Urban sketching en plein air– a new phenomenon?


Origin of plein air

There’s an old expression that there’s nothing new under the sun. If you pop urban sketching into your search engine, you’ll quickly see that it is a new international movement of global, largely urban based artists setting out to capture the world around them in sketch books, near home and while travelling.

Starting in 2007 a Seattle-based journalist and illustrator, Gabriel Campanario inspired a group of artists to engage in sketching and painting what they saw around them then share them with their fellow artists and others; and it has spread around the world. The practice implies that this urban sketching is something new. Really?!

Sketching or painting en plein air is a French expression meaning simply sketching or painting outdoors. Artists have long since sketched outdoors; their artwork for the most part quickly executed to capture the essence of a moment of inspiration from which a more detailed and studied painting could subsequently be completed in the studio. John Constable went a little further, completing small paintings in oil on location and some readers will recall an exhibition of his work that travelled to the National Gallery of Australia and Te Papa New Zealand back in 2006. On display were some of his major studio paintings, but also were many of his smaller works in sketch books featuring landscapes and skies he had quickly sketched, some in pencil, some in oils directly capturing the moments. They were real gems.

Painting on location was uncommon before Constable who thus could be said to have started the trend in the early 19th Century.

Painting in this manner became popular from about the 1860s when artists began capturing the light of subjects. To complete full paintings quickly in transient conditions meant finding ways of capturing the subject without necessarily painting in detail but suggesting details in paint that could be interpreted, thus creating impressions of the subject. Among other developments of the time was the introduction of very convenient artist colours in tubes from the 1870s. The now famous French group of artists Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Bazille started painting in this manner outdoors and inspired the impressionist movement which sprang up around the world. Here in New Zealand the movement gained momentum in the Wellington area with the artists who grouped themselves around the Scottish immigrant artist James Nairn from the late 1890s and who painted in the Upper Hutt area basing themselves at Pumpkin Cottage for painting trips. The works of instant inspiration especially of the French gave rise to the term en plein air which has been popularly used ever since.

Coming back to home base, Watercolour New Zealand and its forerunner, Wellington Watercolour Society have encouraged similar outdoor painting via regular monthly meet ups and paint away trips to various locations around the country. We’ve been at it for decades! Other art societies have likewise encouraged their
members to paint on location over many years.

So when we heard of the movement of Urban Sketching starting this trend in 2007 it makes us wonder what is new about it.

The current day practice

While sketching on location is certainly not new, the Urban Sketching idea has rekindled an old art into an international movement, a renaissance if you like, based on a well-established practice of maybe 200 years!

What is new is the coordination of the movement, setting out a manifesto and sharing art via social media. What is also really healthy and encouraging is the growing number of participants, and of all ages.

Apart from the monthly painting days associated with our organisation, there are now several clubs and groups in New Zealand engaging in coordinated plein air sketching and painting. Among them, Urban Sketching Aotearoa, Wellington Sketchers. Hutt Art also has an active Urban Sketching Group.

There is nothing like going out with a group of others, each of them encouraging the others to get out there and have a go! Decide on a location, have a plan B if wind or weather is not suitable for the original location, sketch / paint for an hour or two, designate a café to meet at afterwards to have a show and tell session over coffee. These groups have Facebook Pages for participants to post on and share their drawings and paintings with the world.

The term ‘urban’ comes about no doubt because the large majority of us participating artists live in towns and cities; and that’s the case here in New Zealand as in most of the world. It seems most of the organised variants of this movement have adopted the term. But by no means does this limit sketching to buildings, streets and people, vehicles and traffic lights, interesting though they be. Rural and semi-wilderness areas make for equally legitimate subjects. Subjects are all around us all the time. Indoor subjects like shopping malls and coffee bars are also great on wet days.

What materials to take

Keeping it compact is the key. While experienced artists can handle large paintings and complete them on location, they often need the use of a vehicle and to park nearby, setting up more elaborate easels and carrying lots of gear; especially those working in oils. Most plein air sketching artists getting out for a limited time need to be able to carry equipment on foot and set up in limited spaces. Beyond black and white drawing, you can use any colour medium you want.

Here is a list of suggested equipment:

Sketch book(s)

A4 is a good size, even A5 is useful. Anything bigger is harder to carry. If simply drawing in pen or pencil, hot pressed paper might be a good option. If you want to use watercolour, cold
pressed or even rough paper are options. 200-300 gsm is best.


HB is good for general outlining, 2B or 3B for tonal drawing. An eraser and pencil sharpener or pen knife. A broad sketching pencil or a soft carpenter’s pencil is useful when pencil drawing for rendering shadows.


Fibre-tipped are excellent; a fine, medium and maybe broad if
drawing in ink.


If painting in watercolour, a small box of cake colours is best. Tube colours of course are great but bulky. As with all watercolour, artist colours are the best for best results. You might think you’re only sketching and not seriously painting, or you might think that you’re not good enough, but you cannot tell beforehand what you will end up with. Your small sketch may be a winner! Such a pity if it’s not with better colours.


You only need a couple or three. A number 12 or 10 for broad washes, a number 8 and a rigger. Some like the brushes with the handle reservoirs to save carrying water. Other items include water container, small plastic water jar, sponge, tissues, sunhat, sunglasses, wind-breaker or warm coat in winter, mobile phone and maybe another camera. Finding something to sit on such as a park bench is great if there is one or it’s in the right place! But for the most part, a folding stool is most useful. A very small light-weight easel is great as well but not essential as every extra piece of gear adds bulk and reduces portability.
You might want to add alternatives like coloured pencils or gouache paint.

All of the gear except the stool (and easel if you carry one) can fit into a small day backpack.

Painting outdoors, especially if there are people moving around you, requires courage. But the more you do, the better you get and the more self-confident you become. Passers-by will often stop and engage you, so keep business cards handy so as to promote your group, Watercolour New Zealand, the next exhibition
or yourself.

There is nothing like painting en plein air. It improves your observation, it improves your studio painting, and the sparkle of spontaneous on-the-spot work is infectious.

View more en plein air sketches on Phil Dickson's website

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