A sketching review of 2019

December 31, 2019 | 40 Comments

So I’ve just sat down and flipped through an entire year’s worth of sketching. Each year I do this on the 31st Dec and then share a few thoughts about my sketching for the year. Note: This is not a full yearly review as I’m just focusing on the sketching component.


2019 has been off the scale in terms of the number of sketchbooks I have filled.

Everyday Sketching:
15 sketchbooks – a mix of Stillman and Birn Alpha, Etchr sketchbooks, Moleskine, Hand Book and Hahnemuhle Nostaglie and Watercolour books.

Travel Sketching:
13 A4 portrait Watercolour Moleskines from my 14 week trip to Europe, 1 x A4 landscape Moleskine for Brisbane trip and 1 x A4 landscape Moleskine for Port Macquarie trip

Teaching (SketchingNow Watercolour On Location Course):
2 x A4 landscape Moleskine, 2 x Stillman & Birn softcover 8×10 Alpha and 2 x Stillman & Birn spiral bound Alpha 

Normally I complete somewhere between 15-20 sketchbooks, but this year it’s been well over 30!

And the amazing part is that 2019 has been a very demanding year – on par with 2016 when I wrote a book and released my SketchingNow Buildings course. This year I worked very hard on SketchingNow courses. My new mega course Watercolour On Location was a 12 month project and made a lot of demands on me during my 14 week remote working trip in Europe – there were so many videos for me to review!

But I also added a lot of new content(hours of video) to the Foundations and Edges course earlier in the year making the first 4 months very busy. There has been some big upgrades and changes to back of house tech stuff as well but despite all the work I’ve still managed to keep up with my blogging and posting to Instagram.

So it’s been a huge year – however I’m really happy to say that I was able to slow my pace in the last 6 weeks, so I’m feeling good at the moment and not at all burnt out.

So why have I been able to fill so many sketchbooks this year as well as complete all this work?

Well, first my natural pace is fast – I work very quickly and the more I sketch the more confident my marks become and the quicker I’m able to complete my sketches. My big goal is to say more with less, so rather than trying to work faster, I’m trying to simplify as much as possible.

Secondly, I have low expectations for my work. My sketches are often simply a single line drawing and/or a quick paint only sketch. This is a standard formula I use for my cafe sketching sessions. All I need to do then is to add some text and there you have it – a page of my sketchbook filled in under 15 minutes.

PLEASE NOTE: It is really important that you don’t compare my speed and production with yours! While quantity has a quality of its own (something Marc Taro Holmes said to me in 2011) I really don’t care about the number of sketchbooks. What’s important to me is how well my sketchbooks record my life and how much my sketching has developed in the last 12 months.

So I just want to make a few comments about my everyday sketching, my travel sketching and my sketchbooks as a whole.


This year I’ve really upped my everyday sketching. This actually started in November 2018 after I returned home from an inspiring time in California and particularly seeing Suhita Shirodkar’s daily sketching approach. I kicked off 2019 with a lot of sketching over my summer break and then kept going.

In the first half of the year I really focused on sketching people during my local cafe visits. Sadly, this fell away somewhat in the second half of the year as I switched to afternoon cafe visits and focused more on working on my laptop (keeping up with my Watercolour On Location work) than sketching. My people sketching skills developed a little this year but not as much as I would have liked.

I established a habit of sketching from my car every time I went to the gym (even though the carpark is boring!) and tried to do a sketch every time I went somewhere. I’m really happy that I lowered my expectations of what these sketches needed to involve and realised afresh that a basic line drawing can tell enough of a story! 

Using a very simple approach to Inktober this year has made me even more committed to keeping this practice up and also using my waterbrush to add some tone at times. (And I’m excited I actually finished Inktober for the first time this year!)

In the last few months I have been having a lot of fun testing different sketchbooks. As I mentioned in this article, the paper I sketch on is the most important variable for me and a lot of my usual techniques just don’t work on different paper. So it has been really good to experiment and discover ways of adjusting my normal way of using watercolour to suit these new sketchbooks. In particular I recently started using more dry brush when using 100% cotton paper – more here.

I haven’t been going out on dedicated urban sketching outings as much as I would like this year. I started in Jan to have a weekly outing but that soon fell away. But I was able to have a number of SketchingNow Adventures during the Watercolour On Location course and that was really good.

