TUTORIAL: “Shape-First For A Quick Urban Sketch”

Urban Sketching Watercolour Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep5

Sketching on Location or Urban Sketching makes for fresh and exciting sketches. Like all artforms, it has its challenges, a big one being that the subject of your sketch might move away quickly. Which means you have a short time to get to the essence of it.

One quick way to get at the heart of a subject is to forget about using a pencil or pen and go straight to big, shapes with watercolor.

This yellow jeep, parked in front of my neighbor’s home looked striking with the fall foliage on the street. I didn’t know how long it would be parked where it was. My solution? Going straight to big shapes in watercolor, capturing the overall form of the car, and not worrying too much about colors bleeding into each other.

Urban Sketching Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep1

Next, without waiting for the first coat of color to fully dry, (no time to waste!) and with darker colors, add smaller shapes of shadows and details.

I start building in detailing on the tires and windows of the Jeep and capture the dark shadow cast by it. When drawing cars, look for this shadow: even on the greyest of days, the strong shadow under a car grounds it and gives it weight.

Urban Sketching Watercolor Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep2

If the car leaves, you are done. If it hasn’t left, you have time to add in details in pen.

I added black lines with a fude fountain pen which lets me vary line thickness. This is a good time to create separations and clarify edges that might have fused together with wet watercolor. But don’t add too much line. Let some of that beautiful wet-in-wet watercolor stay as is: it still reads right without having to be perfect.

Urban Sketching Watercolor Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep3

Jeep’s gone? No problem. Time to add in background and context.

Notice I left the jeep without context for this long? That’s because I wanted to work on the “most likely to move” part of my sketch first. The rest of the scene was there to stay. Once I was done with the jeep, I added in some background for context, keeping it looser than my main subject so as not to detract from it.

Urban Sketching Watercolour Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep4

Highlights, if you add them, come last.

If you like, you can add some highlights with white gouache. I paint with a regular brush, but carry a small tube of white gouache and a waterbrush in my sketch kit just so I can dip into the tube directly with my waterbrush and add highlights. This way, I don’t mix opaque white gouache with my watercolor palette or brushes.

Urban Sketching Watercolour Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep5

Limited tools, limited colors.

Keeping your sketch kit light means it goes with you anywhere. Try carrying a small palette that works with the colors of the season.

Tools and pigments used for this sketch featured here:
Hansa Yellow Medium, Transparent Pyrrol Orange, Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Red Oxide and Indigo (all Daniel Smith Watercolors), 1/4” Pocket Dagger from Rosemary and Co., Sailor Fude de Mannen Fountain Pen 55 Degree, DeAtramantis Document Ink in Black, Pentel Aquash Water Brush, Winsor & Newton Titanium White Gouache

Urban Sketching Watercolor Supplies Tutorial Suhita Shirodkar jeep6

The Urban Sketching Handbook Techniques for Beginners Book PhotoLearn more urban sketching techniques with my book, The Urban Sketching Handbook: Techniques for Beginners. You’ll learn the basics of value, color mixing, and perspective through helpful studies and exercises, whether at home, in studio, and on location. The Urban Sketching Handbook: Techniques for Beginners is perfect for anyone who’s just getting started in this fascinating art form, or who wants to develop their observational and drawing aptitude by reinforcing basic concepts.

Recommended4 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials
  1. writerleenda 2 years ago


  2. JA Wilson 2 years ago

    I liked the staging to keep up with changing of the subject

    • Author
      Suhita Shirodkar 2 years ago

      Thank you writerleenda. JA Wilson, timing matters with moving subjects. I love capturing that “could leave anytime” energy of a subject, I do it a lot in my work.

  3. Unique Tales 2 years ago

    Great Post.

  4. Mary 2 years ago

    Thanks, always wondered how you do it fast, it gives so much more energy to the picture!

  5. Susan Masters 2 years ago

    Fabulous this looks so fresh!

  6. Author
    Suhita Shirodkar 2 years ago

    Thank you Unique Tales! Mary, Susan, only the quick moving things need to be be super quickly painted. And painting quickly means less strokes but making each one count, so it’s fresh and alive. That’s why I love working on location so much: it trains you well for getting to the essence of a subject!

  7. Karen Fortier 2 years ago


  8. LoriCtoo 2 years ago

    Thank you Suhita for breaking this down into little tips. So helpful and I love your painting. Who would think a big yellow jeep would looks so pretty!

  9. Sandra Strait 2 years ago

    Wonderful tutorial! A great technique for any plein air, or just loosening up!

  10. Mary Roff 2 years ago

    Wonderful advice and information!

  11. Carol Hartmann 2 years ago

    Thanks for walking through the process step by step – very helpful!

  12. PrashantMK 2 years ago

    Incredible! You are indeed a very talented artist. Admire your work.

  13. Dana Richards 2 years ago

    So fantastic to see the crossover between 2 of my favorite art inspirations – Suhita & Doodlewash!

  14. Laura 2 years ago

    Hi Suhita! I’ve enjoyed your IG account for quite a while and it’s great to see your art here as well. Thank you for sharing your art with us.

  15. Pavanshetty 2 years ago

    Great work, check out my new blog

  16. Marilyn Hansen 2 years ago

    Thank you so much! I just purchased your book and really enjoy it. Great advice and encouragement!

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