A Case for Urban Sketching: Why Draw in the Age of Photography?

By Milan Art Institute on October 27, 2020
A Case for Urban Sketching: Why Draw in the Age of Photography?

Photo caption: Taking up urban sketching allows you to get in some drawing time every day no matter where you are. Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels.

In this age of cell phone photography, urban sketching has made getting out and drawing hip again. Urban sketching and its sister, travel drawing, give artists of all stripes an excuse to put away their phones and draw the world around them. 

It’s a chance to unplug and to get in some drawing time, which is particularly important for artists who are going after virtuosity in their art.

Still, with all the known benefits of drawing some people don’t draw at all, and many people, even some artists, don’t draw enough - even with cool art activities, like urban and travel sketching.

This is too bad, indeed.

If you’re not sure why you should draw in the age of photography or you just want to get some ideas on how to draw more, then this post on urban sketching and travel drawing should help bolster your motivation to draw more.

Video caption: Why We Should Draw More (and Photograph Less)

How Photography Changed Sketching and Drawing

It used to be that artists drew from life all the time. There were no cameras. It’s no secret that photography changed art history

However, in the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable length, we’re only going to concern ourselves with how photography changed the way people see the world. While this is obvious now that cell phone cameras are everywhere, many in the art world noticed the impact that photography had on our ability to see the world around us, even as far back as the 1800s. 

John Ruskin, who was an English artist and art critic during the Victorian era, had some interesting observations about photography. Initially, he was a fan of the new medium. However, later he came to see photography in a different light. 

He felt that people eventually became blind to their surroundings as a result of the invention of photography. This is saying something, really. In his day, cameras took up as much space as a grandfather clock. 

In any event, to remedy this “world blindness,” Ruskin recommended that people pick up drawing. The act of drawing forced them to notice the crook of a tree branch, the color of spring flowers or the texture of barn wood. 

Drawing from life was good advice in the 1800s. It’s even better advice today. And it's easier to carry out, given the popularity of urban sketching and travel drawing.

Your Drawing Brains Sees Differently Than a Camera Does

When you take a photograph, the camera records everything in front of it. Therefore, everything in the photo has the potential to be the most important object in the photo. 

However, when you’re looking at something and drawing it, you’re experiencing it in your brain first and then in your hand. Your brain reacts to it. Processes it. 

On a subconscious level, your hand records not only the scene in front of you, but also your mood, your emotions and your mental state. Your drawings reveal your interpretation of the scene in front of you.

One of the benefits of drawing in this case is that the resulting picture is much more dynamic. It’s why there is a liveliness to the picture you drew from life as opposed to the picture you took with your camera. Without even meaning to, you put yourself in the drawing, which makes it much more interesting than any photo could be.

Tips on How to Draw More

Ideally, you should be drawing from life every single day if you want to improve your drawing skills. However, don't let that thought overwhelm you. It's enough that you start with just 10 to 15 minutes a day. You can always work up to a half an hour or an hour of drawing over time.

Start by getting yourself a travel-sized sketchbook. A book this size allows you to start a drawing just about anywhere, even on a crowded bus or subway. 

You don't need much in the way of art supplies, either. It's okay to bring supplies, like a handful of watercolor pencils, a sketchbook and possibly a chair if you're going to be out in the city park doing some urban or travel sketching. 

If you can’t get out to the park, pull out your sketchbook during your lunch break at work and draw your coffee cup or even a willing co-worker. 

You may even want to buy a few special sketchbooks to keep you sketches from life in. These special journals become a diary of sorts, allowing you to keep a record of your life and what you noticed. 

Sketchbooks that you dedicate to travel drawing and urban sketching exclusively also allow you to see the gradual improvement in your drawing abilities, provided that you draw in them on a daily basis.

As you get better at drawing from life, you’ll eventually want to introduce the practice of plein air painting to the mix. This activity allows you to continue to build your observation skills, as well as sharpening your alla prima painting skills, too.

And when you get even better still, you may want to treat yourself to an art retreat or an art workshop abroad. While many travel and urban sketchers are homebound at the moment, having such a trip on your bucket list will inspire you to draw every day, which is particularly important when you feel your willpower slipping a bit. 

On a related note, your daily outings will keep your drawing skills in tip top shape, which means you’ll be able to enjoy your urban or travel sketching adventures even more when the time comes for you to take that big trip. 

Video caption: Tour Greece and Paint 2017 | Artist‘s Retreat Milan Art Institute

Urban Sketching and Travel Drawing as a Way to Virtuosity

As an online art school, drawing is, of course, very important to us. One of the premises of our programs, like our Beginner Art Program or our Mastery Program, is that as an artist, it’s important for you to learn the skill of drawing so that you can draw anything your eye can see.

However, we also know that true proficiency in drawing allows you to draw anything your eye can’t see. In other words, if you want to draw from imagination, you must have virtuoso drawing skills in order to do that. 

So why draw from life? 

Well, virtuoso drawing skills come from drawing from life, not drawing photographs. When you draw from life, whether it’s a session of travel drawing or urban sketching or a just a few minutes spent drawing your coffee cup on a Sunday morning, you learn to recognize the basic shapes and fundamental structures that make up the world. 

You see the plain shifts in the face when you draw a portrait. You also get better at gesture drawing, which teaches you how to capture the essence of a thing very quickly. This is particularly important if you’re drawing animals or people and your time is limited.

Over time, these activities build up an image bank of sorts that you can draw from when it comes time to draw from your imagination. You’ll know how light falls on the face. You’ll know where to put the cast shadow. You’ll understand how to compose a picture. 

If you do activities, like urban sketching or travel drawing, often enough, you’ll become fearless when you’re creating art from your imagination. 

The benefit of drawing from life is that you transcend the limitations that you once had. Your drawings take on great vibrancy and heart. 

Final Thoughts on Drawing in the Age of Photography

Once you take up urban sketching or travel drawing, you'll be astonished how the days that you record your life eventually turn into a year. You'll also be amazed at how your work has changed and improved. It's probably safe to say that you won't recognize yourself on the page sometimes. 

That's the ideal. That's when you know that your drawing skills have improved enough that you can draw anything your creative brain comes up with, regardless of whether you're drawing from a photograph or from life. 

Read More Blogs About Drawing

Urban Sketching Tips: 5 Best Places for Travel Sketching in Athens, GA 

35+ Travel Sketching Ideas to Overcome Your Creative Blocks

Milan Art Institute
Milan Art Institute

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