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Urban Sketching

gueros taco bar at600

Guero’s Taco Bar, Austin, Texas (Plein Air)


“I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler!”

Most artists have heard that phrase when people hear they are an artist, or when they see the artist drawing or painting. And someone has crafted the response: “Why would you want to?” By now, followers here and friends on Facebook have realized that I have started moving into a new art arena. And it definitely doesn’t involve rulers or straight lines.

Urban Sketching… Plein Air Sketching… whatever you want to call it, is in some ways a natural evolution for me. Or maybe I’ve just come full circle. I spent nine years getting my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Houston. When I graduated in 1972, I was one of Bob Wygant’s “older students”. He passed a special projects piece that I had done to a Houston graphic designer, who in turn showed it to a Houston architect. That architect hired me because I didn’t draw buildings with straight lines like the local architectural illustrators did. I say all this to explain that I’ve been drawing buildings for a very long time. I do have a ruler, of course, but I don’t use it very often.


One of my favorite pieces of framed art was a tiny ink sketch of an old building with sort of Georgian architecture. There wasn’t much in the way of detail, but it was done on that yellow tracing paper that architects liked to use at the time. It’s gone now, I think. At least I haven’t seen it in a long time. Over time, my drawings in pencil and pen & ink became larger and more elaborate, and of course, in my sixties I started painting because, well, I just wanted to learn to paint. But the siren call of pen & ink has never gone completely silent. As you may have noticed in recent posts here, I’ve become fascinated with a very large international movement called Urban Sketching. For the past month or two, I’ve been sketching, both from life and from reference photos, using pen & ink and watercolor

quoddy head light lubec maine 700


I’ve produced enough of these small sketches now to warrant creating a page that pulls them together in one place. Some of them also appear at my website, but that will probably be a more limited collection.

0402161216a for blogYesterday, for the first time, I joined Urban Sketchers – Austin for a morning of plein air sketching. I think this is a fairly large group, but only a small number seem to show up for monthly “meetups” like this. The events are posted online, giving location and time. In some ways, it’s like a plein air painting event, but much more informal. We gathered at 10am and established a time to re-convene (noon), then everyone scattered to find a subject and a place to sit. At noon, we gathered around a table and laid our sketches out for all to see and share. Groups like this range from complete beginners to experienced artists or architects. It’s a completely non-judgemental sharing, with advice given when aksed for, but mostly it’s a gathering of kindred spirits and a chance to be involved in a very informal group event. There is no competition and no sale. (I will admit that if a passerby had walked up and wanted to buy my sketch, I would have sold it, but that isn’t the purpose of this group.)

jo s coffee at 750w

Jo’s Coffee (S. Congress Ave.), Austin, Texas (Plein Air)

I selected a spot on the corner across the street from Jo’s. South Congress Avenue was a busy place at 10am on a Saturday. In general, people appeared to ignore me, but a few nodded and smiled. In less than two hours, only 3 or 4 people actually stopped and overtly looked over my shoulder. The fun moment was when a man stopped to wait at the crosswalk with his little girl. She obviously wanted to see what I was doing, so I held up the sketchbook. When she and her dad stepped over, I had her stand next to me and, while I held up the sketch, I pointed across the street. Seeing her eyes go wide when she realized it was the same scene was a treat.


location sketch2a

Home, Sweet Home (Plein Air)


I started the plein air aspect of sketching right outside my own front door. We live in a fifth wheel trailer in an RV community. We also have a Class C motorhome which is intended for travel.

From this point on, I’ll dispense with the commentary and just post sketches. They will be a mixture of sketches done from reference material and sketches done on location. I have decided that it isn’t necessary for every sketch to be done on location. Travel, especially day trips, don’t always allow the luxury of sitting for extended periods of time to sketch. So I’m developing the ability to sketch quickly, whether from life or from a refence photo, to produce an interesting little piece of art that shows what I see in a particular scene.  Those done on location will say “plein air” in the caption. Over time, I may come back in and add notes where I think it might be appropriate. For now , I’ll just say that some of these were done by doing a light pencil sketch first and then working over it with pen; others were drawn directly onto the paper with pen, without benefit of a pencil sketch. The whole idea is to develop a way of quickly recording what I see when we travel without having to do an actual painting. And besides, it’s a lot of fun.

