Urban Sketching

How to get started sketching on your next trip.

At the bottom of this blog is a video of one of my sketchbooks. I hope you enjoy!

Beginner Travel Sketching

First of all, there is no wrong way to sketch.  Just showing up with your tools and putting any line on to a piece of paper will get your started.  There is no wrong way.  And there are no judgments.

Take that sketchbook with you!

I do try to take my sketchbook with me wherever I go, and I also carry my camera.  My sketchbooks vary in function and form.  Sometimes they act as a diary, sometimes they become art pieces which are frameable.  I do not consciously choose what kind of sketchbook I am going to produce.  Each sketchbook takes on a personality of it’s own and it just morphs into whatever it is meant to be on that particular trip, or on that particular day.  Sometime my sketchbooks are places where I jot down the weather or paste in menus I find interesting, or just mundane stuff like the address where I am staying.  The point is that you take it with you, even when you are not going far, so even keep one in your car, and then sketching will become a habit.

My Favorite Sketchbook size and format when I travel!

Get over your fears of sketching in public

You may be afraid of sketching in public.  It can be a bit intimidating, that is for sure.  Sometimes I have to do a lot of self-talk to be able to sketch in public.  Oftentimes people like to look over my shoulder and give me encouragement or make little comments.  If I am working on a bigger piece in public, I will put on earphones and listen to some music.  That way I am less likely to become distracted to what is going on around me.  But make sure that you are in a safe place before you put on those earphones! 


When I was travelling in China, I often would draw quite a large crowd.  I typically stand off to the side or up against a building or in a quiet space where I am not in the way of people.  In China, that was a bit more challenging!  In China when I drew a crowd, I was often politely asked if I wouldn’t mind having my picture taken with the onlookers.  I tried to ignore the crowds.  AT the end of my session, though, I would look up and see bystanders and would pose for a photo with them.  It is a bit flattering to have onlookers make you feel like a rock star!  At least that is how I thought of it, rather than thinking of it as annoying and so I got through the day.  The worst situations are when someone makes a comment that makes you want to quit sketching.  That did happen to me a few times, and then I had to do a lot of self-talk to stay where I was.  People don’t realize that the comments they make can be very damaging!  But this is when the earphones are quite handy!

It is easy to find pens for travel sketching

Travel Sketching Supplies

This Paint box has all that I need when urban sketching

Bring a good sketchbook, in a size that is easy to carry.  I like small books with good watercolour paper.  My preferred size is 5 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches as that fits in my purse and is easy to open and hold in one hand.   I bring a couple of pens.  I like artist quality pens and ones that do not bleed so they are labelled waterproof.  However, be aware that if you touch water to the page right after you lay down some ink from the pen, it will bleed, even if it is labelled waterproof.  It takes a half a minute or so to become permanent.  If you get bleeding because it is raining or snowing, then either work with it, use a pencil or paint directly with watercolour.  If it is raining hard, you might be best advised to go indoors or for sure use a pencil. 

You can tell that it is well used! You can sketch any travel scene with these great colors!

Travel Drawing the Easy Way

I like to start my trip with some preliminary information in my sketchbook.  Most importantly is your name and contact information.  Even though I have never misplaced a sketchbook, I put my name and email address.  If it is lost and someone finds it, that should be sufficient information needed to have it returned.  I don’t like to put too much information in the book though. 

Also before the trip, I sometimes will draw a map of where I plan to go and colour it in, and I have put flags on the first page.  The first page is sometimes the hardest one to draw and so if you already have some information there, you can jump right into sketching.    Also if you are having a hard time drawing in that sketchbook for the first time, start in the middle, or on the second or third page.  Many of my sketchbooks have blank first pages!

A New Sketchbook

A new sketchbook for each trip is important to me.  I have very rarely ever completely finished a sketchbook because as it gets closer to the end, it becomes very valuable to me and I would hate to lose it.  Sort of a weird thing, I know. 

Watercolor Box

I also like to bring a paint box.  I use watercolour paints on the road and a small box like that one pictured below.  I use a paintbrush which you can put water in the reservoir.  I also have a small plastic bag which I can put my messy paint box in and any wet or damp paper towels.  I bring one or two squares of paper towels and reuse them throughout the trip if possible.  I let them dry in the evening. 

Yes, I reuse it many times. It is good to let it dry between days, but you won’t have to bring a whole roll or paper towels! Necessary for travel sketching!

How to Carry it all!

With all of that in your bag, you have enough to sketch with.  If you would prefer not to carry a bag or purse, then consider a small knapsack which will hold everything quite nicely along with water and a snack, camera and anything else you might need.  Caution though, try to bring less.  One pen and a small book is all you need.  The main take away here is that you take it with you.  Always.  Always take with you a sketchbook and a pen.  As with anything, it may be uncomfortable to begin with, but it becomes a habit.  Just like your camera, always take your sketching stuff with you.  Speaking about cameras, do take a picture of what you are sketching as you do not always have time to finish a sketch and you can finish it at a later time. 

