10 years ago I couldn't use a paint brush: How I got started sketching

December 30, 2016 | 38 Comments

I know that it is hard to believe, but when I started watercolour sketching, I was too heavy-handed to use a round brush (on the left). Instead I used a very cheap short haired small flat brush (on the right) until I gained enough control to progress to a round one.

In other words, when I started painting, I was an absolute beginner! And yes, it is 10 years (almost to the day) since I started.

I did my first watercolour sketch, not from the comfort of my home, but instead I was on the top of Mt Kosciuszko – the highest point in Australia – being attacked by very nasty stinging flies at the time. I think it is highly symbolic that my first sketch was out on location in challenging circumstances.


I can’t find the sketch (sadly?), but I can tell you that it was terrible – done on the cheapest of cheap ‘watercolour paper’ (by Monte Marte) with the tiny Cotman paintbrush and it was a fairly challenging landscape for an architect to attempt as a first sketch. But here is a photo of the view, Esther and me (yes ,with long hair and a few extra kilos) and a photo of Esther sketching (I was sitting next to her). Note: This was before Urban Sketchers, social media, and the trend of taking hero shots of the sketch on location!

I think this is a good chance to go back a little further and tell you the full story of how I started sketching. When I do a talk (to an art society, group of architects etc) I normally start with this story, but I only recently realised that I have never shared it on my blog. So here goes…

I always wanted to sketch and keep a journal when I travelled but the only time I created a visual journal was when I was 19 years old. It was our last family holiday, and I feel as if it was the best holiday we ever went on because of the memories I recorded. You can see a little more about my sketch pages here.

As an architect I wanted to keep a sketchbook but the only time I attempted to do so was when I was travelling. I would normally only sketch (from memory) for the first day or so of a trip before abandoning it totally and just resorting to writing notes. It was all just too hard to sketch on location!

So instead I created elaborate (extremely elaborate) books when I came home. Some of these volumes took 1 year to complete and contained detailed research projects on the buildings I visited. Note: All this work has helped my architecture sketching enormously.

Then 10 years ago, my friend Esther Semmens came to Australia for a year and things changed…

Turning Point No. 1: Discovering watercolour in pans/field kit

My exposure to art was so limited that I had never come across watercolour in pans before, but at that moment I  immediately knew that this was what I had been looking for all my life. Ok, that is a little over dramatic, but it was a huge lightbulb moment! So I rushed out and bought a Cotman Field Kit the next day just like Esther’s.

Turning Point No. 2: Dropping my camera during a road trip


I didn’t know how to use the watercolour kit, but I packed it for a road trip through NSW and Victoria, hoping to do a few paintings during our 2 week adventure. Esther gave me a brief demonstration of how to pick up paint the evening before our walk to Mt Kosi. Note: I didn’t know anything about painting!

The momentous nature of being on the top of Australia was the reason for our determination to sketch there. We hadn’t been sketching at all during the first half of our trip and were too busy taking photos. I wasn’t very satisfied with my first attempt at painting so I decided to put my kit away. But then disaster struck – I dropped my camera and it broke.

The next day, we were at a lookout that had been recently burnt by a bushfire. I was bored! I mean, what do you do if you don’t have a camera? And then I looked down on the ground and saw a burnt stick…”Charcoal!” I exclaimed!

As I drew the tree I experienced an incredible buzz, a special connection with place. As a result I was determined to sketch for the rest of the trip. I did a few sketches each day in a small cartridge visual diary but when I went back to work, my sketching stopped.

Turning Point No. 3: Starting my first watercolour sketchbook

One month later, I bought my first expensive sketchbook (Moleskine watercolour book) and started it over the Australia Day long weekend while I was away at Port Macquarie. My first sketches look very much like my 19-year-old cartoons and I have a number of classic beginner mistakes: drawing as if I was a bird in the air, flat bottom coffee cups with pointed ellipses, and horrible green straight from the pan.

