Essential Watercolour Painting Tips for Urban Sketchers (2023)

In this post, we will explore how to use watercolour paint as an urban sketcher. Urban sketching with watercolours is a unique skill and while many of the ideas in this post can be applied to using watercolour paint traditionally too, we will focus on the essential tips that will help you when painting on location.

Why is watercolour painting difficult to learn?

Watercolour painting can be a tricky skill to pick up, it’s an intimidating medium as we are at the mercy of how the water and the paint behave on the paper, which is something even the best watercolourists can’t always anticipate.It’s also part of the fun.

Using watercolour while urban sketching can be trickier still.

I want to help you overcome any intimidation you may feel so that you can apply the paint with courage and master working with the paint rather than against it.

Traditional Watercolour Painting vs Urban Sketching

There is a big difference between how traditional watercolour painters working in a home or studio environment may use watercolour paint versus how an urban sketcher, who is painting on location, uses watercolour paint.

Liz Steel explores this in her blog post here.

Essentially we, as urban sketchers, do not operate in the same way as a traditional watercolour painter would when we are using watercolour on location. Urban sketchers usually have less time to plan and to paint, fewer tools and an uncontrollable environment, yet we have less pressure in the sense that we are just sketching and not trying to produce a work of fine art to hang on the wall.

I believe there are some urban sketchers that blur the lines of these two different camps. Someone who instantly springs to mind is Marc Taro Holmes.

Marc brings the vibe of a traditional studio artist to urban sketching.There are some urban sketchers who are almost ‘plein air painters’ in that they may set up in one place with an easel and spend a couple of hours painting a scene.

In this post, we are considering using watercolour as an urban sketcher capturing quick sketches of the world around us.

Materials for Watercolour Urban Sketching

You will read many an article or hear advice that you should buy the best materials you can afford when it comes to watercolour painting. To some extent, I agree.

However, when you are just starting to learn a skill such as watercolour painting, sometimes having more expensive materials can actually hinder your progress.

If you are anything like me, expensive things intimidate me! That probably sounds a bit weird. Hear me out.

(Video) How to Urban Sketch Using Pen and Watercolors: Full Process with Tips.

If I have a very expensive sketchbook or paper (like the Arches watercolour block I just bought to do commissions on) you are scared of “wasting” it and you tighten up. The same if you have very expensive professional watercolours – you will be afraid to use them.

It seems, at least in my experience, that the expense of something effects the ability to play, experiment and be brave. And these things are exactly what you need to do and be when you are painting in watercolours.

I think as you progress and get a little more confident in your abilities, that’s the point to upgrade your materials. Not all art materials in the same price bracket are made equal, however. You may have got this impression already if you’ve read my posts on which watercolour sketchbooks or watercolour paint sets I recommend.

For day to day watercolour urban sketching, you need:

  • watercolour paper in a pad or book format which you can chuck in your bag, carry everywhere with you, that you are not concerned about using or getting a bit dog-eared and that can handle both drawing and watercolours without turning into a soggy mess
  • 12 pans (slightly more or less is fine, 36 is overkill) of colour in a small plastic or metal box with room to mix colours in the lid
  • round brushes (try size #2, #6 and #10), a flat brush (not essential but great for painting straight edges, a dagger brush (not essential but so versatile)! Synthetic, natural hair or a blend is fine…do not overthink this, just get brushes you can afford but not super cheap craft-type brushes that may be labelled as watercolour brushes and have 10 in a packet. These are not good. Get the real deal.

Essential Tips to Improve Your Watercolour Painting

Sketch Lightly

If you are doing a watercolour-only painting, sketch very lightly. Heavy pencil lines and heavy erasing will ruin the paper surface, so when you go to paint over the top, the paper will either reject the paint, or the surface will be much thinner and your paper will wrinkle more than in other places. Obviously as urban sketchers we are not looking to create a perfect finished piece but its a good habit to get into. And you definitely don’t want to damage your paper surface.

Paint very light initial layers

Watercolour painting is all about working in layers. As you can’t paint light colours over dark colours (like you can with opaque mediums such as acrylic and oil) you need to plan your painting a little more. You need to understand where your lightest lights will be and your darkest darks.