I had some super inspiring outings with some visiting Urban Sketchers (Rob Sketcherman and Benedetta Dossi) and my recent City Break week was wonderful to get me out sketching more of Sydney.

I realised while filming the bonus Sketching Day for Watercolour On Location, that there is a certain magic which comes from big sketching days. I do this when I travel but rarely when I’m home. This is something I want to change in 2020.

My teacup sketching was down – only managed 12 of my teacup collection.

And finally (for this section) reviving my sketching diet (sketching everything I eat – at the time) has been a wonderful way to create colourful interesting pages during days when I simply stay at home.

Travel Sketching

This year I had my biggest overseas trip ever – 14 weeks in Europe – and I filled 12.5 x A4 size portrait format Moleskine Watercolour books in that time.

The new format (portrait rather than landscape) did affect my sketching significantly. Not only did I fill up the pages more quickly (working larger) but it was easier to handle and this encouraged me to open my sketchbook and go for it more often.

In the last few years as the work component of my travelling has increased, it’s been harder for me to find my sketching flow. This year I feel as if I found it again – and I proved this by having my biggest day of sketching on record – over 20 pages during a day trip to Venice.

I really love sketchbook pages which contain watercolour sketches of important scenes as well as other smaller details but in recent years using the landscape version of the Moleskine I found that the fun little sketches had disappeared.  So because of the portrait format of the book and the return of my flow, I found that I had a more interesting selection of subject matter and techniques in my book. In particular, the weeks when I taught the two Palladian Odyssey Tours in the Veneto contained some of my favourite pages due to the rich variety of experiences we had. (BTW due to a few cancellations there are still a few last minute places available – more here.)

This year I sketched more complex scenes and less ‘hero sketches’ of individual buildings. I still love doing a portrait of a masterpiece of architecture as I learn so much about the design and composition of the building when I do that, but I also love doing street scenes where there is an interesting combination of shapes.

In terms of my watercolour painting…

Direct watercolour, which I had just started to develop in 2018, is now a big part of my work. (Aside: direct watercolour sketches often enable me to do super quick sketches so they are another factor in the huge quantity of work I have produced this year.)

I started using more water in my palette which created more subtle washes with a lot of pigment magic (especially when I was in Umbria) and it was really fun to focus more on values (a big part of the Watercolour On Location course!)

I also spent most of my European trip testing the new Aquarius watercolours (having met up with Roman Szmal in Rome) – that was something different as I normally stick to what I’m used to.

I had so many amazing experiences during my European travels that I can’t possibly even share all the highlights today – so please see my Reflections article for more.

I then went on two further week long trips in October – one to Brisbane for Sketchfest and a relaxing week at Port Macquarie. Both of those were more social than dedicated sketching trips focusing on my work.

I can certainly write a lot more about what I learnt this year through my travels… but I need to wrap this article up.

So onto the third aspect…

My sketchbooks as a whole

As I often mention here on the blog, I want my sketchbooks to be a record of my life. Whilst I’m always trying to improve the quality of my art, I am primarily concerned with documenting my life in a visual and written form. And so I’m always looking at ways to develop this storytelling aspect in my books.

This year I made a concerted effort to add more notes to my pages as a way of recording more of my daily grind, achievements and feelings (focusing mainly on the good feelings and never recording anything too negative). As I flipped through my everyday sketchbooks today, I really loved reading all the comments I had written. (For example, last year I wrote that it took me a full day to do my 2018 sketching review article – so that was a challenge for me to do this one in less time!)  In order to run my own business more efficiently each year it’s super helpful to read the notes from previous years. And of course my text is such a very important element to the design of my pages.

Whilst I had a great year recording my ‘boring’ daily life, there is a lot more that I could do and I’m wanting to fill my pages with more objects and more scenes from home. Hmm, I rarely sketch my little home as I seem to be dependent on going out in order to sketch. So more home sketching is definitely a goal.

In terms of my travel sketchbooks, I want to include more of the little parts of my trips – so once again it’s the theme of variety that is important to me.

I also want to keep on sketching more people and make these ‘people sketches’ more of my friends and less of strangers.

Anyway… it looks as if this article is morphing into my sketching goals for 2020. Therefore it must be time to stop as I wanted to leave that for another day.