But later that weekend I sketched this single image to describe a storm at Town Beach. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but was pleased with the result and discovered the power of a single image to record an event.

I was booked to travel in September that year so I was determined to fill a sketchbook. I trained every night, working from photos.

And occasionally tried sketching out on location – this is my first ever cafe sketch.

In September I travelled through Scotland, Norway, Prague, Florence, Rome, Paris and filled two sketchbooks. I was hooked!

And the rest is history!

This is my collection as of yesterday – 10 years worth of sketching and teaching sketching workshops.

There is a lot more that I could expand on in this story, but I think that’s enough for today. It’s been really amazing to compare the start of my journey with my 2016 in Review article yesterday. There is no way I would have believed a word if someone had told me 10 years ago what I would be doing these days.

The last 10 years have been incredible – my life has changed in so many ways. But it all began with that lightbulb moment of wanting to start using watercolour. I have a lot of drawing background as an architect (this is worthy of a separate article), but when I started my first moleskine I had zero watercolour experience.

Over the last 10 years I have worked very hard at developing my drawing from observation and my painting skills. It has taken me a decade to get where I am today – it wasn’t an instant transformation. that many beginners expect it to be.

But it has been an amazing journey – and sharing my work with you online for the last 8.5 years has been a huge part of it. So thank you for all the support and encouragement.


There is no way to achieve instant success as an artist. Instead, it is a process of slowly developing your skills. But if you just do a little bit most days you WILL make progress.

You each have a unique creative journey to travel, different from everyone else. The path you end up going along might be quite different from what you expected it to be at the start, but just embrace the journey and enjoy every step!


  • Alissa Duke says:

    Wonderful ! I know some of the story but it has been great to see it all on the one page and read your reminiscences. It had been good to be a part of that journey.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Alissa, You were the first sketcher I met! Oh, that day on Cockatoo Island seems like a long time ago. Miss you HEAPS! Happy New Year and congrats on all you have achieved in 2016!

  • Jodi says:

    What a fantastic story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tina Gartlan says:

    Just love this – honest and encouraging and just so full of energy!
    Thank you

  • Fiona Hayes says:

    Yes, fantastic to read about your journey, Liz! I walked into a little studio shop in my hometown in March 2015, not really knowing what it was. Turned out the 2 women running the studio were artists and were offering classes. Having never drawn or painted in my entire life, I was curious, & took classes in watercolour. I was immediately hooked! Since then, I have painted probably hundreds of pieces either on watercolour sheets, pads or sketchbooks. I branched into urban sketching about 12 months ago and am progressing all the time. I love it! I still have my first little sketchbook and I almost cringe looking back at my first efforts……….laughable! I am so pleased I discovered your online courses and pages on Facebook & Instagram, Liz, as you have been a constant inspiration to me and my art. Your ability to fill all those sketchbooks in 10 years is astonishing. Thanks Liz.

  • sandra says:

    Wonderful to read and see your journey. It really does give me hope that if I keep persevering I will be able to do “out in the open” sketching and painting.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I recently discovered your work and have been so inspired by all that you share. I look forward to seeing where my sktetching will progress and finding my own style.

  • Dottie Aiken says:

    Thank you so much for sharing and inspiring me. I’ve recently been sharing my paintings on Facebook and Instagram after keeping them hidden from the view of most. It’s been so educational and motivating and I credit that to you. Happy New Year. My goal for the new year is to start on the journey of journaling and learning so much more about sketching and watercolor. You inspired me!

  • Carole Jurack says:

    What a marvelous tale you tell. I only started to take lessons a few years ago and already see great progress. It is indeed a journey of development and so much fun in the process. So glad to have run into your works on line. Thank you for your motivation and inspiration. I see your history with coffee & cups goes back to the beginning of time as well. Wishing you much joy and continued success throughout the New Year.

  • kate burn says:

    thank you for sharing this story and your early sketches. it’s timely for me as i’ve just begun your foundations course. seeing your first steps and knowing how hard you worked at it is vey motivating to me to get to work!

