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Creating an Urban Sketch Journal

An Interview with Designer Amin Zakaria

Designer Amin Zakaria shares his impressions on Urban Sketching.


"The trick is to imagine that you are physically there, drawing how you feel it, not how you see it."

Amin Zakaria - I have loved to draw since I was young. My father’s constant quick sketches on the whiteboard inspired me. He drew very well despite being in the engineering field. I attended Architectural Design school and am currently working in an Architectural Consultancy office in Malaysia. I try my best to use my spare time to practice my drawing, be it between meetings, during lunch hour and at midnight before I head to sleep. Drawing helps me to meditate.

I've learned a lot about urban sketching from my girlfriend who is an urban sketcher, from basic color mixing theory to shadow rendering, workflow and composition, and I experiment with them in my digital sketching.

You have a beautiful style to your urban sketches. What are you sharing with your drawings?

My notes are my journal. Sometimes they are findings of a study I did, and sometimes they are merely my personal thoughts and design ideas. The sketches below reflect the different methods I use when drawing, based on what I am exploring.

This drawing was done during a 2018 Land Rover Jamboree event. These people have traveled hundreds of km from the Northern peninsular of Malaysia to gather. They took a nap under the huge stretch of canvas tent in the afternoon while waiting for their lunch to be ready. Participants can be seen, resting and having a chit chat.

These drawings are from my shopping mall project in 2019. It was during the construction period as I was trying to visualize the final interior design.

When I'm not traveling, I will find ways to practice my drawings. I draw from a collection of old photos I took, and I refer to a lot of great artists and tutorials online. Sometimes I travel virtually using “Google street view” and sketch any interesting old buildings I can find. The trick is to imagine that you are physically there, drawing how you feel it, not how you see it. There are so many ways to make your sketching practice fun, and those are mine.

What are your favorite drawing tools? What do you like about Concepts for your sketches and how does it fit your style?

Back when I was studying architecture, I often used drawing pens and markers for quick perspective rendering. Now that I am working, I don't have the luxury of time to experiment with markers anymore, therefore I just use a bold pen like Pilot 1.0 for quick drafting of architectural layout or design. I also use a Wacom Intuos on my PC.

The iPad is a great medium to jot down your ideas and thoughts of design. I used to have an iPad Pro in 2016 before it got stolen. Now I am comfortable with an iPad mini 4 and Adonit Pixel stylus. When I found out about Concepts app, I was amazed by the tool options, layout and its capabilities. This app suits all around for any designer (fashion, product design, architects, interior etc).

Concepts' infinite canvas background is perfect for exploring designs and brainstorming ideas. It is like an endless working space. However, at certain times I prefer to draw with my own framework and compose my drawing from it (it is pretty similar with Adobe Illustrator). It is not necessary to draw within this frame, instead, it guides me in my sense of proportion and composition.

Here I've explored quick sketches using pen and marker tools. Architects and designers may find this useful and convenient for quick design studies on master planning and designing.

How do you go about creating an urban sketch?

My strokes are always rough and messy. I start with outlining my ideas in red pencils in a lower opacity in one layer. This will be a very rough sketch - the purpose is to draft out the accurate perspective lines and vanishing points, understand scale and proportion, overall composition, and shadow.

My next step is to ink using a black pen (0.3/0.4 mm). This step helps to control the line quality, defining it from the previous outline. Be careful with lineweight during this early stage, hatch can be done with thinner lines (0.2 mm), and the overall profile can be done with thicker lineweight (0.6 mm). My background canvas color is often a light brown paper-like tone (Copic's W0 color).

Then I will start with base coloring and proceed with mixing colors in darker tones. I start with a lighter tone before proceeding into darker colors. Remember that color composition also requires proportion. To become better with proportion requires making a lot of mistakes and learning from it.

As you can see from the screenshot, my layers are set based on components such as pen, trees, color, pencil and background. Always separate the layers of “pen” and “color”. The “tree” layer was separated, because this drawing was meant to be an experiment on tree rendering. I prefer to separate the sky and background as different layers as well, so that I can continue to modify the opacity at the final stage. This helps my subject to be more appealing, allowing a sense of depth in the overall drawing.

And this is my final drawing.


Do you have any tips or techniques you’d like to share about using Concepts for urban sketching? Favorite tools or workflows?

I would say my favorite three tools from Concepts are the pencil, pen and fill tools. I customize the pen size as per actual drawing pens (0.2, 0.3, 0.4 and 0.6 mm) to suit my own style of drawing. The “Fill” tool helps to create a volume of color fast and quick. At the end, some of my paintings turn out like a collage of colors which is interesting.

But I keep experimenting with tools in the app. At the moment, the marker effect is interesting for architectural / interior design rendering. I was always curious about the capabilities of simple tools to produce great things.

Sometimes, I restrict myself to limited time and tools options to experiment when I sketch. I believe creativity comes out with limited resources. However, my techniques and approach could be different from other artists. My only advice is don’t get overwhelmed with the tool settings so much (i.e layers, brush size, smoothness, opacity etc). Just put down your pencil and start drawing things. You will find your own comfortable settings and presets eventually.

These two images are examples of my experiment using pen and fill tools with only black and white tone. This practice is pretty similar to what I learned back in architectural design school, like linear & planar elements, light & shadows, scale & proportion and others. Don't be afraid to go back to the basic foundations of painting like color value. Be loose and don’t forget to have fun!

“Logic will get you from A-B, imagination will take you everywhere.” - Einstein.

Quick story of being loose and having fun: This drawing was done by my 7 year old nephew. I asked him to draw his favorite house. I was amazed by how he can simply put a big whale surrounded by stars as part of his pets. It has taught me one thing - be loose and widen your imagination.

What advice do you have for other artists about finding their creative voices?

There are so many ways and approaches on how to get better at drawings. I was curious about drawing styles, too. I’ve tried various styles and online tutorials. Find the one that best suits your style. I have produced a lot of drawings and paintings as you can see from my IG account. Some may not be my best work, but the purpose is to put them up there and see how much I have improved over the years. I often look back at my past artwork, and keep telling myself that I can do better on certain elements or portions of the drawings. It’s a constant reminder for me to get better. Remember, practice makes better. The first 10,000 paintings won’t be great, but believe that you will get there. Be prolific and don’t stop creating. Cheers!



Amin Zakaria is a designer based in Malaysia, currently working in an Architectural Consultancy office. He has always been intrigued by drawing, and started digital drawing on the iPad in 2015. Make sure to check out more of his work on Instagram and YouTube

Interview by Erica Christensen


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