On-site Sketching sometimes called Urban Sketching

Try not to rely on your camera.  And what I mean by that is if you think, well, I will take pictures and then do a drawing later, while that may be indeed what you do, I recommend doing a sketch on site.  You will find that when you look back at that sketch at a later time, because you spent time looking at what you were going to sketch and then sketching it, you will remember it better.  You will remember the smells, the temperatures, the feelings you had at the time.  I promise you!  You can even jot down a few notes.  Guaranteed, you will not get that kind of detail from a photo.  And with a photo, what it does is it flattens the scene that you are looking at.  So a sketch captures a lot more. 

Just a quick note about what to capture.  I know I said that a sketch captures a lot more, you actually will have to simplify your sketch.  For the majority of us, we must delete a lot of details in what we see to be able to capture it on paper.  And interestingly you will have captured a lot more than a photo would.  Try it!

Flip through of sketchbook by Lori Gerrits


  1. Lee Anne says:

    This is interesting! Thanks for sharing. Soaking it in on the spot instead of taking a photo for later really sounds valuable and would likely change the tone of the sketch!

    1. Lori says:

      For sure it changes the tone of the sketch, and it also preserves the memory quite well!

  2. Lori Nielsen says:

    Sadly, I am not good at sketching. But I like your tips!

    1. Lori says:

      Give it a go. If you keep a journal, put a little drawing in there, and voila, you have a sketch!

  3. Pam says:

    I’m pretty bad at art in general, but I love this idea anyway! I could see keeping a journal with me, I haven’t done that in years and this post kinda inspires me to think about it again.

    1. Lori says:

      Good luck, Pam! I am sure you will enjoy the process of keeping a journal!

  4. Leeanne says:

    My kids bring their sketchbooks everywhere. I have two little artists on my hands.

    1. Lori says:

      Yay! The world needs loads of artists! Sketching is such a fun thing to do and as adults, it is totally okay to continue to sketch!

  5. Courtney says:

    I really like this idea of sketching your travels.. we all rely on photographs so much now. I love this!

    1. Lori says:

      I am glad you like it, Courtney!

  6. Vessy Smith says:

    I absolutely LOVE your sketches! You are so talented…And what fantastic memories to take away from your travels! Beautiful! I feel inspired to give it a try! 🙂

    1. Lori says:

      Thank you, Vessy, for the kind words. I hope you give it a try!

  7. I can’t draw a good stick figure, let alone sketch. But, love your tips and I think it is so neat when I see someone with talent like this.

    1. Lori says:

      Thank you Sheila for the kind comments! Most times a stick figure is the best depiction of a person, and most artists strive for that kind of simplicity in urban sketching!

  8. alison netzer says:

    What a fun hobby. I wish I has some artistic ability, but I was granted none. It must be so calming to be able to just sit and sketch in a foreign town.

    1. Lori says:

      Give it a try, Alison. I think we are all our worst critic!

  9. jen says:

    What a cool article! I really like this idea a lot

    1. Lori says:

      Thank you, Jen. Give it a try!

  10. kmf says:

    I’m always in awe of people sketching and painting places I’m visiting. So much talent in the world.

    1. Lori says:

      Sketching is so very enjoyable!

  11. Tara says:

    I think this is absolutely incredible! I have no ability to sketch, but I am inspired by those who just have their pads/pencils/paints out at parks. Those people amaze me! Thanks for sharing all of your tips.

    1. Lori says:

      Do give it a try one day! It is a lot of fun!

  12. Lisa Manderino says:

    I wish I had this talent. It would be amazing to sketch out experience!

    1. Lori says:

      Hi Lisa, I hope you give it a try one day, you will amaze yourself!

  13. Amanda says:

    Like nature journaling, I love it! Great idea.

    1. Lori says:

      Nature journaling is just like urban sketching. Perhaps documenting the fauna at a location would make a very nice keepsake

  14. This is a great idea! My son has the talent of a great artist, me not so much. But I need to keep a journal with me on my many travels.

    1. Lori says:

      I am glad to hear your son has talent. We need artists in this world!

  15. Missy says:

    Hunter enjoys sketching when we are visiting places. I enjoy watching him sketch. 🙂

    1. Lori says:

      My husband is a great support for my sketching and I really appreciate it!

  16. Heather says:

    Amazing! You have talent. I love the idea of sketching when traveling.

    1. Lori says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Heather!

  17. I love watching people sketch in public. We were just at the castle and Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest today and I saw some girls sitting on the steps drawing the view. So beautiful! I don’t quite have the artistic talent for it but I’d love to learn one day.

    1. Lori says:

      I will be in Budapest at Christmas and hope to sketch when I am there!

  18. Jay Hall says:

    Very cool. Maybe I’ll have to bust out my sketching abilities from childhood.

    1. Lori says:

      Hi, Jay, I hope you get a chance to sketch on one of your many trips!

  19. Hannah says:

    Oh I love this post! I’ve always wanted to sketch out and about on the go but have always been too self conscious! You’ve inspired me to give it another go. I always feel like it would be so peaceful and relaxing and a brilliant way to really experience a place 🙂

    1. Lori says:

      Yes, Hannah, do give it a try. I find that I remember an area in a different way when I sketch!

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