  • Dee Ludwig says:

    Encouraging, inspiring, and intriguing! I’ve only traveled with you for about 6 of those 10 years, but have watched your journey with joy and interest! Here’s to the next 10!

  • Sharon Stover says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Perfect timing as I’m just beginning the journey. You make it seem doable. I appreciate it!

  • Emily DeArdo says:

    This is great, Liz! I’m still just starting and it’s so encouraging to see your early sketches!

  • Michelle Weatherson says:

    I found your story incredibly inspiring! Your path clearly demonstrates that drawing and painting well are learned skills and not simply a matter of inborn talent. Your hard work and perseverance have paid off. Thanks for sharing this story.

  • Carmel Campbell says:

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Love the story, Liz. Congrats on your 10th anniversary. As I read it I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of your architecture background. Wish I’d had that coming into sketching. They didn’t teach me to draw in biologist school 🙂 Anyways, thanks for sharing. Happy New Year.

  • Mary Yeates says:

    Great story very inspiring

  • Jeanette Gillings says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey Liz. Very inspiring. Urban sketching is a wonderful and relaxing way to destress (for me anyway). I’m enjoying your courses and I’ve learnt a lot… at the moment I’m trying not to use too much paint, and “leave some white ” ????

  • Jeanette Gillings says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey Liz. Very inspiring. Urban sketching is a wonderful and relaxing way to destress (for me anyway). I’m enjoying your courses and I’ve learnt a lot… at the moment I’m trying not to use too much paint, and “leave some white ” ????

  • Jeanette Gillings says:

    Thank you for sharing your journey Liz. Very inspiring. Urban sketching is a wonderful and relaxing way to destress (for me anyway). I’m enjoying your courses and I’ve learnt a lot… at the moment I’m trying not to use too much paint, and “leave some white ” ????

  • Serena Lewis says:

    Wonderful story, Liz!

  • Caroline Grenville says:

    Liz you are inspiring and always very encouraging. Thank you for sharing this story. I’m struggling with painting my first portrait in oils at the moment and not finding time for sketching and it feels all wrong. I need to get back to my watercolours and finish your Foundations course as I get a real sense of achievement from that.

  • Susan Garcia says:

    Congratulations on 10 years of sketching, Liz, and thank you for sharing your early sketches. It helps me to see the progress that I can make, with LOTS of practice, of course! Wishing you the best for 2017!!

  • Your story is inspiring to beginning sketchers as well as us “seasoned” sketchers. Like anything, watercolors and sketching are something that has to be practiced…and often. I’m going to have to look back for my first sketchbooks. I know I always brought along a sketchbook with me when my friends went skiing back in the 70s and I stayed in the lodge. Then I mostly sketched people. It will be fun to look back. Wishing your a great 2017! I hope to get to the Symposium this year so maybe we will finally meet.

  • Barbara Halsall says:

    You are the loveliest inspirational person Liz, thank you for constantly sharing your experiences with such generosity of spirit, I love the story of how you first started. Very best wishes for 2017,

  • maria says:

    This is so inspirational Liz – only a degree and 10 years to go to get to a decent level :-), loving how ‘real’ you keep all of this, and how every piece you share is something we can learn from. Have a blessed 2017 x

  • Natalia Norton says:

    Liz, congratulations on 10 years anniversary! Thank you for sharing your story in detail. It gives such an interesting insight in your life. What an amazing progress you’ve made, what a brave person you are!

