What is Urban Sketching? The story of Jesse Spencer Smith

In this article, Greenwood Classic Notebooks and Sketchbooks detail the life, process, and passion behind an urban sketch artist.

If Peter Parker was a journalist by day and Spiderman by night, well then Jesse Spencer Smith is a Biologist by day and an urban sketch artist with close to 31,000 followers on Instagram by night. We say same same.

Jesse, a Biology Teacher, has steadily amassed a growing fanbase through his Instagram page. Not by luck either, but a unique technical style of urban sketching. We caught up with the man himself to hear about him and what architectural and urban sketching involves.

A Blank Greenwood is perfect for architectural and urban sketching. 

1. Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Well, I think the most interesting thing is that I am not a trained artist. I’m sure many artists on Instagram would look at my work and say “yeah, no kidding!” I am actually a biologist by training. I study blood diseases and teach biology at a local college in Northern California. I grew up in this area and have been involved in science and medicine in one way or another for almost 15 years. I am also an avid outdoorsman. I have worked as a professional climbing and mountaineering guide. During my time living on the coast of California, I was a very avid surfer and I have been a lifelong cyclist. These days I spend most of my time working, drawing and training border collies for competitive sheep herding trials.

Vanderbilt Mansion, NYC (credit: @jessespencersmith)

Vanderbilt Mansion, NYC (credit: @jessespencersmith)

2. Can you tell us about architectural and urban sketching? What makes it different from other sketching art forms?

Architectural sketching is a quick means of creating an aesthetically pleasing drawing of a building or cityscape. The rigor for exactitude in detail is much less, which makes this art much more approachable to people from a variety of backgrounds and styles. This art traditionally lends itself to pencil and pen and ink, but can definitely be done in watercolor, charcoal or virtually any medium.

The beauty of sketching buildings is that it allows you to generate quick drawings that are pleasing to the eye. As you spend more time doing this, you become much quicker at working through issues such as perspective, shading or tone.

What makes architectural sketching different from other forms of sketch art is that you have the problem of perspective. Perspective involves the vanishing of lines depending on which angle you are looking at a building. The eye sees perspective perfectly, so drawings need to be spot on to be “believable.” That isn’t to say you need to create believable drawings, but I tend to value that more than anything. Other elements like rendering building details properly make architectural sketching particularly difficult.

3. What process do you go through to sketch? In terms of where you get your inspiration, how you then make a start and move through the art of sketching the entire piece.

Inspiration is the easiest part of any sketch. I see a building and I have to draw it! I’ve stopped my car in traffic or darted out into busy intersections to snap photos of buildings from the right angle so I can use them as references for drawings. Some buildings are just too spectacular not to draw! I am inspired by interesting and outdated features like Mansard roofs, or outdated styles like gothic architecture. I never know where I’ll find inspiration, but there is rarely a lack of it.

Sketching is different from an actual architectural rendering in so many ways. Most formal renderings need to be thoroughly planned and sketched multiple times before a final drawing is attempted. Sketching is different in that I do all of that planning in my head before putting pencil to paper. I start with two straight edge lines to center and align the drawing and from there everything is entirely freehand. I lay down a quick 10-15 minute pencil sketch to make sure the building looks correct and the perspective is believable. After that, I lay down pen lines over the pencil sketch to establish the most important lines (ie. roof lines, prominent walls or major features). I always go after the hardest lines first because if the drawing is going to fail, I’d rather it happen sooner rather than later.

Once the major pen outline is drawn, I move through a series of shading runs to establish tone. I’ve learned to put a lot more ink down on the paper over the years. Every so often I put the drawing up across the room and look at it, or leave the room and come back to catch a glance at it. I usually catch mistakes, an uneven perspective or something I don’t like when I glance at drawings like that. Once I feel the drawing has enough depth and does justice to the building, then I sign it and call it good!

Jesse in Action (credit: @jessespencersmith)

Jesse in Action (credit: @jessespencersmith)

4. If you were going to give your young self advice about sketching, what would it be?

There is no right way to do anything in this art! I held back from drawing for so long believing that I “wasn’t doing it right” or that I was somehow a fraud. I was certain that other people could see how ridiculous my artwork was and as a result, I kept it private for way too long. Yes, people will look at your work periodically and think it looks bad, or untrained or whatever. It doesn’t matter. There are people who look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s work and think the same thing. People tend to project their own preferences and their own insecurities on to other people’s work. I would tell my younger self to take it with a grain of salt and not let negative criticism get you down and keep drawing!

5. When did you first realize, hey people might want to see what I’m doing here?

Honestly, a few years back I was frustrated with my current drawings and losing inspiration, so I decided one afternoon to do something different. I had been working on intricate pencil sketches of birds and hadn’t been able to generate a solid drawing in a while. I picked up a ball point pen and sketched a rough, quick and unplanned sketch of Leland Stanford’s mansion in San Francisco, CA. I posted it up on Facebook and the response was huge. I did a few more drawings in that style and received a lot of praise. That public display of my work made me realize people liked what I was doing. That was a big turning point for me!

The sketch which started it all. Stanford Mansion, CA. (credit: @jessespencersmith)

The sketch which started it all. Stanford Mansion, CA. (credit: @jessespencersmith)

6. Tell us a little about your favorite location or building you’ve sketched and why.

Oh, that’s a tough one! I’ve been obsessed with the mansions of a group of railroad tycoons in California during the turn of the 1900’s called the "big four". These men were obscenely wealthy and build extravagant mansions in the Nob Hill neighborhood in San Francisco. My favorite of those was the Mark Hopkins mansion, which sadly burned down during the 1906 earthquake. It kills me that I missed the opportunity to see this building in person by about 100 years, but I continue to pour over what photos remain of it. I’ve drawn it numerous times.

San Francisco is probably my favorite location. There is such a mixture of architecture there, and much of it is so distinct. I could spend a whole day just walking around and finding new buildings to draw. New York city is another untouched area for me. I’ve generated a few sketches of prominent or historical buildings in that area that I really enjoyed. The Flatiron Building is an obvious favorite. What an amazing building! I am also really interested in the mansions of some of the more prominent names in NYC like Vanderbilt, Carnegie and the like. They build huge mansions in Manhattan that were truly impressive. I love drawing those!

My sights are firmly set on London and Rome as my drawing destinations! I’m pretty sure I’ll hit sketch overload in those places!

Knickerbocker Hotel, NYC (credit: @jessespencersmith)

Knickerbocker Hotel, NYC (credit: @jessespencersmith)

Want to learn how to sketch like Jesse? The sign up for his newsletter here.  

You can also purchase Jesse Spencer Smith prints and originals by emailing: jesse@fivebyfivetonics.com

All images and content in this article used with permission of the artist Jesse Spencer Smith.