Book Review: The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes

May 29, 2015 | 9 Comments

 It has taken me so long to get around to writing this review… but finally here is it. I want to share with you my thoughts about Marc Taro Holmes’ book “the Urban Sketcher”. If you haven’t bought this book, I highly recommend that you do, and if you have bought it, why not pull it off the shelf this week and have another look at it?

1. I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for a honest review. And just for the record, I also purchased a copy for myself direct from Marc so I could have his signature inside the front cover!
2. Marc is a really great friend of mine and so is his very special wife Laurel! I have spent numerous full days sketching with M&L before or after the annual Urban Sketchers Symposium and those days are always one of the highlights of my trips. Not only do I adore Marc’s work, his beautiful watercolour and incredible linework, but I love chatting with him about art concepts. We have the most stimulating conversations which always fill me with ideas to explore when I come home. And it has been amazing to see Marc’s sketching develop over the years – the first time I sketched with him in Belem, Portugal he was more a plein air painter and I could do two sketches and chat a lot for one of his paintings, but in recent times, he has refined his technique so much that it is hard to keep up with him!

So I can’t write a review without letting you all know that I am already a huge fan of the way Marc thinks and the work he produces. In a way, reading his book feels like I am hanging out with him again. And yes, you don’t need to tell me, what a great privilege it is to have had these sketching days with Marc ‘in real life’.

I am not going to write a full review – there are a lot of good reviews on Amazon – but I want to share my overall impression of the book. Not so much everything the book contains, but why I think the book is so great, what I have gotten out of reading it, and why I will be referring to this book again and again.

Two thirds of the book is devoted to drawing (first with graphite and then with pen and ink) and the final chapter deals with watercolour. In some respects, a lot of us were probably expecting more content on watercolour, since we think of Marc as the expert watercolourist, but I am very pleased that he gave some much emphasis in the book to drawing skills. I think we all need to be constantly sharpening our basic skills – even if we are seasoned sketchers!

There are a lot of great Urban Sketching books out in the market at the moment (more and more every year) but most of those are ‘portfolio’ type books, filled with the work of lots of artists and full of tips and tricks along the way. This book is different – it represents one artist’s complete way of thinking and this sets it apart from the others. I really love understanding the way that an artist thinks. I can see lots of different work online at any time, but to be able to sit down and read the structured presentation of a method of working is something really special!

Marc shares a lot of his content on his blog, so combined with our sketching days together, I have come across most of the content before, but it is the way that these ideas are put together that really impressed me – how each idea builds on the previous.

In the first section on Graphite Sketching he introduces three basic ideas – Drawing from the outside in, Shadow Shapes (simplifying to basic light and dark) and The Gradient of Interest. These form the basis of the rest of the book. Already in this first section, I am reading things that are so similar to the way I work, but with slightly different emphasis…. these differences are what gets me thinking! (What are the difference and why?)

Building on these three principles he then proceeds to his Three Pass Sketching: Contour(scribble) sketch in pencil, Calligraphic Line Drawing, Spot Blacks.

He then fleshes this system out with a variety of subject matters from small details, to complex street scenes to people. The section of drawing people is great – this is what he has based his brilliant Craftsy course on. If you want to sign up now for this course Click here to go to his site for a discount link.

The final section being only 30 pages was never going to be the definitive beginner’s guide to watercolour, containing everything you will ever need to know. Watercolour is a complex medium but I really like the way that Marc has simplified it into the basic techniques and approaches that he uses.

Five watercolour techniques are shared: Growing a wash, Charging-in, Edge pulling, Splattering, Dry brush. I love these different ways of using your brush and paint rather than pages of info about pigment and colour. You all know that I am slightly addicted to that stuff, but it is good just to focus on brushstrokes and how to move water and pigment around on the page.

He then goes on to apply Spot Colour in watercolour in a similar way as he was adding his spot black/ shadow shapes in the previous sections of the book.