  • Joy London says:

    I am so pleased to read this story of your journey as it’s given me hope And Inspiration! As a relative newbie to urban sketching your blog/vlog and course is becoming a big part of my life! I’m a watercolourist who has little experience of architectural sketching and feel very nervous of it, but I can see from your experiences that practice is the key and that we all have to start somewhere!
    Your ten year journey seems to have taken you onto another route in life ……. maybe my next ten year journey will take me to somewhere unthought of, how exciting is that!!
    Thank you Liz!! Have a great trip! Joy

  • Patricia Wafer says:

    Thanks so much for telling this story, Liz. I had an ah, ha moment while watching watercolor students working where I was taking a non-art class. I started asking them about it and by the end of my week at the school I had decided to make a studio in my basement and learn about watercolor. I’d had a little training in oil painting and acrylics but never had enough room for a studio until then. That was 13 years ago and now I paint with watercolor, oils and soft pastels. I found your blog several years ago and through that Urban Sketchers. Now I am one of the administrators for our regional Urban Sketchers group and a member of a local plein air painting group. We have so much fun and I have met so many great people. My life changed completely the week I watched that watercolor class in action and decided to give it a try. Your blog has greatly enriched my painting and sketching life!! I’m still working on the Foundations class but I will finish this winter!! And thanks for introducing me to the joys of sketching with fountain pens, too! You should be very proud for all the lives you have positively impacted. Your joy in painting and sketching and learning is contagious.

  • sylvia cordeiro says:

    Beautiful history, Liz. Thank you for sharing.

  • Cheryl Banks says:

    Liz, I appreciate you sharing your journey, because it is one isn’t it. I’ve been “doing art” all my life but with no training. I took about 19 hours of art in a Tucson community college, enough to learn how much I didn’t know. I’m absolutely obsessed with doing urban sketching and I just don’t know why. I’m drawn (pun intended) to buildings and realized without even being aware of it I’ve collected several large ink and watercolor works of art over the years – drawings in Paris, two in London, etc. Perspective baffles me as I just don’t have a mathematical brain and I equate drawing perspective with left brain. It eludes me. I’m taking your buildings course and it’s helping. I just out and drew with a friend in Carlsbad Village in San Diego, close to my house. I couldn’t isolate one thing I wanted to draw so tried to just capture a scene and it was awful – a hodgepodge with no rhyme or reason – not interesting. I know practice is the answer and hearing your story actually helps me. I want to be you when I grow up! Of course I’m 63 so it’s a bit late! Hope to actually meet you someday perhaps when you are here in San Diego.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your “humble beginnings!” I am an artist + photographer in my “spare” time (and a paid graphic artist) but I CAN’T DRAW. And I want desperately to travel journal but I can’t seem to make it stick. Like you started out, I may do something the first day, then nothing the rest of the trip. With a camera always at hand, I stress that I can’t capture the trip the same as a camera because I lack the drawing skill, to the degree that I want it, anyway. Maybe I need to smash my camera to the ground so I have no choice 🙂
    I’ll keep trying and reading talented travel sketcher blogs and maybe some day I’ll have an origin story too! Thanks!

  • Lorell Girard says:

    Liz, Thank you so much for continuing to make time to develop new classes, and for continuing this blog despite your very full schedule and mini sabbatical! I am just now reading this several weeks after the fact..SO SO inspiring, and I will continue to re read as a touch point in a sort of ‘slump’ time in my art life. Thanks ever so much for being there and for all you do to keep us motivated! I am aiming to participate in my first ever SketchCrawl with Urban Sketchers Portland (Oregon) in a few weeks. I don’t live in Portland, but several hours away in beautiful Bend, Oregon where I plan to ‘practice’ from photos and maybe even a tea shop (!) here in my town before trying out being with other sketchers. Best regards for a wonderful holiday season!

  • Gail Carrick says:

    Loved reading your story. Hopefully I will be sketching much better in a few years. Looking forward to SketchingNow Watercoulours
    PS – don’t you think your teddy is under a bit of pressure on your bookshelf ?????????

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you everyone so much for your comments! All the best for your own creative journeys!

  • Merieau Sylvie says:

    Je vous suis depuis peu et je trouve votre histoire très belle !
    Je suis débutante et de voir votre parcour me boost a dessiné, merci beaucoup .

  • Lois Courtright says:

    How AWESOME that the “disaster” of a broken camera was part of the adventure and nudge for you to start sketching!!!

    I am so very GLAD!!!

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