5 years since I left my architect job

December 30, 2017 | 23 Comments

Last week marked five years since I left my job as an Associate Director of a local architectural firm and started on my grand adventure.

Two years ago I wrote an article sharing some helpful sayings from my friends, including “give it three years”. Today I want to reflect on a few different aspects and answer some questions that my Facebook readers have asked me.

In December 2012 I ‘quit my day job’ to have a six month break. The idea was to have more time for my art, do a little teaching and then go back to architecture for three days a week. One of the big reasons for having a break was recovering from a jaw realignment – it certainly wasn’t supposed to be a big career change!

I never dreamed that I would be able to support myself through my sketching (and teaching) or that I would start my own company. Note: As of July this year I am now the director of Sketching Now Pty Ltd and over the last few years I have built a tiny team of amazing people that help me with the ‘back of house’ stuff (so much goes into the production and maintanence of my projects and platforms).

In the last two years since writing the above article, I have just continued on the same path – with the addition of writing a book, making big upgrades to my websites (my blog and SketchingNow), increased travelling and teaching overseas, and running some professional sketching classes for architects and builders.

In addition I have focused more on improving the way I work – in terms of productivity and also running an online business. I have spend a far bit of time exploring the crazy world of online marketing and the result of all this has been an increased commitment to sharing more stuff for free. Who would have thought that learning more about business would make me more confident to give generously?

However finding the balance between the work involved in maintaining my own online school and doing/sharing my own sketching has been a challenge at times. It’s been a little sad for me that I haven’t be able to blog as much this year, but I’m hoping that I will get back into it in 2018. Something special happens when I regularly write about my art so it’s important that I get back to that.

So that’s my brief update… let’s now answer some questions.

What advice do you have for making a living as a full time artist?

Well, for starters I’m not really a full time artist in the traditional sense because I do not sell any of my work. Instead I see myself primarily as a teacher, since that is the way I support myself almost exclusively (I am not doing any commissioned work at the moment). I also spend an enormous amount of time managing my SketchingNow site – that is certainly not art!

So I can’t give any specific advice for selling work from my own experience, but I can say that if you want to support yourself with your passion you have to create an audience. Online audiences are the ones I know about and my advice is to start sharing a lot (sharing your work and the ideas behind it) and start engaging with people – answering questions, giving advice as much as possible.

To quote from Jeff Goins: “Your job is to show up, do the work, and become a reliable source. Commit to being relentlessly helpful and people will notice… eventually. Create something small every day that you can share. First, people notice you. Then, they trust you. And ultimately, they buy from you.”

I spent years putting a huge amount of time into improving my sketching skills and sharing online purely as a hobby. There are lots of people these days that create a social media account with business in mind from the beginning, and they start following a lot of online marketing formula. However, my personal advice, especially when it comes to art, is to just start creating and sharing your own work for fun and don’t kill the magic by worrying about business too early.

(Hmm, this topic could be a full article in itself… but I have to keep moving through the questions

I’d like to hear what the naysayers remarked.

Amazingly I can’t think of any negative comments – instead I remember the overwhelming support I received when I left my architecture job. I especially remember many encouraging comments that I had with people at the USK symposim in Barcelona at the end of my ‘6 month break’.

So many people interpreted my temporary break from being an architect as the start of a new career as a full time artist. They had more of an idea of what lay ahead than I did!

Some of my non-sketching friends were not sure what I was doing, but no one said anything negative. I feel so thankful to have such an amazing support network.

I’d love to hear about the positive surprises your journey provided.

There has been many wonderful surprises along the way. The biggest one is probably becoming a teacher. Ten years ago I didn’t think I was any good at teaching and now it’s my full time job. I remember being very emotional after my first local class and thinking ‘this is what I should be doing’. It was an amazing turning point. So was running my first online course – Foundations – in 2014.

A huge thanks to many Urban Sketchers who have encouraged me so much – in particular Matt Brehm whose quote was the start of it it. Read more here.

By simply plugging away with my own sketching and sharing it online, I have had so many amazing opportunities.

Another positive surprise has been some of the things which I have learnt about myself… but that leads into the next question.

I’d like to hear what you’ve learned about yourself.

There is no one more amazed about what I have done in the last few years than myself! Before I started sketching I used to think that I was afraid of change (was 18 years in the same job!), I hated getting up in front of other people and spent a lot of time try to keep other people happy (in a work context).

