The art of urban sketching

Sydney Community College Blog | By Claire Pickard on

Woman sketching with markers while sitting outside on grass

It’s true a photograph tells a thousand words, but have you considered the power of sketching to truly capture a memory?

The act of sitting and sketching a scene - reflecting a mood, time and place – commits details to memory in a way that a snapshot never could.

Urban sketching is a time-honoured genre with beautifully simple principles: carry your sketchbook and draw where you are. It’s a most portable art form, and the media, techniques and illustration style can be as varied as the individuals creating it. The emphasis is on personal observation and interpretation.

It’s also about composition, editing the scene, adding figures and moving elements to bring life to the built environment. What you leave out can be powerful, as you incorporate negative space to declutter and draw focus within the composition.

Urban Sketchers is a global community of artists sharing their work online. With a mission “to raise the artistic, storytelling and educational value of on-location drawing”, it has chapters around the world – and over a dozen regional chapters in Australia. And there are many other meetup groups and Facebook pages to connect with.

A true picture of our city

Sydney Community College’s Urban Sketching tutor is visual artist Elinor Pickard, who was introduced to the art form on a family trip at age 3. On a slow boat to the UK, the camera broke in Buenos Aires. At the next port in Rio, her father Errol (an architect) was so moved to capture the beauty of that city, he picked up a biro and his daughter’s chunky textas and started filling a sketchbook. “When you take the time to capture the essence of the scene, you remember it with so much more detail”, he said.

3 urban sketches of Rio
Sketches from Rio by Errol Pickard

Years later, Elinor never ventures far without her sketchbook.

On a cold sunny Saturday last week, she met her class of 12 students - aptly outside Sydney Eye Hospital in the CBD. “Next to the Il Porcellino boar statue” were her instructions.

They got to work sketching the buildings, a mix of gothic, and columned neoclassical style. Elinor says they sketched different foliage types, “looking for new approaches, continuous line, graphic and patterned qualities, or gestural immediacy… In the courtyard there is a beautiful Ginkgo tree in autumn gold.”

The Sydney centre, she says, “is in flux now”. With so much change and renewal, it’s tricky at times, but to sketch there is to capture “a true picture of our city right now”.

Art books with urban sketches laid on the floor
After each session, students 'throwdown' their work for feedback.

Having taught the techniques to more than 250 students now, Elinor says she often sees architects and interior designers drawn to her classes. They are looking for quick and creative ways to sketch their ideas - representing the built environment in a more organic style. She also sees art students exploring new illustration techniques, having completed Drawing for Beginners, Life Drawing or Portraiture. Urban sketching is also complemented by Perspective Drawing – a more technical and classroom-based course.

Creating community

The 2-week Urban Sketching course creates a “small and briefly formed community”, says Elinor. But some stay in touch and make more lasting connections.

So in the spirit of building this community, Sydney Community College is now hosting a regular Urban Sketching Group class on a Friday afternoon. Anyone - from absolute beginners to experienced sketchers – is welcome to join an outing to places of sketchable interest around Rozelle. Motivated by the structure of a meet-up group, and guided by a professional artist for tuition, tips and feedback, members can learn, practise and extend their street sketching skills.

Starting with the final Friday of every month, we hope to increase the frequency as this group grows.

Just add colour

For those who want to break out the paintbox, Elinor also offers Urban Sketching: Pen & Wash. On this single-day outing, students learn how to flesh out the simple pen lines with the texture and colour of watercolour wash. (Something to look forward to in springtime is the annual “Jacaranda” themed Pen & Wash class in November... pass the purple please!)

6 tips for street sketching success

1. Keep your kit simple

A pencil or pen and a small journal or sketchbook are all you need to get started. The challenge of limited resources can lead to interesting solutions.

2. Be prepared

Carry your sketchbook with you, ready to catch any moments that inspire.

3. Be flexible

If you haven’t got your sketchbook, try a pub coaster or paper serviette.

4. Draw what speaks to you

It is as much about your individual response and the story behind the setting as the setting itself.

5. Don’t worry too much about the result

Focus on learning to see what’s around you and working in the moment.

6. Stop sooner rather than later

Take care not to overwork it.


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