Leave white space

To achieve depth and contrast in your painting, leave some white space where your highlights will be. This is tricky to get used to at first but keep practising identifying where those highlights go in each sketch and avoid painting them at all.

Paint a scene with strong contrast

Painting a scene with very strong lights and darks is really going to help us paint a dynamic painting with lots of depth. If you are out sketching on a dull overcast day this is going to be tricky. If the sun comes out at any point to create shadows, make sure you grab a photo so you can refer back to it later. Strong lights and shadows are the keys to making any watercolour sketch pop off the page.

Mix your dark colours

Do not use black straight from the pan or tube, in fact, just get rid of your black pigment, you don’t need it. You can make super interesting dark colours mixing pigments such as Ultramarine (blue) and Burnt Sienna (brown) together.

Make a watercolour mixing chart

Make it from your paint set and make it in your sketchbook. This is such an invaluable tool to understand how your paints work together and a reference tool to help you get the right colours in your sketch every time. Don’t know how to make a watercolour mixing chart? Check out my post here or the video below.

(Video) Urban Sketching for Beginners with Pen and Watercolor

Learn how to mix colours

Following on from making a mixing chart, it is important to learn how to mix colours correctly. If you mix more than 3 colours, for example, it’s likely you are going to achieve a horrible muddy colour.

Learning how colours mix and work together is one of the most important pieces of knowledge you can have when it comes to watercolour (or working with colour in any format).

If you would like some practical information about colour theory for urban sketching, check out my post here.

Be brave with your colours

When painting urban scenes it can be easy to look and just see beige and grey, boring. However, look again. Is that red and oranges you see in the roof, blues and purples in the shadows, pinks in the sky, yellows and greens in the window reflections?

Ok, perhaps don’t use all of those colours in one scene.

The point is to be expressive with your use of colour, don’t be afraid to stylise the scene. You can use spots of local colour (i.e. colour that is really there) but you can spice things up with colours you feel are there.

Ian Fennelly is the master of this approach. I also love how Liz Steel uses ‘Potters Pink’ in a lot of her work – it’s so distinctive. When I see that colour, I think of Liz Steel.

Get loose and splashy

We are sketching, not producing fine works of art to hang on the wall (probably), so don’t be afraid to throw the paint around a bit.

If you have quite a tight ink drawing, using splashes of watercolour over the top can be a really interesting counterpoint, adding drama.

Think of urban sketchers like Simone Ridyard who does 95% line drawing and then adds a small splash of colour, usually in just one area and usually a bright red or a blue.

Ian Fennelly gets some very light lines down on his paper and then splashes on some watercolour here and there, all the while working layer after layer to build the sketch up from basic big shapes in light washes to finer details with bolder colours.

Do not get disheartened

Keep working on it. I make the mistake often when I’m halfway through and think to myself “it looks rubbish”.

Every single sketch or painting goes through a period where it just looks rubbish. Those early layers have to be painted though. It takes time. You need to be patient. You need to layer your painting or sketch.

(Video) 8 STEPS for the PERFECT Urban SKETCH | Danny Hawk

We tend to see finished sketches and end results and judge our efforts against these. However, if you take a class with Ian Fennelly or any urban sketcher you will witness a period of the painting where the first wash of colour goes on and for a significant amount of time the painting looks lacklustre. This is when you absolutely need to keep going, push through and keep working. By the end (and you decide when that is by the way), you will see a very different result. Don’t give up too soon!

Common Mistakes or Problems in Watercolour Painting

Mixing muddy colours

Be careful which and how many colours you mix together otherwise you could end up with muddy colours. Try not to mix more than 2 colours together. If you have made a watercolour mixing chart then refer to it regularly to identify which colours in your set will give you the colour you need. After time, you probably won’t feel the need to refer to the chart as know which colours to mix will become instinctual.

Not letting the paint dry

I never seem to learn this lesson. If are not patient and do not let your paint dry properly your colours may bleed together or you may produce ‘back runs’ where the water runs into your pigment and produces a puddle of fainter colour where it’s washed away some pigment.

Sometimes we want to produce these sorts of results but not unintentionally!

