Abstracting shapes and urban sketching

July 3, 2023 | 7 Comments

In preparation for the Group Event for my Foundations course (starting later this week!) I’ve been doing a number of shape-based sketches during my morning coffee and sketch sessions.

A lot of people when they start urban sketching pick up their pen and start drawing everything in front of them. They keep drawing and drawing (possibly getting lost in the details) and then decide it’s time to add paint. Can you relate to this?

Thinking about shapes is an important way to simplify complex scenes and it will help prevent creating overworked and over-detailed sketches. So it’s one of the three essential observational skills that form the basis for all of my SketchingNow courses and we spend an entire week exploring this concept – called Abstracting Shapes – inside Foundations.

There are three main ways of working with shapes:

  • merging similar colour shapes
  • negative shapes
  • mapping light and dark (shadow shapes).

Once you learn to see the world using these three different shape-based concepts sketching becomes easier and more fun!

It also opens the door to more intermediate concepts including simplifying and designing value shapes and prioritising tones (lost and found edges). These are things that we look at in my Edges, Buildings and Watercolour On Location course.

But to get back to the quick shape-based sketches I’ve done recently…


This sketch is an example of mapping light and dark and it’s amazing how the 3-dimensional form of these two buildings is explained by just drawing the shadow shapes. I also added a negative shape for the sky.

The next day I did a sketch using coloured shadow shapes. This is probably not the best example of this as most of the scene was in shadow but the important thing was that I was focusing on overall shapes and not thinking about the objects themselves.

This third sketch was done starting with shapes and then drawing some lines, then back to shapes and finally a few more lines. I particularly enjoy doing this type of line and shape sketch.

You’ll notice that all three sketches in this article are done with markers. Markers are particularly useful for shape exercises as they enable you to focus purely on the shapes themselves and not how to paint them, they produce crispy solid colour and you can cover a lot of ground by using the side of the brush tip. These sketches were all done with GoldFaber aqua markers by Faber Castell.

I’m really looking forward to sharing the Abstracting Shapes lesson with the current cohort as they work through the Foundations course together. It’s not too late to join – find out more here.

Finally – I would love to hear from you…

Are you comfortable working with shapes when you are out sketching on location? Do you clearly see shapes before you start sketching? How often do you start your sketch with shapes? Or is this a new concept for you?

(If you are reading this via email, please click on the article title link below and add a comment on my blog. Thanks!)


  • Diane Kinney says:

    Hi Liz! I find that I’m more comfortable abstracting shape than going in with my pen. I like to get the gist of the scene in watercolor wash and then work on shadows to add depth.

    I can’t wait to do the group run through of Foundations! You’ve created such an inspirational and positive community here. Thank you!

  • mia Van laeken says:

    i can’t wait to learn a lot. looking forward also to meet nice people.

  • This posting from you was my aha! moment. I just signed up for the class and I can’t wait to dig in! I have followed your blog since taking a class with you through Sketchbook Skool.

  • Isabelle Walkowiak says:

    Hi, I am new to your newsletter and heard about you through a Facebook group called Sketchbook Artist.
    I don’t often use blocking shapes when drawing. Though it is not a new concept for me, it does not feel comfortable. I can’t wait to read more about your concepts.

  • Marie Emma Hager says:

    so interesting! Thank you!

  • Jamie C says:

    Shapes is such a good way to reduce the overwhelm in a scene! I hope to reach for this technique more.

    I’m so glad to be on the mend after surgery and happy to be back and catch up on your blog!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks everyone for your comments and great to hear your shape thoughts -)

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