Urban Sketching in Porto

Last week I was sketching in Porto!   I was fortunate enough to get over to Porto in Portugal for the 9th Urban Sketching Symposium.  There were over 800 sketchers attending the event.  Others, (including myself as I wasn’t able to get on line in time to secure a ticket before they sold out!), were sketching in Porto during the event.  It was a great opportunity to meet up with old friends and make new sketching acquaintances.  Not to mention the opportunity to see others sketches and methods!  Because I wasn’t a signed up attendee I felt a little bit like an outsider.  On the positive side, it meant that we were free to go and explore and sketch without the organisational constraints.  The last time I attended the urban sketching symposium was in Manchester in 2016 where I was the local correspondent.  As you can imagine, that was a very different experience!  This blog is a record of some of my main sketches, the methods used and what I learnt from sketching in Porto.

The sketchwork was completed in a Hand book square format sketchbook. The approach was usually colour first (wet on wet) followed by fountain pen.

Places at the top level

Our hotel was relatively close to the cathedral and train station in the top part of Porto (where top is higher up and bottom is by the River Douro).  Therefore, are first port of call was the cathedral and its terraces providing views across to the north of the city and down to the river.  The views from the terrace included that of the Sao Bento Train station.  The station is an amazing place, with hugh arched yellow glass windows and stunning blue tiling .  We also dipped into the well known Majestic Cafe with its dark ornate wood and expensive menu!  Around the corner and again, close to our accommodation was a rather splendid church: Igreja De Sao Ildefonso (there were lots of these!) which we had to capture!  It looked particularly impressive in the evening light.

Porto Cathedral_LizsScribbles

The cathedral was the first sketch in Porto and I really struggled!  I think I fell into the trap of sketching before thinking!  The smaller black and white drawings of views around the of the terrace of the cathedral were much more enjoyable.  They were completed using a single-line contour approach and having spent several days sketching.

Porto Train Station Sao Bento_lizSScribbles

The station drawing and that of the crowds at the station were somewhat more flowing.  They are looser and were overall more enjoyable to do.  I guess I was just more ‘in the zone’

Majestic Cafe Porto_LizsScribbles


The drawing above was completed in two sessions, one in the evening light and one in the midday light so it was just as well I used a colour first approach!


Panoramic_sketching in Porto_lizsscribbles

I had to do at least one panoramic view so the sketch above was it.  Drawn from the terrace of the Cathedral and on a somewhat cloudy morning.  I did this one from the centre and worked out to either side, having marked off the key elements eg the statue, the station etc.


Between the Cathedral and the riverside (Ribeira) is the Barredo district that spreads up the hillside and is characterised by cobbled surfaces, an earthy feel of warren like lanes and great views.  It is also steep so quite a climb if walking from the Ribeira up, especially in the heat!  The lower level around the cathedral itself is  interesting and seems to be home to quite a few locals.  It is not completely pristine, some buildings are derelict or having work done, all adding to the charm!.

Sketching in Porto_lizAckerley

The sketch above (or should I say, series of sketches)  is perhaps my favourite of all of my sketches.  Mainly because it was the drawing that came after I had struggled with the first sketch (the cathedral).  My approach here was to walk down the steps and at intervals (as the scene changed) to do a 15 minute single line contour after colour first.  It was a loosening up exercise.  It has turned out like a series of 4 thumbnails but without the boundary around each one (I wanted them to merge into each other).

Sketching Porto_LizAckerley

Places at lower level

Ribeira (riverside) is an impressive mix of tall colourful houses piled on the slopes leading to the Douro.  The dramatic bridge (Ponte De Dom Luis I) connects to the other side of the river with its ditstincive Port wine lodges.  The bridge connects by road on the bottom level and Tram on the top, both are walkable.  Its the other side that has the most impressive views back to the Ribeira and both sides have cafes and restaurants lining the routes.

Porto Ponte luis I_lizsScribbles


I was keen to draw the bridge from over on the Port wine lodge side as there were particularly colourful buildings at this angle, reds, rusts and golds all added to the charm and impact.


The drawing above was an early sketch aimed to spontaneously capture the sense of the place.  I did get a little bogged down with it but time constraints helped!


Porto houses_lizsScribbes

Activities and events

The Praca Da Ribeira (above), the main riverside square was a meeting point for Drink and Draw during the symposium.  A great opportunity to meet up with symposium attendees as well as me doing some people drawing!  Of course the sketch crawls were other opportunities to capture the sketching energy!



Sketching in Porto-On reflection

Overall I am much happier in my sketching-skin now and this was apparent during a week-long sketching in Porto.  I believe that this is in part the result of my ongoing exploration of various visual art techniques.  For the last year I have been starting to develop some mixed media approaches, particularly collage.  This, in turn is helping my sketching to loosen up and become a little more fluid.  Here are some specifics of what I observed during the week.

  • I need to spend time thinking before getting started on a sketch.  Being mindful is critical for success.  On numerous occasions I forgot this!  Even asking the question: ‘what do I want to achieve with this drawing and what is critical for success’ is a start!
  • I am getting more aware of the importance of the journey rather than the finished product.  However, I need to be more mindful of my inner critic and spirit dampener!  This is a bit of a revelation for me.  I have for a while been keen to enjoy the process of sketching (hence my focus on colour first which helps with a looser and less technically obsessive approach).  Having made that decision I am a little surprised at the continued strength of the inner critic and spirt dampener!
  • I need to ramp up the characterisation of characters!  This was something readily observable amongst the people drawers at the symposium!
  • The approach of pen and ink sketching on some occasions during the week and creating mixed-media collage on others sounds fun but needs managing!-I had a tendency to be thinking about what I could be doing instead rather than making the most of what I was doing!  I need to make the two approaches work side by side.
  • Colour first is an aide to loosening up but you still have to be mindful that an overly detailed and tight sketch doesn’t develop.  I found that continuous line contour, limiting time and size (thumbnails) helped and enabled the creation of interesting compositions.
  • Working on the initial laying down of the colour is  an important next step for me and will lead me back to improving my watercolour skills.
  • Looking at others work and the content of workshops is a great way of exploring possibilities but it doesn’t mean that you should always be looking to change (generally modification and adjustment rather than a complete overhaul!)

Next up I will be talking about my concertina collage work in Porto.  Please watch this space!