A Smart Approach to Urban Sketching (and a Demo!)

Capturing Fall in Full Swing

One of our resident artists, Marc Taro Holmes, delivers a great urban sketching demo to us based on his jaunts out and about in Montreal, Canada. 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!

Courtney  

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.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

Above, left: Reference photo. Above, right: Marc’s finished piece. (Pin this demo for future reference!)

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.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

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.”

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

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 color 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.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com
So, here’s the first transparent wash complete – the Tea.

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.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com
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.

In my three passes, each one touches less and less surface area of the painting. The “tea” floods everything. The “milk” is about 25% of the paper, and the final touches of “honey” are only tiny adjustments. In this manner the sketch is completed very quickly and each layer builds on what went before.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

Parts to Savor

I’ve been waiting for a while to put in these raking shadows across the grass. They’re one of my favorite parts of the scene. The long shadows describe the slope of the earth, adding depth while at the same time making a subconscious set of steps leading up to the tower. I had seen these cast shadows when I first arrived on location, and had made note that I’d get them in, even if the light changed. It had indeed gone by the time I got to this stage, but if you look back, they’re lightly indicated in the drawing. Just enough that I’d remember them.

I did, however, downplay them–they were darker in real life–but I want the viewer’s eye going toward the tower, not to be drawn to the ground. So they’re a favorite part, but they can’t be over stated.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

Now it’s just a matter of smaller and smaller details, such as looking at the shapes within shapes, and seeing where any tiny shadows can help define the foliage. These small touches are scattered all over. They’re only a tiny percentage of the surface area, but in a way they change the entire painting. Each one refines a silhouette edge or grounds a form with a cast shadow.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

In the final painting the three (well, OK, five) big shapes have been enriched with details. There are now many overlapping forms, but they’re organized by that underlying plan. At the same time, the dark accents have been designed to reinforce the composition.

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Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

The dark ridge line of bushes on the left and the diagonal passages of darks and lights on the right all direct the eye toward the front door of the tower. The tiny door itself is a bullseye pattern of concentric dark and light, placed directly over the rule of thirds–an unavoidable eye-catching target.
Everything in this simple sketch has been building up my story of discovering this romantic stone tower in the woods. The perfect postcard of a blustery fall day.

Urban sketching tutorial with Marc Taro Holmes | ArtistsNetwork.com

Marc Taro Holmes is the author of the instructional handbook: The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location. He has recently released four video demonstrations on ArtistsNetwork.tv about sketching on location in pen and ink and watercolor; Sketching Birds, Travelling with a Sketchbook, Painting Panoramas and Sketching Street Life.

Marc blogs at CitizenSketcher.com, offering regular free updates featuring painting demos like this one, interesting experiments with art tools and materials, art book reviews and stories from his own travels with a sketchbook.

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3 thoughts on “A Smart Approach to Urban Sketching (and a Demo!)

  1. Maribelji

    Thank you for this excellent article. I have been painting with watercolors outdoors for two years and I always feel so tense at first because of the overwhelming and ever-ending space. I am learning to relax and keep my focus. I bought an image catcher but I can never keep it at the same spot. I am told to keep painting and practice. This article makes it look so simple and it’s ok to eliminate what’s on your way of what you really want to paint; I tried to always put everything. Thanks!

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