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Bakery Café, Aransas Pass, Texas


location sketch 1a

Succulents (Plein Air)


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Rio Hall (Plein Air)



Interior (On Location)


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Dessert Island, Port Aransas, Texas (from reference)



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Steve’s Jewelry, Port Aransas, Texas (from reference)


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Sand Fort, Port Aransas. Texas (plein air)


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Adelmann’s Deli & Grille, Bar Harbor, Maine (from reference)


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Cappie’s Chowder House, Camden, Maine (from reference)


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Laundromat, 5×7 (done on location)

ohio barn at700

Ohio Barn, 5×7

live bait

Live Bait, 5×7


house in pennsylvania1 650high

Pennsylvania House 7×5


virginias onthebay at700

Virginia’s 5×7

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Mount Vernon Victorian 7×5

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Chimney at Winklelmann 7×5



More to come…

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2016 6:26 pm

    Very nice work Ralph. I’ve been interested in Urban Sketching for a couple of years now but there isn’t a group in the Cincinnati area that I’m aware of yet. I like having a description with the sketch as you’ve done. I think having one makes it more interesting to the viewer and will serve as a reminder for myself in the future as to where I was when I produced it. I’m using a couple different sizes of Moleskine sketchbooks. I’m curious what size(s) you use.

    • April 4, 2016 9:31 am

      Thanks, Terry. I’ve thought about journaling, but I don’t want to spend all that much time on one image. I’m still looking for a solution that’s best for me. I’m using two different sketchbooks at the moment. Both very inexpensive. 1) The Cotman Spiral Watercolor Pad is 5×8 140lb made by Windsor& Newton. It’s only 12 sheets. (2) The Canson Mix Media is a thick spiral bound sketchbook with 60 pages. I use this one the most. The paper is 98 lb, for acrylic, watercolor, pen & ink and pencil. The only medium I haven’t tried on it yet is acrylic. My preferred size is 5.5 x 8.5. Small enough to carry without being obvious, and with a couple of pens in my pocket if I want to travel light. I’ve been through several of these, and just bought three more. I find them at Walmart in the art/craft aisle for between $6 -$7. I refuse to use expensive paper when I’m sketching. I think it inhibits my freedom to play.

  2. April 4, 2016 10:56 am

    Thanks for the reply Ralph. I’ll see if I can find those sketchbooks here or thru Amazon. Like you I think using the more expensive paper makes me hesitate to play as well. I look forward to seeing more of your sketches.

  3. June 3, 2016 10:23 pm

    These are lovely. Do you do these urban paintings with watercolour or gouache?

    • June 5, 2016 5:38 pm

      Thanks Austen. I use watercolor for these. I’ve used gouache over pencil before, but not over watercolor. I wonder if the opaque quality of the gouache might soften the fine ink line work. I’ll have to try it.

      • June 6, 2016 8:52 pm

        Have you tried that watercolour pen brush? It is pretty cool and great for Urban sketching. I am a pretty rotten urban sketcher myself, but it is my goal to create beautiful sketches like yours, and others, one day. Your work is really inspiring!

        I suppose you could water down the gouache until it is like watercolour, but then you may as well use watercolour.. Ha!

  4. Susan permalink
    October 12, 2016 9:20 am

    I just Love Urban Sketching…….Could we please ask for sketches of all the lovely Drive Ins, Gas Stations, and Buildings along Route 66……. I have started a few…….What a great Project…Lots of Great Buildings and history ………Maybe we could publish as a Group?

    • October 17, 2016 10:36 am

      Susan, I think you should sketch whatever grabs you. You don’t really need a group. Just go for it.

  5. Geoff Heath permalink
    April 8, 2017 9:07 am

    Hi, don’t stop the commentary please, it is the provenance to the sketch.Geoff.

  6. April 30, 2017 11:53 pm

    I love all you have posted. Very inspirational for me, I am a begginer on this. It is very usuful to see how artists get started on their projects, thanks.

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