Five reflections from my CA-TX trip

October 9, 2017 | 16 Comments

I’m back home after an incredible three weeks in California and Texas. It was a significant trip on many levels but I think the biggest takeaway is that I managed to revive my serious travel sketching mode and took a lot of risks. As a result, I had a major breakthrough in regards to sketching people.

Before I continue with my five reflections, I need to make two important points:

  1. During the last few trips I have sketched a lot, but there have been many opportunities where I didn’t even open up my sketchbook, saying to myself, “I couldn’t be bothered to sketch”. While many of you might think that sounds ‘normal’, for me it has felt as if I am losing my touch a little. There is something very special that happens when I sketch a lot and I’ve been missing that feeling of flow – but more about this later.
  2. Please don’t compare my output with yours. I sketch very quickly – most of my sketches are completed in 20 minutes or less with many of my sketches are in the 5 minute range. There is no virtue in sketching quickly but my natural pace is fast so I get very energised when I work rapidly and record everything from my day into my sketchbook.

So what made the difference this time?

1. Casual sketchbooks

I chose to use Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbooks (in three sizes) rather than the large (and hard to handle) Moleskine Watercolour A4 books which are my default travel sketchbooks. The smaller and lighter books and the thinner (not true watercolour) paper meant that I opened my book for many half-oportunities and just went for it. I found that the casual nature of the Alpha enabled me to take more risks and that paid off!

I didn’t once think: “I wish I had better paper” but I know that every sketch would have been better on better paper. The big issue though, is the fact that I wouldn’t have produced half as many sketches if I had used the A4 moleskine. So overall, I am very very happy with my decision to use the Alpha books.

(BTW the labels are stickers)

2. No teaching

I love teaching so much but there is no doubt that it has impacted my sketching when I travel. This trip made me realise how much more freedom I have to sketch when I am not worrying about preserving my energy for the teaching sessions… instead if I had the energy I could just sketch and sketch!

Whilst not the same as workshops, it was great to have a number of meetups so I could meet the local sketchers and yet also do my own sketching alongside them.

3. Setting a goal and being around non-sketchers

I haven’t had a chance to explain the seanwes conference I went to in Austin, but in essence it was a business conference associated with an online community that I have been part of for the last 18 months. (I will share more about the conference in a future article).

In the community chat, six months ago, I shared a goal that I wanted to sketch ‘everyone’ at the conference. While in SF I was so busy sketching the street scenes and buildings that I really didn’t think I would achieve my goal – I had not prepared myself for the big task. However, once in Austin and surrounded by people rather than places, I decided to push myself. To just go for it and live with the consequences.

However, once in Austin and surrounded by people rather than places, I decided to push myself. To just go for it and live with the consequences.

I think the fact that I wasn’t in ‘teacher mode’ helped a lot. But the most important factor was the support of the seanwes community members who cheered me on and didn’t seem to mind the deformities I gave them! Thanks everyone!

Also, having started sketching in the days before the conference, I just couldn’t give up, could I? Somewhere in the middle of ‘ just sticking with it and pushing through the cringe moments’ the breakthrough happened.

4. Sketching in the afternoon

I realised this trip that something special happens if I am still sketching at 4pm. While most people would start to get tired, I found that my creative juices starting pumping big time, and I really felt energised to keep sketching. Even more importantly I was really inspired to take risks – such as drawing complex street scenes in 3 minutes!

Yes, I know that I am a bit obsessive, but I do believe that the big jumps in the development of skills comes when you push yourself out of the ordinary. If you stay in the comfort zone of one little practice sketch a day you will see improvement, but it will be slow. The ‘leaps and bounds’ improvement comes in the ‘after 4pm zone’ – well, it does for me anyway!

5. Keeping it up

Sketching people is one of the most difficult skills to develop and it requires a lot of commitment to regular practice as well as serious research into anatomy. With everything else I am doing in my life, I haven’t been able to put the time into getting my skills to where I want them to be.

This year I have taken it much more seriously – with regular meetups with Chris Haldane, the Oneweek100people challenge and having to sketch on live TV. But my week in Austin felt like the most significant breakthrough I have had.

But will it be a permanent change?

Yes!!!! And the reason why I’m so confident, is that I have already, on three occasions, made a conscious effort to sketch people I am with. (Sketching friends is so much harder than strangers looking at their iPhones on the train). I sketched Judy over a coffee, Bill at the USK DFW meetup, everyone at lunch on the same day… and since arriving home, I sketched Alissa and Lisa at afternoon tea.

But, just in case I slacken off,  I’m asking all my local friends and family members who read this, to prompt me to sketch them when we next meet! I need the challenge and accountability.

So there you have it, another wrap up of an incredible sketching trip. I have a lot more to share, and a lot of scanning to do over the next little while.

Having three big overseas trips within a 5 month period has been exhilarating but somewhat insane. I am so happy to be home again for a bit and to finally get stuck into my biggest project for the year! (Announcement coming to my newsletter readers tomorrow!)


  • Beth Pickett - October 9, 2017 reply

    Glad you made it back home safe and sound and that your travels were productive in multiple ways! The Austin USk group was thrilled to have the opportunity to sketch with you and much appreciated your generosity with tips and advice even though you weren't in "teacher mode." Your people sketches are great! Are you able to describe the breakthrough you had with them? More confidence, better rendering, something else? Or indescribable?

    • Liz Steel - October 9, 2017 reply

      thanks Beth - it was so lovely to meet y'all in Austin. I will explain the breakthrough later and more about my process in the next week or so!

  • Sheila Pallotta - October 9, 2017 reply

    What a great commentary and summary of your trips. And, you have given me hope for improving drawing of people. Practice does it, eh? Thanks!

    • Liz Steel - October 9, 2017 reply

      Hi Sheila... yes! your people sketching can improve...but just make sure that along with practice you put in some serious anatomy research. Practice without research can cement bad habits and when we are sketching people we have to fight our object so much!!! All the best!

  • Suma CM - October 10, 2017 reply

    Great writeup Liz! Hurray to sketching more people and the quick casual approach! So glad I got to see you!

  • Veronica Green - October 10, 2017 reply

    Thanks for sharing,I truly enjoy reading about your trip...

  • Tina Koyama - October 10, 2017 reply

    Of all your blog posts, I enjoy most the reflective, process-review ones that so often follow travel. You learned a lot about yourself in the U.S. -- bravo! Looking forward to hearing more.

  • Jeff D - October 10, 2017 reply

    Liz, I am sorry to have missed you in Austin; you are so right thatt break throughs happen when you bring your best energy, best eyes, to the more difficult tasks. But what a great feeling that is while drawing. I love the sketches and thanks for sharing.

  • Jo-Christy Brown - October 10, 2017 reply

    Thank you for spending time with us in Austin, Liz. It was a great afternoon and a memory that I will cherish! You continue to inspire us..... Your blogs, writing , energy and enthusiasm are so motivating and inspirational. JC

  • Ania Drozd - October 11, 2017 reply

    Those conference sketches look great - like a print ready summary conference booklet!

  • Chris - October 12, 2017 reply

    Are you going to share more of your Texas sketches with us????

    • Liz Steel - October 12, 2017 reply

      Yes of course. But you might have to be patient ???? As I have a lot on my plate and a lot of scanning to do.

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