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The anxiety before joining your first sketching event, the joy of becoming part of a community, the new amazing friends you make, and the passers-by peeking over your shoulder to admire your work: in this post, I will be sharing my personal experiences with urban sketching. Tell me in the comments if you can relate!

How to get started with urban sketching

I joined Urban Sketchers seven years ago. I was working as a digital illustrator at the time, and ninety-five percent of my work was on the computer. I had forgotten what sketching even felt like. I missed using actual paper and pencils, and of course, paints!

How do you start sketching after a long break? I realized I couldn't do it alone. It seemed boring and uninspiring, so I started looking for a group to join. I soon found an urban sketching group in The Hague, and -- lucky for me -- they had a meet-up the following Saturday. Lucky? Yes, but guess what: I started getting cold feet on Thursday and was very close to canceling. Sounds familiar, right?

If you're getting cold feet and feel like canceling, use the power of accountability: make a commitment to be there before you panic!

I had already written them on Facebook and promised to be there, so canceling would have been even more embarrassing than coming and feeling stupid. I was so anxious as if I expected Michelangelo and da Vinci to show up there together with Vermeer and Rembrandt. Well, they never showed up! I was instead greeted by a lovely group of amateur artists, some more experienced, some less. The only thing they had in common was their desire to sketch together.

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A powerful way to improve your technique

Learning from other people, exchanging ideas and experiences is what attracts me to urban sketching. You can often learn something from other sketchers, even beginning artists, as they have a fresh perspective on things. They may be unaware that they are using some unorthodox technique or have an interesting view of the place around them.

Do you really have to leave the house to be an urban sketcher?

Technically, as the name suggests, urban sketching is sketching on an urban location. There are a lot of rules and restrictions which distinguish urban sketching from other genres. However, I take a much more relaxed view and don't worry about the technicalities.

I believe you can take a reference photo and create an urban sketch. While it is a bit strange to call yourself an urban sketcher if you never ever sketch on location, it is important for me that my students are comfortable and relaxed when they are learning to sketch. If drawing live is difficult for you at the moment, there's no shame in starting with reference photos and hitting the streets after you've gained some confidence.

I recently heard a story about the Dutch painter and photographer George Hendrik Breitner, who was born in Rotterdam in 1857. He was an urban sketcher before urban sketching was even there! However, he never sketched on location: he took photos of urban scenes to draw them later in his studio. Apparently, the law at that time did not allow you to simply sit down in the street and sketch.

Are you worried about other people in the street?

Even after so many years of urban sketching, I feel uncomfortable sitting in the street on my own and sketching alone. When I am together with somebody else, I can sit down pretty much anywhere and not worry about it at all. I love it when passers-by stop and admire my sketches, and ask questions about drawing or urban sketching. Sometimes these little interactions get out of hand: they want to chat for a really long time or, even worse, tell you about their neighbor or friend who is also an artist and I should absolutely see her work. So yeah, if you feel a bit uncomfortable sketching on your own, or if you get annoyed by some passers-by, I feel your pain :)

Why my sketches are so colorful

I love bright colors (naturally) but I have a theory that the answer lies somewhere deeper than that. I like to look back on my time at art school and then Art Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. These were very happy times for me. We would go out and sketch somewhere in the city center. St Petersburg is really special in that respect: wherever you look, there is something beautiful to draw! There is so much beauty, you can't draw it all in your lifetime.

When sketching on location, we were always given a specific task to work on a certain technical aspect: use hatching and cross-hatching techniques when drawing balcony moldings, practice textures, dots and dashes when drawing trees, and create elegant lines when drawing iron gates and railings. Such focused practice helps improve your technique.

I think it was the greyish colors of St Petersburg that ignited my love for bright colors. I just couldn't stand that limited, dull color palette and started painting bright.

I use bright colors in all my drawings regardless of the sketching medium. Gouache, watercolors, alcohol-based markers -- there's always a way to make the sketch look vibrant!

You may have noticed that a lot of famous buildings around the world are tricky to sketch because of their limited color palette. If you just copy the real colors, your sketch will look dull and lifeless.

My #1 sketching tip: Do not be afraid to make things up! Use brighter colors!

Here is a good example:

My urban sketching kit

It took me a while to perfect my sketching kit and to make a checklist of all the supplies (a cute downloadable pdf). You can read about the practicalities of sketching on location in my recent post called Sketching on Location: Why and How? You can also take a peek into my Watercolor Sketching Kit and Gouache Sketching Kit.

Friendships that last a lifetime

Last, but probably most important, is making friends at urban sketching events. In a world where we spend so much time online, making real connections is a rare gift. This is a photo from a recent sketching outing with my two friends - Fairouz on the left en Jacqueline on the right - whom I met through Urban Sketching Nederland. We meet up regularly to sketch together, although I have to admit that we sometimes end up just chatting over coffee.

I have a range of Urban Sketching classes on Skillshare. Here are the most popular. Click on each image to learn more about each class and explore my other classes. If you are not on Skillshare yet, use my referral link to get your first month free.


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Hello, I'm Julia Henze.



Art is my passion. Urban Sketching is my love.

My work (and this site) is devoted to sharing ideas, tools, and resources that will help you to find your way in the world of art.

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