10 Benefits to Painting Outside & Urban Sketching

As the weather is finally warming up after a 6 month-long winter, I wanted to write a short guide on how to get started doing urban sketching / en plein air painting. They are essentially the same thing, however urban sketching usually happens in…you guessed it: urban areas. Below, I talk about the benefits of this particular artistic exercise.

wellington st verdun montreal urban sketch watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
6″x9″ plein air painting in watercolor and purple ink created on Wellington St, Verdun on a 20C November day. ~2020

The Benefits of Painting Outside & Urban Sketching

Leaving the space we’ve dedicated as our studio is obviously a small hassle. Why bother? I think there are several benefits to going out to paint and draw.

  • It gets you out of the house and into the sun. We get bombarded with the benefits of vitamin D and exercise and all that, so marry the two! It’s something to do outside. Go for a walk, get some sun, lift your mood, and get something done.
  • It will force you to stop being so self-conscious about your art. Many artists I talk to say they would never draw with people watching, and I think it’s a shame because being shy about your work usually results in you unconsciously censoring yourself. If your goal is to be a career artist like me, then you are going to have to get over that or you will have a real hard time promoting yourself and connecting with people. I think urban sketching is a pretty neutral subject, so it’s not to say you have to start making work you’re really sensitive about in public. No one’s asking you to draw erotica in the mall food court.
  • It’s a consistent subject. Plenty of artists struggle with having regular subjects to paint and get stuck because of it, or can’t find a subject for a consistent series.
  • Likewise, it can be a break from what you’re currently working on. Personally, I get bored with repetition and some of subjects I want to paint a pretty heavy…so to have something that’s (again) neutral is a weight off my mind.
industrial river verdun neighborhood painting by karolina szablewska
9″x12″, watercolor on watercolor rag paper. Painted en plein air on-location on a bridge in Verdun, Quebec, Canada. ~2019
  • It’s practice. Practice of technique, practice of composition, perspective, time management, observation, architecture, gestural sketching. There are just so many things you are honing when you paint real living subjects over photos and the constraints force you to work on the mentioned skills. It’s going to be different on an individual basis, so the only way to find out is to give it a try. If you can see the benefits in live model drawing, then it is the same except with different subject matter.
  • It’s actually a great way to meet new artists. Urban sketching is a worldwide phenomenon and local events are organized frequently. Here is the website for Montreal as an example; there are monthly events with a large turnout and everyone is pretty nice.  The group is diverse. I’m sure a quick Google will find you something local, and if not, why not start something?
Tomato Stands at Atwater Market watercolor painting
9″x12″, watercolor and ink on 140lbs watercolor paper, painted en plein air. ~2018
  • On the flip side, it requires no studio space! If you don’t have any space at all to work at home, let the world be your studio.
  • It helps you discover new places and appreciate the familiar ones. I’ve revisited the same park multiple times to paint different sections of it, and I think I have a much deeper appreciation for the location than the average person. It’s a great motivator for exploring; look at a map and pick a place that seems interesting, and even if you have nothing to do there – you can at least paint. It’s also great for travel, because it forces you to stop and really observe where you are. Many artists start travel journals.
old montreal watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
9″x12″, watercolor and ink on 140lbs watercolor rag paper. If you look closely, you will find the guitar player who plays for the whole square. It was a scorching hot day with many tourists and weddings passing through Places d’Armes right in front of the Basilica. The white paper left behind and the bright red lines give a sense of the temperature. A busy moment in Old Montreal. ~2018
  • It makes you appreciate nature, something most of us collectively agree we’ve lost touch with. It makes you appreciate the work architects and civil engineers put into designing our human hives. It also makes you see the pollution we surround ourselves with, or maybe find some sort of beauty in it.
  • Art is therapy. I’m a firm believer of that. If you want a calmer, clearer mind, spend time being creative. When you paint and draw, your mind is sorting the filing cabinets in the background without you knowing. Maybe this is the way you were meant to be creative if other visual arts or crafts haven’t worked for you.

In the next upcoming post on this subject, I will go into what I use and how to put together a kit. What are some other benefits you found? Leave a comment below.

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Fountains at the Montreal Old Port Bassin watercolor painting by karolina szablewska
9″x12″ plein air watercolor painting with ink. Painted outdoors and finished in studio. ~2021
10 Benefits to Painting Outside & Urban Sketching by Karolina Szablewska

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