Urban Sketching tips for drawing people

In this tutorial, I will talk about sketching people on location and share with your the tips and techniques I've learned over the last ten years.

What's urban sketching

Urban sketching, technically speaking, is sketching on location. While it's possible to sketch people from photos, the experience is different from sketching in the real world. The benefits of sketching people in the real world includes:

  • The scene and people you see are not affected by camera lens distortion
  • You'll get endless supply of subjects for practice without having to search online for references
  • You will learn about drawing human figures and facial features faster
  • It's more fun and challenging to draw moving figures

What do you need to get started

It's good to have some basic knowledge to observational drawing. If you don't, I recommend you get this book called Keys to Drawing by Bert Dodson to get started. If you don't want to spend money, check out these three videos I've made:

As for tools, all you need is a pen and sketchbook, or you can even use a tablet.

When I'm just sketching people, I prefer to keep my tools to a minimal. I may add the occasional gray and black markers so that I can add extra values.

Where to find people to draw

Here are some suggestions on places where you can find people to sketch

  • Markets
  • Parks
  • Shopping mall
  • Cafe
  • On a train, and at train stations
  • Bus stops
  • Airport

The approach

The best type of people to draw are those who are focused on what they are doing, e.g. looking at their phone, reading, chatting with friends. These people are less likely to notice you when you're sketching them.

When I sketch people, I try not to move my head up and down because that movement will attract attention. What I do is look at my sketchbook and glance upwards, without moving my head, to look at the person I'm sketching, then glance down again to continue sketching. It's only natural for people may feel uncomfortable or awkward when someone else is watching them.

I don't ask for permission when I draw people unless I'm drawing a portrait. For the sketch above, I did ask the bicycle shop owner for permission to draw him because otherwise it's kinda weird to have someone standing in front and obviously looking at him.

If you're caught by the person you're sketching, just show the person your sketch and previous sketches, and say that you're learning to draw. Most of the time, based on my experience, people don't mind once they find out what you're actually doing. And if they mind, just stop sketching that person, or move to a different place. There will be people who do mind their privacy a lot to the extent that they may feel unhappy about you sketching them, but I personally have not met anyone like that over the last ten years.

It's best not to attract attention since people will behave differently when they are observed.

Anticipate people's movement

People move. Sketching people who are moving is challenging.

I recommend you practice sketching people who don't move that much first, such as people who are checking their phone, reading, waiting.

Anticipating movement helps. If someone who has just sat down, start drawing that person because that person will be sitting there for some time. If you're drawing someone who's already seated, that person may stand and leave so you'll want to sketch faster. Same applies to someone who has just entered a train. If someone has approached a cashier, you have a short window of opportunity to sketch that person before payment is done.

Too shy to draw people

If you are too shy to draw people, you can sketch together with a friend. There's safety in numbers. And you can sketch your friends.

After you have more experience, you will feel more comfortable with sketching strangers on location.

Drawing techniques

For practice purposes, keep your sketches simple. Close up your gaps and don't draw with fuzzy lines. Just draw very simply as if you only have one minute to draw. Time yourself if you have to. This will force you to capture the posture with limited time.

And try to draw as many people as possible. With each person you draw, you're developing the memory of how a human figure would look like. With this memory, you can fill in the blanks whenever someone leaves halfway while you're sketching. Each time you make a mistake is an opportunity to learn, and that's why you should draw more.

For beginners, you can start with black and white sketches. When drawing with just black and white, you can play with negative shapes. When drawing with ink, I can use a white gel pen to draw lines against black. In addition to creating the line art, you should also create solid filled shapes. The combination of line and filled shapes will create balance, variety and interest.

Draw what people are doing is probably the best way to make your sketches look lively. Draw the action. Is the person eating, talking, walking, sitting, rushing? Avoid drawing symmetrical postures such as a person standing on two feet with two hands by the side. If a person is seated and facing you directly, make sure to draw the forearms at different angles just to create variety.

Symmetrical poses are best used small, and for people in the background.

If you feel like your people sketches aren't lively enough, it's probably because the posture is not lively.

Creating contrast can help create visual interest easily. Here are some ways to create contrast, such as:

  • Having details and the lack of details, e.g. textures vs non-textures
  • Big vs small
  • Line art vs solid shapes
  • Drawing angled vs vertical and horizontal lines
  • Black vs colour
  • Drawing with negative vs positive shapes

This was drawn on a train. In addition to just drawing people, sometimes it's good to draw the background also to provide some context.

It's not necessary to always draw details with people. For people in the background, you can just suggest them.

Sometimes the posture is actually more important than facial features.

How to draw people who move a lot

When drawing people, I usually draw the head first, followed by the hands. And if the body posture changes, I can easily join the head to shoulders to arms to the hands. You can draw the head, hands and feet first and join them later.

How to capture the likeness

Capturing the likeness really comes down to using core observation drawing techniques. And that is another topic or book by itself. The gist really is to place the facial features where they are in relation to other features already drawn. It's the combination of facial features and posture that makes someone recognisable.

My tip is to slow down and really observe what you see, and draw what you see instead of what you think you see. That's how you can draw more accurately.

Book recommendation

Here are some books I recommend on drawing people:

If you can only buy one book, get the one by Lynne Chapman. If you can add one more, the one by Kagan McLeod is pretty good.

Course recommendations

If you learn better through videos and watching, these are the courses you can consider:

I actually recommend you get the books over the courses because the books cover a lot more techniques and have more depth.

Other sketchers to check out

Don Low is my friend from Urban Sketchers Singapore and he's a sketching machine.

Lapin from Barcelona is another prolific urban sketcher. He loves sketching in grid line books and enjoys sketching people close up.

Roisin Cure from Ireland always has lively sketches for the people she adds in her scenes.

Suhita Shirodkar's people sketches are lively and expressive, and she loves using bold colours.

Kagan McLeod is the artist and author for one of the people sketching books above.

Rob Sketcherman is the artist to check out if you want to draw digitally with a tablet.

You can find more urban sketchers from the Urban Sketchers Instagram page, and from these two books: The World of Urban Sketching and The Art of Urban Sketching.


Sketching people is challenging because there are countless postures to draw, and it's just a great way to hone your sketching skills. It's always fun to sketch people because the subjects are everchanging.

And once you know how to sketch people, you can make your scenes look more lively with people in them. It can certainly be slightly scary to draw people in the real world on location, but you get to build up your confidence and there are only upsides and no downsides. Sketching people is an essential toolset for urban sketching. It's rewarding and satisfying to be able to draw people well, and it's really not difficult to learn.


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