When I started sketching I discovered a freedom ‘to be me’ – my sketchbook was the place where I could do whatever I wanted. I was amazed that so many people were interested in following my sketches and ramblings.

Through my enthusiasm for sketching I discovered a new form of confidence – a new confidence to be happy being a learner and making mistakes in order to improve. I know a lot of people think that I am super confident but really I have many of the normal insecurities about my art and my abilities which everyone has. It’s just that now I’m comfortable to have a go and see what happens! The more I learn about running my own business the more comfortable I am with living with ups and downs.

Another big thing that I have learnt is that I am more suited to creating products to help a group of people, than I am creating a customized solution for a single client. I loved being an architect and designing solutions to meet my clients’ needs, but somehow what I am doing now fits me better as it gives me more freedom to implement my crazy ideas.

I have also learnt to trust God in new ways. In the early days I lived day by day, not sure if I would ever be able to support myself. It was scary at times but I knew that I was in the right place and if I kept working hard, the Lord would show me the way – even if that was to go back to being an architect full time. Now I have more responsibilty and more pressure to make the right decisions, so I’m still so completely dependent on God for everything – it is still scary at times!

I am interested to know if there is anything you miss about not working in your profession.

There was a bit of guilt when I realised that I was leaving the architecture profession as I had wanted to be an architect since I was 11! I recently downgraded my registration to ‘non-practicing architect’ which felt like closing a door on my career.

However, as I am so busy and love what I do, I have little time to miss my architect job. I do miss designing buildings but instead use those skills when composing my sketches and pages.

Teaching workshops for architects and builders has been a great way of putting my foot back into the industry, but I don’t have any desire at the present time to return.

The thing I miss most of all, is working in an office – working in a team and motivating each other. Instead of an office I now have a few Slack workplaces for communication, but it’s not the same. Some days it’s hard to motivate myself but overall I am better working solo and I don’t miss the disruptions of coworkers/bosses when trying to get something done!

I’m interested to hear whether your planning and daily discipline in your new job has changed over the 5 years and if it has, what were the drivers of change.

One thing I miss about having a day job is that I don’t have a regular routine – I don’t have to get up to go to work. At times I am very disciplined and start my day writing at 6.30am, but other times I work very erratic hours. I also miss the Friday 5.30pm switch off time – when your hobby becomes your job it is hard to switch off totally. On the other hand it is nice to have some flexibility and I have come to accept this over the years.

I have put a lot of effort into detail planning of my tasks over the last few years, and it’s certainly been a major factor in how much I have achieved recently. In the first few years I didn’t plan as much and didn’t have a system for keeping myself accountable but now I do. I’m a big fan of bullet journalling (more here) and having to re-write tasks until completed is a great motivation for getting them done. I’ve also created a dedicated time in my day for this planning – my morning cafe visits!

Two major factors in my planning has been my monthly newsletter and more recently my overseas trips. If I am going to make an announcement I do it first in the newsletter (first Tuesday of the month) and this really focuses me to commit to projects and stagger them through the year. This year with four overseas trips, I have had to think ahead and start working on projects a few months before I initially expected to. So these two factors have really changed how efficient I have become.

Oh! this article is very long… but one more question!

How do you feel? (at the end of the day that’s what counts)

This week I have allowed myself to do nothing as I have felt tired at the end of my crazy year, however I am keen to get stuck into 2018 – and in particular my SketchingNow Watercolour course. It’s been great to have a few quiet days to recharge.

My overall feeling is one of gratitude! I love what I do, and feel totally overwhelmed (in a good way) by all the support and encouragement I have received over the years. To be able to make a living doing what I love, and helping so many other people is just incredible.

So thank you for being a huge part of this journey. I value and appreciate every single view, I love receiving your comments and find it amazing that I have met so many of you in real life!

All the best for 2018!



  • Ruth Bosveld says:

    Well done, Liz. May God bless your endeavours in 2018 as you continue to serve Him. Xx

  • Laura Hale says:

    Wow! What a ride! Thank you Liz for sharing your wonderful talent as an artist, your caring attitude towards your students, and your “walking the walk” faith in such a generous manner. Your passion for life shines through every word you share with us. Please remember to take care of yourself as well as you care for others and your business. We all want the very best for you. You are quite a blessing. May 2018 be the very best ever!

  • Lawrence Goldfarb says:

    Liz, In response to your wonderful post, I thought I’d resend yesterday’s email to you.

