The City in Paper and Ink

By Jolanda Friedrich

Sometimes, when I walk through the city, I notice the oddest things. A near-circular balcony, cat stickers on a window that seem to look down on the pedestrians and judge them, an impressively crooked streetlamp. When I see these things, I fish out my worn-out sketchbook and the ballpoint pen that is always at the bottom of my bag and sketch my discovery. The resulting drawings do not have to look pretty or be very intricate. As it turns out, the sketch of a crooked lamppost may, under the right conditions, resemble cooked spaghetti. But that is of no consequence, because the practice of urban sketching does not aim at perfectly recreating the real world or creating a masterpiece; its focus is on regaining an awareness of the world that you live in and usually tune out as background noise. Urban sketching is one way to return to that awareness. When you look for motifs to sketch, you can feel like a tourist in an unknown land who gazes in awe at the smallest of details instead of the stranger in your own lives that you often become.

The first step to start urban sketching is to buy the necessary tools. The great thing about urban sketching is that only very few tools are needed, only a small, sturdy sketchbook that fits inside a bag and a pen. Technically, any pen is fine, but I would recommend one that is waterproof. I know that not everyone is as clumsy as I am. Drops of tea appear on my sketchbook as soon as I so much as lift a mug, but it is very frustrating when sketches get smudged due to rain or tea accidents.

The next step is to find something to draw. There are no limits, but in my experience, it is best to start with objects or places you are already familiar with. There are things that you may feel like you know like the back of your hand, such as the view from your window. But some people never observe the back of their hand or reflect that even such a frequently observed surface can yield new material.

In fact, a common exercise for art students is to draw the back of their hand without looking at it. You may look at your hand every day, but you rarely take the time to consciously observe it. And the same goes for the view from your window. Thus, a good way to get started is to go to your window and pick a tree or a streetlamp as your first motif.

Once you have chosen what to draw, take your time to observe it. Think about how its height compares to that of surrounding houses or other trees, how the light bounces off it. Only then you should take out your sketchbook and start on the actual drawing. And even while you sketch, make sure to constantly observe your chosen object. My art teacher used to tell me that when drawing from nature, my eyes should be on the object seventy percent of the time and on the paper only for the remaining thirty. In urban sketching, you should always keep that in mind.

The most frightening part of the actual sketch tends to be the first line. The paper is still white and pristine, and it feels like any line on it would only dirty the page. A good way to not get scared off by a blank page is to add a random line or to test your pen. You can also add a horizon line for better orientation. Especially when you draw architecture, the horizon is a very helpful guideline. When you have the first line, subsequent lines will be a lot easier. You can always improve on a sketch that you help but you cannot learn from a blank piece of paper. There are even things that you can only learn and understand when you draw them several times. It took me numerous attempts to figure out how roof tiles are shaped and overlap. I only learned that by trying different ways to draw them.

The next step is to pin down the big base shapes. Buildings may look like cubes; the crown of a tree may be vaguely circular. The “sketch” part of urban sketching entails that not many details are needed. They should be done quickly, carelessly, sometimes recklessly. You can leave out eighty percent of the details and your brain will still be able to recognise an object. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to include every detail, you should remember that art is always abstraction. Even a photograph does not accurately depict reality because it is two dimensional and some details are thus inevitably lost. Thus, you do not need to worry about perfection. You should simply be proud of yourself when you finish a sketch because that means that you have learned something about your surroundings. You have also exercised your brain. When you draw from the real world, you observe, constantly compare sizes and scales, coordinate hand movements and prioritise certain details over others. Regardless of the outcome of your sketches, the effort that you put into them is always worth it.

Lastly, remember that Rome was not built in a day. You may be frustrated by how bad your sketches are at first but ask yourself: do you expect yourself to be able to play an instrument after just one lesson? Art takes time and practice. Urban sketching has the big advantage that, unlike an instrument, you can take your sketchbook everywhere to practice. You can sketch in a short break or while waiting for a bus or train. The latter tends to lead me to particularly interesting realisations about people and their behaviour in urban environments. It seems like people do not really know what to do with themselves or how to deal with strangers when forced to wait for the same train. The resulting awkwardness will never be dull to draw. At some point, most artists find a location or situation that they like to draw, and an urban environment offers an overabundance of them. Some people love bridges, others like libraries or a tram stop. To find interesting locations, all you need to do is to walk through the world with your eyes wide open and your sketchbook within reach.