A Smart Approach to Urban Sketching

A Smart Approach to Urban Sketching

Enjoy the gorgeous fall colors of the turning leaves against crisp blue skies. Marc takes you for a fun “tour” and gives us all the insight we need on how to make the scenes we see come alive through watercolor sketching.

Take in all the sketching goodness and be sure to get our exclusive On-the-Go Sketching Collection, featuring many of Marc’s bestselling tutorials. Enjoy and cheers to your next sketch!

Sketching in Watercolor: Urban Sketching Tutorial

Fall is in full swing in Montreal. It’s getting brisk. Hats and gloves are coming out of the closet. Very soon it’ll be too cold to comfortably paint outside. It might be my last chance to take a day off work and enjoy painting the fall colors.

I recently headed out to Montreal’s Île Saint-Hélène. There’s a little stone tower called the Tour de Lévis marking the highest point of the island. It used to be a water reservoir. These days, it’s used for weddings and fancy parties. The view up top is supposed to be great, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see it. I think this simple stone structure will be a perfect anchor for a sketch that’s really all about the trees.

Time is on My Side

In a field sketch like the one I’m sharing today, I’m usually finished in about an hour. It can go much faster if I’m working very small, or if I’m bold with simplification. I’ll aim to do it all in three passes of watercolor–one pass for the large shapes in lighter (transparent) color, then two over the top with darker accents for midtones and tiny dark shadows.

Skies the Limit

I’ll often start with the sky–it’s usually the biggest, lightest shape. And I can let it dry while I’m moving on to the rest of my first pass. By the time I’ve touched the whole painting once (depending on the weather), it will be dry and ready for more. But before I paint, I’ll usually do a quick pencil sketch. In the image above, you can see my faint under drawing, with the first sky-wash in place.

In the past I’d make a very detailed drawing, but with more experience under my belt, I find myself wanting a simple outline: just the bare bones. If I let myself get carried away drawing, I know I’ll put in every little thing I see.

Forest for the Trees

This scene is almost entirely trees and foliage. I certainly don’t want to be drawing every leaf and branch. It’s not necessary to create the forested impression I’m after–and it might well distract from the central focus. Neither do I want to get caught up drawing the stones of the tower itself. At the small scale I’m working (10×15), it would get too finicky.

Compositionally speaking, I have a phrase: “The Three Big Shapes: Sky, Ground and Subject.” Sometimes a picture needs more than three shapes–but I try to do it in as few as possible. If I can fuse a forest of trees into one contour line, all the better!

Making Memories

As well, I’ve downplayed some intrusive light fixtures bolted onto the tower, ignored a set of picnic tables and some garbage bins, and many, many small leaves on the ground. We could get into a whole discussion about this philosophy of less-is-more. It might not be for everyone, but my goal is a memory of this place.To be able to say I was here, and I painted this, enjoying my time watching the leaves falling.

I don’t need anything more than this to look back on it later. Instead of making my sketches as a perfectionist, my preference is to keep moving and find another spot. Sometimes I can capture five or six sketches in a day. I’d rather have more experiences and more paintings than spend too much time making any one of them more “real.”

Edges and Shapes

I like to build each of the silhouette shapes in the composition with fused strokes of color, painted wet-on-dry. Wet color placed right next to a previous stroke–just touching–will merge into a single shape. Every few strokes I’ll adjust the color mix, aiming for plenty of variety within a passage.
I want colors *inside* a wet shape to blend freely, but I want hard edges *between* shapes. I like to say the edges are the drawing, the shapes are the painting.

What to Leave

Within a shape, I’ll often leave small white flecks of paper. These will become sky-holes in the trees or glinting sunlight on upward facing planes. I like to compare my three colour passes to the liquids tea, milk, and honey. Each layer of paint uses more pigment, less water–going from transparent tea-like washes, to a pigment-rich milky glaze, and ending with almost pure pigment in a honey-like consistency.

I have four, maybe five silhouette shapes here, depending on how you see it. The sky, the tower and two chunks of forest: the more distant trees on the right (with the flash of red leaves), and the wall of forest to the left–which merges with the foreground shape at the moment.

Supporting Your Marks

So, the next step is to look back at each of my silhouette shapes, and see how I can subdivide the basic design with smaller, darker details. I want to describe what’s there, while supporting this pattern I’ve designed. I begin by building up smaller bushes and hedges with darker foliage, and bringing leaves in the canopy over the sky. As well, I’ll start breaking the yellow-green forest silhouettes up into individual trees. It’s important that the first pass has dried. Sometimes I’ll need to take a break, setting the painting in the sun. I want to use my richer pigment over top of dry washes so I can control the hardness of edges. I still resist trying to paint every tree trunk or branch, but aim to create the impression with broken brush strokes, allowing the underpainting to show through the gaps.

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