Finally he shares his three-pass watercolour sketching and his ‘Tea, Milk and Honey’ approach (you can download a handout about this here). I don’t work this way, and although I have been exposed to Marc’s approach for a number of years, picked up a few more ideas by the way he connects it with the other ‘three passes’ in the book. Instead of seeing it just as a more traditional approach to watercolour, I now see it as part of the big picture of the way Marc works. The way he links his three pass watercolour to his three pass sketching with ink is very clever and useful!

This is a dense book, Marc covers a lot of concepts fairly quickly to present you with a complete approach to Urban Sketching. I do think that beginners might find that there is a need for some more instruction to fill in a few gaps and flesh out some of the ideas that he mentions. They might want to look out for some more detailed instructions in regard to measuring, to drawing buildings in perspective, to drawing the human body and basic watercolour techniques. But I do believe that the framework of this work is a great way to develop anyone’s urban sketching skills.

There are many ways in which my approach to teaching resonates with Marc’s way of simplifying a process and codifying it in a way that gets you going from step to step. I picked up some ideas from reading it – from comparing notes and from thinking about the differences.

The book is rich in great step by steps and lots of tips as well! But the single thought that I come away with from this book is Marc’s Three Pass methodology. Having a clear working method is one of the essential skills I think every sketcher should develop and this is what The Urban Sketcher clearly explains! 

The big question I am asking myself on completing reading the book is “Do I work in three passes? and would defining each pass help my work?” In many ways, I already do this but The Urban Sketcher has got me revisiting it again! My favourite books are always the ones that not only give me lots of isolated tips but those that prompt me to think more seriously about the way I work in the big picture!

My only disappointment with the book is its design. I am not a fan of the textured background to each page. It doesn’t do the artwork justice but the content is so good, that I just tried to ignore it! There are also a number of typos throughout the book – but Marc has just told me that these are being fixed  for the next printing – that is great!

I can’t wait for Marc’s next book… I don’t know for certain that there is one in production but I sure hope there is one. Marc is always developing his work which makes him such an inspiring artist to follow.

I intend to start doing regular book reviews on this blog… so let me know if there is a book you would like me to review and I will put it on my list!



  • A very great review, Liz, and it sounds like you have a couple of wonderful friends in this author and his wife.

  • Carmela says:

    Hi Liz–thanks for a very honest review of the book. I did purchase it and was impressed with the content. I agree that Marc's process does a great job of breaking down a complex task to manageable steps. I'm glad that I purchased the book. I too, was disappointed with the textured background the the spelling errors and am glad that the issues are being addressed for the next printing. Marc's Craftsy course is excellent and the book is an excellent addition to the course's content–I'm still working on improving my people drawing skills. Disclaimer: I've been a fan of Marc's work, and Liz's too, since the early days of Urbansketchers.
    By Carmela of Sunnyvale

  • Karen says:

    I've had this book from the library for about a week now, and know I will be adding it to my collection. I've already tried some of the drawing techniques, but it will take me some times to work through the book! Thanks for your perspectives.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Sherry – absolutely …the Holmes' are very special friends!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi Carmela – it is great that we have the online course to supplement the book isn't it?

  • Liz Steel says:

    yes Karen – you need your own copy of the book. To much to take in from a library loan!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Hi Ros… yes Thor's book is a good companion to this one! Have fun. Hope you have your teacups ready for seeing coming up soon!

  • RosC says:

    Interesting review, Liz. Thank you. I decided I can live with the spelling and so forth, and buy the book. Marc's proof reader didn't do the best by him but the content sounds focused on sensible drawing techniques. I am slow and pains-taking at this early point in my sketching.
    I have bought Thomas Thorspecken's book on Urban Sketching and think that the two books will be quite complimentary. I like the pages on perspective basics and people (and other animals) in action, not to mention the odd tea cup or two. 🙂

  • An excellent, inspiring book–I've always loved Marc's work, but getting inside his thinking process is brilliant!

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