Overworking the painting

It is possible to overwork a watercolour painting. While painting in layers is the key to producing depth, you do not want to use too may unnecessary layers. Each layer you apply can cause the paint of the previous layer to lift and you are at risk of things becoming a bit muddy.

Watercolours are not meant to be used for super detailed paintings, embrace the nature of the medium.

Why does my watercolour painting look flat?

Creating depth and contrast in a watercolour sketch or painting are the keys to ending up with a dynamic piece.

Depth is when a painting on a two-dimensional surface feels three dimensional. The way to achieve depth is to use light and shadow to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects within the painting.

To create depth you need to consider the composition of your sketch. Are there elements in the background, mid-ground and foreground?

Contrast is the difference between the lightest values and the darkest values.

Elements in the background are going to be a much lighter value than elements in the foreground. As watercolour painters this helps us, we can work from the background of our painting in light values moving to the mid-ground with slightly stronger values and then working on the foreground with darker values. This creates both a sense of depth and contrast.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post has been useful to help you identify the challenges of watercolour sketching and how to address them. Watercolour is such an amazing medium, the fun of using it is exactly because you cannot anticipate quite what it will do! We can do our best to harness it though and produce sketches using watercolour to best of our abilities.

If you have enjoyed this post, check out some of my other posts and join my newsletter where I give you the inside scoop on my urban sketching projects as well as other content not discussed here on the blog. I send an email twice a month (maximum).



What ink does Urban Sketchers use? ›

Fineliners. Another popular type of pen is a fineliner or technical pen. This is what I first started out with. Most urban sketchers will use this type of pen because they generally have waterproof ink in them, so they're great for use with watercolours.

How do you practice urban sketching? ›

You can practice urban sketching drawing the things you find around your house, the different rooms, the exterior of your house, your family members or pets. You can also practice sketching from photos as well as from your imagination.

Who is the best urban sketcher? ›

Ian Fennelly is one of the world's most revered urban sketchers and sought after teachers.

Is Urban Sketching hard? ›

Urban Sketching is a super popular topic in the arts, especially these days. It's simple enough to get into, but some aspects of drawing and painting in cities, towns or villages can be a bit tricky. Good thing that we've learned a lot, since the Impressionists discovered the benefits of moving their ateliers outdoors.

What sketchbook does Ian Fennelly use? ›

Ian's Fabriano Spiral Bound A3 Sketchbook 140lb HP that he orders in the UK. An equivalent Fabriano sketchbook size 11x14" can also be purchased from Amazon with cheaper shipping within the US. (It also has more pages).

Can you use fountain pens to draw? ›

I like using fountain pens for art because it has a consistent flow of ink, I am able to choose the ink I use, and the thicker line forces me to find simpler ways of communicating details. The pen's comfortable design and eye-catching appearance also makes drawing more enjoyable.

Where do I start urban sketching? ›

How Do You Start an Urban Sketch?
  • Choose a layout (e.g. landscape/portrait/square)
  • Start sketching the foreground elements.
  • Fill out the background elements.
  • Use foreground elements to measure against and try to get the right proportions.
  • Focus on the shapes, draw what's actually there, not what you think objects look like.

Do you start with dark or light colors when Watercoloring? ›

With watercolor it's important to lay down your light colors first and work towards the darker colors. Have patience - there's no rush. We start with the light colors first because once you lay down the dark colors, it's hard to undo.

What is the difference between plein air and urban sketching? ›

Plein air painting is said to take the longest, as it is more detail oriented, and it uses either paint or pastels to depict an outdoor subject. In contrast, urban sketching is sketching, meaning that it is not as detail focused and the style tends to be quicker and more casual.

How long does it take to become a good sketcher? ›

You can get good at sketching or drawing by committing to doing 5 sketches a day, or for drawing at least a half-hour a day for 5 years. This is best accomplished if you draw from life, and learn the principles of drawing such as perspective, proportions, composition, and anatomy.

Is urban street art really art? ›

Although urban art started at the neighborhood level, where many people of different cultures live together, it is an international art form with an unlimited number of uses nowadays. Many urban artists travel from city to city and have social contacts all over the world.

What is the hardest style of drawing? ›


These styles garner huge attention and praise from the public, but not necessarily other artists. For those who do not practice painting, hyper-realism and photo-realism are often considered the most difficult due to the wow factor.

