Urban Sketching: Speed vs Accuracy

October 30, 2023 | 16 Comments

A great discussion on speed vs accuracy started in the Buildings classroom over the weekend so I thought it was the perfect time to write an article on the topic. This is something that I think about constantly in my own work. 🙂

Generally, speed and accuracy are at the opposite ends of a scale. If you want to be accurate you have to work slowly, if you work fast then accuracy will be less.

But it is possible to develop techniques for improving accuracy and speed together – in fact, this has been the story of my sketching journey.

Two general comments:

  1. You need to achieve a degree of accuracy in your work before you can speed up – otherwise working fast can be a way to cement bad habits (particularly a lack of observational skills)
  2. You have to listen to yourself and get a sense of your own natural pace. For most people the slower they work the better the result and the more happy they are. But for me my natural pace is fast and so I’m happiest when I’m working fairly quickly. And at times I love setting myself a challenge and sketching as fast as I possibly can.

As a teacher, I’m always telling beginners to slow down! So to expand a little on the first point…

When you are learning core observational skills it’s important to work carefully so that you are training your ‘visual brain’. You must make sure that you’re observing your subject in terms of edges and not drawing with your ‘object brain’. If you work too quickly the object brain will totally take over. Once you have trained your visual brain it’s easier to sketch faster – you also won’t spend as much time getting the correct position of the important edges and relationships between elements. (this is what I explain in detail inside my Foundations course!)

But having said that, occasionally trying to work fast is a good exercise as it forces you to see the big shapes and volumes first. A lot of the time spent sketching can be the result of getting bogged down in the details.

So improving your core observational skills is the most important thing if you want to speed up.

Another important thing to consider is that the best way to reduce the time that you spend sketching is not to work faster, but to reduce what you include in your sketch.

You can do this by thinking about the story (and focusing on one aspect of a scene), or by reducing the scene into big shapes and volumes (as I did recently with this sketch of St Mary’s Cathedral).

So rather than sketching faster, try to sketch less! I’m constantly aiming to say more with less and I like to meet the viewer half-way rather than trying to describe everything with my lines and shapes.

While there are occasions when I make rapid marks (such as this coloured pencil sketch done in Lane Cove), most of the time my sketches are done in less than 20 minutes simply because I reduce complex scenes into big shapes and a few lines. Here are a few examples:



One final thought is that the length of time that you spend on your sketch also is dependent on…

  1. how comfortable your position is (how long can you sketch comfortably standing up, or sitting on a stool, etc?)
  2. how long can you keep your concentration and
  3. how distracting your surroundings become (if someone interrupts you mid-wash or a truck blocks your view you might lose your motivation to continue!)

Ah! Sketching on location is so much fun isn’t it?

I would love to hear your thoughts about speed vs accuracy in the comment section below.

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


  • Tina Koyama says:

    I did not necessarily set out to become faster, but this has happened naturally over the course of the 12 years I have been sketching, and I think it is mostly due to what you mentioned — becoming simpler and simpler and drawing less and less. Mostly through ongoing practice and experience, my accuracy has increased as my speed has. But it took a long time to develop skills this way without setting out to do so! If I had been more intentional about it early on, I might have gotten fast much sooner.

  • Suzan Marshall says:

    Your post really spoke to me! I am fairly new to urban sketching and art, in general. I love to sketch rapidly, but am backtracking now to learn about perspective, people, watercolor techniques, etc.

  • Gary Haines says:

    My observation is that people seem to have an innate tendency for some combination of speed/accuracy. Personally, I’ve always been slow and precise – great for the ‘speed and accuracy’ tests in primary school, for architecture and for realistic drawing, but not so great for sketching. Having recently taken up sketching, I’m finding it difficult to speed up without sacrificing accuracy. Getting the proportions correct seems to me to be the non-negotiable element.

  • Katherine White says:

    I recently took a figure drawing class where we sketched very lightly with pencil to get rough accuracy and then erased and smudged out areas to simplify the line work. I really like this approach because it helped me initially get the form down correctly, but then allowed me back track to determine what lines/edges are essential. While I am not entirely competent with this yet, I have then tried going in with watercolor/other mediums to work out shadow shapes etc. It is a process, but getting it right first helps me a lot.

  • Karen Isenhower says:

    Excellent! I’m really enjoying this discussion. It’s everything I need to hear.

    Thanks for the reminder of trying to sketch less. I’ve heard you say that several times, but I keep forgetting when I’m concentrating on getting a sketch done.

  • Steffanie says:

    I love the blog and your courses for the ideas and explanations (you always back up your suggestions with a meaningful why).
    In your courses you model and talk about just doing a part of something and I have found that advice has been really helpful as it takes the pressure off and makes the sketching doable.
    After reading this post today I was reminded that I need to remember to be mindful and practice in a way that builds good habits not bad. The object brain taking over is always a threat 🙂

    Happy sketching.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment Steffanie and glad that this article was helpful. And yes the object brain has to be fought at all times! 🙂

  • Anne Stevenson says:

    A most interesting article , Liz, thank you! I don’t have the patience for details, especially when they are numerous for just one building. Interestingly, I found these particular sketches here of yours (especially the one with yellow doors) especially enjoyable to my eye. You have given me confidence to follow my eye and to do what I enjoy doing as well as what I see in these works of yours. I thank you again.

  • Elizabeth Louros says:

    I was told in a weeklong workshop I needed to speed up. But as a beginning sketcher I need to go slowly. I’m still learning to see the edges, shapes, etc. When I am out myself I like to do quick thumbnail of the shapes and are where things are in relation to each other. Then I sketch the same thing again if I have time with more accuracy. We the thumbnail helps me work things out .

  • Jamie C says:

    I’m still in that battle of discovering my own best speed!

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