    After rediscovering my love of drawing four years ago, I’ve pursued sketching and watercolor very regularly, sometimes more satisfied with the results than other. However, over the past four months I was forced to take a break while we renovated a house for our “Downsizing Move”.

    Being a retired Architect, the task was all consuming. Yesterday at last I was unpacking studio materials in my new space. I began looking over some of the 31 sketchbooks and individual watercolors from my adventure.

    The impact was thrilling. Reliving the moments combined with the absence of judgement caused me to really appreciate and experience the joy of what I had created.

    As a result, I am able to assign positive results to my forced sketching break.

    I’m back on the field, riding a train and sketching other passengers. I’m looking forward to your course and getting back to watercolor sketching.

    Best for the New Year,
    Larry Goldfarb

  • Stephanie Reitmajer says:

    Liz, thank you for sharing your journey and the last five years. I too am on an artistic journey that started with a break in employment (retirement), three years ago. For some unknown reason I was compelled to paint with watercolor even though I had never painted before or felt I had denied myself An artistic life while working. Your blog has opened up the world of sketching to me. I still try to create “paintings”, but find the most joy when working in my sketchbook. My 2018 goal is to start a blog to share my thoughts and art. Thank you for the inspiration. I alsways look forward to your posts and enjoy your sketches, especially how you capture the essence of your subject with a loose style that helps watercolor do what it does best.

  • Thanks so much for sharing these things. I’ve been following you for a few years and have learned so much from what you share. I’ve been able to make more connections, try new things, find new resources and be a better artist and person because of you. Happiest of new years to you!

  • Not too long a post, Liz …. I love to soak up every detail of your journey, learnings, and insights. Thank you for being so honest and for the new thrust of generosity. You’re on to something extra good.

    Since participating in the first Foundations course in 2014, I’ve been longing for you to do a watercolor class … and here it is! Thank you for all your hard work with these monumental undertakings, and best of all, your example as you trust the Lord.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks so much Michelle!! I have wanted to do a watercolour course for a long time too! Might need to do a second one as the subject is so deep! happy New Year!

  • Julie-Anne Rogers says:

    This was a particularly interesting blog, Liz. I would love to see you doing some individual mentor-ships eventually. I want to earn money from my art when I retire in about 5-7yrs and am trying to get myself known, at least a little, in the meantime and your point about starting by sharing hit home to me. Thank you.

  • Suzanne says:

    Thanks for sharing your life-review. Isn’t it wonderful that you found the courage to do what you love.
    Your comment re your confidence caught my attention .. I would LOVE to have the confidence to attend a sketching venue with all those wonderful artists whose posts i see each week. Have a wonderful 2018.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Suzanne! Confidence comes with time and practice – it doesnt happen immediately. All the best for 2018!

  • Tina Koyama says:

    Happy new year, Liz! You’ve come a long way, and I look forward to seeing where your adventures take you!

    – Tina

  • Alan Barbour says:

    What I remember older folks saying when I was young was that it takes ten years to accomplish anything worthwhile. Maybe improved communication has speeded things up, but maybe not. Good going!

  • Dottie Aiken says:

    Your blog brought back so many memories about starting out, finding time to do everything, and “putting it all together.” Thank you for sharing! You’ve got your head on straight (isn’t that great?), your priorities and work ethic are solid, and your devotion to God is first priority. The only caution I have for you based on my experience is that you should plan for vacations and sick times and family. When you’re basically on your own, those times are put aside but should not be and can not be. I love your smile, I love what you do and the way you do things. People are watching to see what exciting adventures lie ahead. You go girl!

  • Liz, thank you for sharing your thought about your journey with us. It was a staggering leap from being an architect to being a teacher/professional artist in such a short period of time. I for one, think you are a natural teacher and can’t see you any other way. I would think it is a bit adjustment from working as a team member in an office to being solely responsible for you experiences and future. Wishing you all the best for a more relaxed, joyful, productive, prosperous and inspirational 2018!

  • Karen Smith says:

    Its good to hear you are enjoying your journey, I especially appreciate your words on sharing with others, I too have started to post tutorials and share more ‘in progress’ work than I normally felt comfortable with, and only good has come of it.
    I want to thank you especially for your in depth and comprehensive blogs on fountain pens, thanks to you I’m happily drawing with a new Lamy Joy pen filled with DeAtrementis document ink, perfect for my line and wash style.

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