How long does an urban sketch take? ›

Urban sketching is supposed to be quick and agile so you can sketch on the fly. Artists who paint on location with acrylic or oil paint usually set up an easel in front of a specific scene and spend 3+ hours painting.

Which nib size is best for drawing? ›

Below is a brief outline of the four main nib widths: Extra Fine (EF / XF / X) has the thinnest writing line. This nib width is especially popular for drawing or for writing characters like those in Chinese or Japanese writing and suits intricate detailing.

Which is better for sketching HB or 2B? ›

Writing and drawing with graphite pencils

Anyone with more experience in writing and drawing will usually choose a pencil with the medium degree of hardness HB; some feel most comfortable with the degree of hardness F. People who want to express themselves artistically use soft pencils of hardness grades 2B to 8B.

Is it worth buying an expensive fountain pen? ›

We now hope that when you ask yourself, 'are expensive pens worth it? ', the answer will be a resounding yes. Luxury pens are worth it; from improving your writing to becoming more eco-conscious, luxury pens are worth it for their durability and elegance.

What paint does Ian Davenport use? ›

As Davenport pours glossy acrylic paint from the top of his tilted canvas, he constructs sequences of hues that present contrasting and complementary results. In the 'Puddle Painting' series, the artist allows the paint to form rich pools of a marbled quality at the bottom of the canvas.

Is the Illo sketchbook worth it? ›

I like that it's enough of a "marker paper" that it blends the ink and doesn't bleed through but also doesn't suck my markers dry or let the ink pool on top like other papers. I honestly don't think I will buy another brand sketchbook again. illo all the way! PS- the bird pic was with water based markers.

Which fountain pen is best for beginners? ›

Best Starter Fountain Pens
  • Pilot MR Metropolitan Fountain Pens. Retail: $29.99. ...
  • Lamy Ink (50ml) & Pink Safari Fountain Pens. Retail: $50.00. ...
  • Lamy Safari Fountain Pens. Retail: $37.00. ...
  • Platinum Preppy Fountain Pens. Retail: $3.96. ...
  • Platinum Plaisir Fountain Pens. Retail: $22.00. ...
  • Kaweco Classic Sport Fountain Pens. Retail: $25.00.

Can I use watercolor in a fountain pen? ›

A viewer sent me a question through my Instagram page recently to ask if it's necessary to use fountain pens for watercolour sketching. The short answer is no. You don't have to use fountain pens for watercolour sketching. But you do have to use a pen with waterproof ink.

Do you start with eyes or nose when sketching? ›

Start with the eyes and then move down to the nose and mouth to create the triangle of features. Apply some dark tone next to the face to help create the light edge of the face. Start to build the hair using long pencil strokes.

What are some sketching tips for beginners? ›

15 Tips That'll Improve Your Pencil Sketches
  1. Get the Right Setup. ...
  2. Break Subjects Down Into Shapes. ...
  3. And Practice Drawing Them. ...
  4. Draw What You See, Not What You Know. ...
  5. Try Sketching Upside Down. ...
  6. Draw the Negative Space. ...
  7. Bring Emotion In. ...
  8. Practice Different Shading Techniques.
16 Feb 2021

Do you need to be good at art to be an urban planner? ›

If you want to be an urban designer the artistic skills are a bit more important, but not really as you can always get others to work from your sketches and written descriptions for the final presentation drawings.

Should I use pen or pencil for sketching? ›

Depending on how they've been sharpened, pencils can create fine point detailed work or harsher and border strokes and shading. On the other hand, drawing with a pen can save time, especially if you get bogged down by little mistakes and stop to erase every minor error.

What are the 5 basic drawing skills? ›

The 5 basic skills of drawing are understanding edges, spaces, light and shadow, relationships, and, the whole, or gestalt. These 5 basic skills of drawing make up the components of a finished work of art when put together.

