. Brushes for Urban Sketching

Brushes are essential for working with watercolors, and it’s important to choose appropriate ones that are soft, so they don’t scratch the paper or remove the color once applied. The choice of brushes varies greatly depending on the drawing style, but generally, it’s preferable to use fairly large round brushes that allow for both covering large surfaces and creating details.

A tool widely used by Urban Sketchers is the waterbrush, which, in my opinion, is a good option for drawing details. However, since the bristles are made of rigid plastic, they are not suitable for backgrounds or larger washes.

7. Cases and Bags: The Holy Grail of Urban Sketchers

Since Urban Sketchers often use a variety of materials, the choice of containers for carrying everything is crucial. A dedicated case for pens and pencils, as well as a suitable bag, can help keep everything organized and easily accessible during a sketching session. The goal is to combine lightweight, comfort, and accessibility to materials.

Personally, I have not yet found the perfect option. Finding the right bag to always carry with me sometimes feels as difficult as finding the Holy Grail.

8. Folding Chair or Mat: Bringing Comfort to Urban Sketching

When practicing Urban Sketching, it’s important to find the right subject to draw, one that speaks to us, is representable, and matches the time available and our skill level. However, to view the subject from the right perspective, we often have to adapt to slightly uncomfortable situations, such as drawing while standing or in the middle of a street or relying on makeshift supports. A folding chair or a camping mat can be excellent for finding some comfort in these situations, offering a place to sit.

However, they come with the downside of needing to be carried around during movements, so careful consideration is required when deciding whether to bring them. I believe there is a Murphy’s Law related to this because whatever choice you make will never be the right one. But this will help you learn to adapt.

Materials for Urban Sketching: Some suggestions

As an enthusiast of experimentation, I used to carry bags full of materials with me for years, only to end up not knowing what to use. My suggestion is to go out for Urban Sketching with as few materials as possible. Before heading out, choose what you want to experiment with, try the materials at home, and then bring only the ones you have selected. This way, when you sit down to draw, you only have to choose the subject and not the materials, saving precious time.

Furthermore, even if you enjoy experimenting, seeing improvements is a great motivator. To achieve that, I recommend choosing one material and using it for a certain period of time (a couple of months) regularly at home and outdoors. This way, you will make great strides in transforming your experiences into lasting memories through Urban Sketching, and it will be easier to maintain the motivation to continue doing it.

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