Jane Northcote is an urban sketcher who works mainly in ink and wash, drawing buildings in London. Meticulously labelled with the exact date, time and place they were created, her sketches form a colourful and characterful record of what she sees. Here, Jane discusses her artistic practice and reviews two practical, portable sketchbooks for Urban Sketching.
Sketchbooks for Urban Sketching
by Jane Northcote
Some people meditate. I draw pictures. Sketching is my way of being “in the present moment” as the Zen people say.
I’ve always drawn pictures, mostly pictures of what happens to be in front of me at the time. This usually means city streets, corporate reception areas, cups of coffee, speakers at meetings and people on public transport.
Then for my birthday I was given a copy of Gabriel Campanario’s “The Urban Sketching Handbook: Architecture and Cityscapes”. I realised that there was a name for what I was doing: “Urban Sketching”. This gave purpose and direction to my sketching. I felt validated and encouraged. It also proposed constraints. I am someone who finds constraints helpful. The constraints I impose on myself are:
- The drawing is done on location, and not from photographs.
- I use one painting technique: pen and wash
- The drawings are done in my book, and not on odd scraps of paper.
- Once I start a drawing, I finish it.
Since these are my own rules, I can of course bend them, and I do. But in general I am disciplined, and I’m pleased with the results of that discipline.
The sketchbook I use for these urban sketches is the Seawhite Travel Journal, A5. I like the one with lines on alternate sheets, as it reminds me to write a few notes about what happened while I was drawing – and usually things do happen. People will come and chat when I’m drawing. I often draw tower blocks in North London; I like the combination of old and new, and the way the 1970s blocks have aged and changed. One day, after I’d sat for an hour on a low wall, sketching a huge block of flats, an old lady came down to talk, curious about what I was doing. She looked with interest at my drawing, and identified her window. Then she went back up and waved, keen to be “in the picture”. Children also are interested. As I sat on the pavement sketching a local market, a young boy looked over my shoulder. He critically compared my drawing to the evolving scene in front of us. “You haven’t put in that car!” he protested. His older sister knowingly advised him: “She can’t put in everything!” I often remember that conversation, because in general I try to put in “everything”: the cars, the lampposts, the rubbish bins and all. I’m drawing in order to see. The urban environment is full of extraneous objects. I’m sketching a real building, a real street: not making an architectural drawing.
The Seawhite Travel Journal has 130gsm pages, and works well for me for this urban sketching. It has a lot of pages, opens out flat, and is durable and easy to carry around. The paper is strong, with a creamy surface which doesn’t bleed, allowing me to use precise pen strokes. My process is: pencil to get the rough outlines, then lengthy and detailed pen drawing, and then a very quick watercolour wash. I have to be a bit careful if I erase pencil, because if I’m too vigorous then the surface of the paper lifts, giving a bitty, granular appearance when I put on the watercolour, which is sometimes in tune with the subject matter and sometimes not. So I don’t erase the pencil if I can help it. Also I must use only one or maybe two layers of watercolour, otherwise it goes muddy. These restrictions are not onerous, and this sketchbook is my companion about the city.
For a recent holiday, I bought the Stillman and Birn Delta series sketchbook: real luxury. My idea was to do more intense watercolour work, and try out new techniques in the Mediterranean sun. I don’t often use “real” watercolour paper, so it was interesting and educational to see how different it is from the less absorbent paper in the Seawhite book. The colours shine out brightly, the paper can be dampened. With damp paper, the colours flowed into each other, yielding interesting effects which I am still learning how to control and use. I found I could erase pencil with no noticeable effect on the paper. It took the pen lines beautifully, and I enjoyed the slightly hammered surface of the pages. I sometimes find it hard to manage how the picture fits on the page. It was very convenient that the book opens flat, so my drawing can spill onto two pages. The hard covers are rigid and flat, and a fine support for painting.
Although 26 sheets is fewer than some sketchbooks, it’s possible to do a watercolour on the reverse side of each page: I found no bleed through to the other side. There’s no pocket at the back, no bookmark, and no elastic to keep it closed (which is all fine by me, but might matter to some people). I used bulldog clips to keep the pages from blowing around in the wind while drawing, and to keep the book closed in my bag. The overall quality is exceptional, and a great spur to creativity.
I’m going to continue experimenting with watercolour techniques; for those I need the Stillman & Birn sketchbook. Meanwhile I continue to fill my Seawhite Travel Journal with scenes from the corners of the city, and each new journal represents adventures I have yet to have.
The image at the top of this article is ‘Lighthouse 1864, Trinity Buoy Wharf, 20th January 2017’ by Jane Northcote. All images on this page are copyright Jane Northcote and cannot be used without the written permission of the artist. To see more of Jane’s art, do visit her website or follow her on Twitter.