What are the 6 main drawing techniques? ›

Exploring Mark-Making and Shading Techniques
  • ​1. Hatching.
  • Cross-Hatching.
  • Contour Lines.
  • Weaving.
  • Stippling.
  • Scribbling.
4 Jul 2018

How can I improve my sketching skills? ›

5 quick tips for improving your drawing skills
  1. Try a daily drawing challenge. To kick things off, try a daily drawing challenge for a week, a month, or even longer. ...
  2. Go back to basics with shapes. ...
  3. Spend time looking for inspiration. ...
  4. Catalog your art and regularly revisit old pieces. ...
  5. Create repeating patterns.
26 May 2022

How do you improve landscape sketching? ›

6 Ways to Spruce Up Your Landscape Pencil Drawings!
  1. Create Texture for Realistic Rocks. ...
  2. Make Majestic Mountains and Hillsides. ...
  3. Draw Scribbled, Not Stylized, Evergreen Trees. ...
  4. Use Contour Lines for Deciduous Trees. ...
  5. Use Deliberate, Straight Lines for Still Water. ...
  6. Use Fast Strokes for Foaming, Bubbling Waterfalls.

What are the 5 basic skills of drawing? ›

The 5 basic skills of drawing are understanding edges, spaces, light and shadow, relationships, and, the whole, or gestalt. These 5 basic skills of drawing make up the components of a finished work of art when put together.

Why is my art not improving? ›

You're Not Allowing Yourself to Play

If you're approaching your art too rigidly or without an element of “fun”, then you're likely to get frustrated and eventually quit over time. You're also likely not to find much improvement in your work because you're looking at it too closely.

How many hours a day should I draw to improve? ›

It's possible to see improvements by drawing only 1-2 hours per day. But if you want to see significant improvements you should be aiming for 5-6 hours per day, or more if possible. Starting anywhere is better than never starting.

What are 7 ways to create a depth in the landscape painting? ›

7 Ways to Create Depth in a Landscape Painting
  1. Decrease the Detail. We see more detail in the things that are closest to us. ...
  2. Make Elements Smaller. ...
  3. Hide Bits. ...
  4. Get the Blues. ...
  5. Soften Your Touch. ...
  6. Canvas format. ...
  7. Put Things in Perspective.
14 Mar 2017

Why is painting landscapes so hard? ›

A problem many beginners face when painting landscapes is they do not create enough subtle variance between the colors. The painting will often lack any depth and look very two-dimensional. Many landscape paintings do not have a complex color composition, but rather a simple harmony of greens, blues and earthy colors.

What are the rules of drawing a landscape? ›

The Secret to Great Landscape Drawings
  • Step 1: Start with the focal point. Decide what your focal point is, and draw that first. ...
  • Step 2: Simplify the scene as you go. As you're drawing, look at the landscape with an editor's eye. ...
  • Step 3: Start shading and adding details.
20 Aug 2020

Is drawing a skill or talent? ›

Drawing is a Skill.

A skill is something, that can be learned through practice and learning it the right way. Drawing is a Skill, that you can learn no matter if you are talented or not. But it will take a little more time to learn.

How can I draw better in 30 days? ›

7 exercises to become a better artist in 30 days
  1. Have a five minute artistic “free time.” ...
  2. Color! ...
  3. Work on the same subject every day. ...
  4. Draw the same subject in different styles. ...
  5. Mix up your media. ...
  6. Work while watching TV. ...
  7. Follow a different prompt each day.
15 Oct 2017

What helps a drawing look more realistic? ›

Drawing Realistically: 7 Tips for Teaching Yourself
  • Master Shading. ...
  • Learn to Draw Eyes. ...
  • Start with Objects, Not Scenes. ...
  • Draw Upside Down. ...
  • Use Tracing Paper to Understand Your Lines. ...
  • Use the Grid Method to Break Your Image Into Chunks. ...
  • Grab a Ruler to Make Sure Everything is in Proportion.

Why do my sketches always look better? ›

If your sketches look better than your line art, it's because your final lines don't match the lines of the sketch, your lines are too clean, or your line weight doesn't vary. A lack of details can also be a major culprit.

What are the 8 tips of improving the drawing and sketching techniques? ›

For those who want to draw better, here are a few recommendations:
  1. Go draw something. Repeat. ...
  2. Look at drawings. Whether simple line drawings or meticulously detailed renderings, you can learn a lot from looking at the work of others. ...
  3. Draw from drawings. ...
  4. Draw from photographs. ...
  5. Draw from life. ...
  6. Take a class.


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