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Mastering the Art of Urban Sketching: Tips and Techniques

Mastering the Art of Urban Sketching: Tips and Techniques
By GJ Gillespie, founder of Leda Art Supply 

In recent years, a passionate global community has emerged around the art of urban sketching - drawing the lively scenes, architecture, and cultural fabric of cities and towns directly on location. The Urban Sketchers non-profit organization, founded in 2007, has grown to over 300 regional chapters with tens of thousands of members across the world.

Their stated mission? "Raising the artistic, storytelling and educational value of on-location drawing." Urban sketchers aim to capture the energy, history, and emotions evoked by the built environment through first-hand observational sketching.

What makes urban sketching so captivating is the ability to freeze unique moments in time - the crumbling facade of an ancient building, a lively street market, or the interplay of light and shadow on modern skyscrapers. As watercolorist and urban sketcher Suhita Shirodkar explains, "It's about telling the story of a place through your art. Each time you return to that sketch, the memories come rushing back."

This mobility and spontaneity connects urban sketchers to the long tradition of plein air artists like John Constable who escaped the studio to capture scenes directly from nature and daily life. However, urban sketching distinguishes itself by focusing on the constructed world - the concrete jungles, metropolitan hubs, and cultural tapestries woven into cityscapes across the globe.

Legendary artists like Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and John Singer Sargent honed their skills through prolific sketching of urban environments and architecture. Their location drawings provided first-hand research that anchored their formal studio compositions in authenticity.

"No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential soul of a subject as pursued in portraying it from the life," Sargent once reflected. This sentiment rings especially true for today's urban sketchers chronicling the rapidly changing cityscapes around them.

So whether in your hometown, on vacation, or while business travel takes you to new cities, consider chronicling your adventures through the artistic lens of urban sketching. Here are some tips:

Materials for Urban Sketching On-The-Go
- Compact Sketchbook: Choose a sketchbook small enough to fit in your pocket or bag like Leda's 5.5 x 8.5 inch size with an elastic closure. The soft, flexible covers make it portable yet supportive.
- Versatile Pencils: A pocket pencil case with an assortment of graphite and colored pencils captures both line and value. Pencils allow quick, spontaneous sketching.
- Pen and Ink: An affordable technical pen with waterproof India ink enables bold linework and high-contrast details.
- Mini Watercolor Set: A compact travel palette like Winsor & Newton's is perfect for painting pleasing washes on-the-go.

Techniques for Location Sketching
- Work Quickly: Urban scenes are inevitably dynamic so capture the essence through swift, confident lines and strokes. Don't get bogged down in details.
- Focus Your Frame: With so much happening around you, carefully select your scene's focal point and composition. Isolate intriguing elements through scale and negative space.
- Suggest Movement: Use gestural lines and energetic brushstrokes to imply the kinetic movement and flow of people, traffic, and activity around you.
- Add Personal Touches: Include accidental splatters, hand-lettered notes, or impressions of ambient sounds. These personal touches transform a urban scene into a memory-rich storytelling moment.

Whether rendering Florentine cathedrals, New York streetscapes, or cafe scenes in Paris, the urban sketching community urges artists to embrace the world as their canvas and studio. With a portable art kit, observant eye, and intrepid spirit, you're ready to chronicle the creative spark ignited by the clamor and character of metropolitan life.

So grab a Leda sketchbook and head out to capture your city's unique visual verse! The buildings, people, and hidden vignettes are waiting to be immortalized through your urban sketcher's gaze.

Sketch by GJ Gillespie

Sketch by Gavin Snider, follow him

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