So, in summary – it’s been a huge year! After many years of being dissatisfied with my lack of everyday sketching, I feel as if I’m on the right track. So I just want to keep going.

This has turned out to be a really long article! But I hope you can see that I love doing my end of year review and why it’s important for my growth as an artist.

It’s so special to be able to go through the past year as recorded in my sketchbooks – to take note of the less successful sketches but more often than not, to discover lots of gems – sketches that I have forgotten about or sketches that I struggled with at the time but which now look great.

I love taking a big picture view of my work as it’s easy to obsess over small things in the moment. When you view the year as a whole it’s always impressive – no matter what the quantity or the quality is. And I love seeing themes emerge as that helps me formulate where to go next.

I hope that by sharing my own assessments it will help you to look at your own work and celebrate your achievements in 2019 – whatever they were! If you  have done any of my SketchingNow courses, you will know how important I think it is to be able to review your own work in a positive way and to find ways to motivate yourself to keep going.

Thanks so much for being a part of my journey this year. Your views and continued support mean so much to me!

And finally, a huge special thank you to people who take the time to leave comments. I spend a crazy amount of time preparing articles here on the blog (the words and the images) and while I love doing it and write mainly for my own development as an artist, it really helps me keep going when people leave comments. So thanks again so very much!

So… do you intend to look through all your sketches from 2019? Or have you already done so?

What are the main themes that have emerged? Are you pleased with what you have achieved? Are you making plans for what you want to work on in 2020?

I find it super inspiring to read about other people’s reviews, so would love to hear from you!




  • Stover Sharon says:

    Liz, you’ve created quite a legacy and have obviously had fun doing it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and enthusiasm with us all.
    Thank you for sharing your daily pages. I’d like to settle into using one sketchbook at a time recoding my story chronologically. I love how you record the date in your spreads. Right now I’ve got 4 sketchbooks going and am feeling a bit disjointed. The new year provides such a great opportunity to start again.
    Have a blessed 2020! Sharon

    • Liz Steel says:

      THanks Sharon – I hope 2020 is a great year for you and somehow we get to hang out again!
      Keeping the one book (with the exception of teaching books) is really important for me…but I know that working across different books works for others. I think it’s a matter of trying out both options.

  • Rhonda Roebuck says:

    Hi Liz,
    Thank you for this great post! I am never one to make resolutions or set goals, but I think a year review of journals is a great idea and learning experience. Just yesterday, I was thinking about the “story telling” component of journals/sketchbooks, and how important that is for the future reader. That is where I want to add more and improve. Your posts are so informative, I always learn something. Why not listen to someone who has tried lots of materials and has reasons for using/not using something? I was in the Foundation course, and I will head back to starting that again also. Liz, thank you, thank you! You are my constant read on the computer!

  • Kiriaki says:

    Hi Liz,
    2019 has been my best sketching year. Early in the year we put our house up for sale( to date we are still waiting for the right buyer) wanting to hold on to it forever in my memory I started to sketch the rooms and exterior. Even when sketching the same room the finished picture is different depending on the time of day the way the sun creates interesting shadow shapes on the walls. Sketching has finally become a daily practice I am on my 4th sketchbook for this year – a record for me.
    My goal for 2020 is to take one of your courses or better yet a workshop class in Sydney- when we finally do move.
    Thanks for sharing your work. Wishing you a happy new year.

  • Diane says:

    Hello Liz,
    As usual, I am amazed by your energy and the work you get done… even more by the fun you have doing it. The idea of making a year review of my work was trotting in my mind. Now, it’s well anchored, thanks to this post. I will definitely take time to get out my numerous (lolll) unfinished sketchbooks, and look back at them sipping a tea in a very normal cup.
    Goals for 2020.
    The main one is to get back to Watercolor on Location course and really stick to making one sketch a day while staying in Spain
    As I also started a journey in watercolor on loose sheets, focus on one or two themes and stop jumping around like a crazy grasshopper.
    Keep on reading your all articles – but this has been going on for a few years now. An easy goal to achieve.
    Thanks for the sharing and the motivation it brings to me.
    I do wish you a very Happy New Year!

  • Kenneth Williams says:

    My wife and I have read your blog each morning at breakfast for years. We have learned so much and feel like we almost know you in a way. We particularly enjoyed your posts on Scotland as our son lives there. I have a friend who attended one of your workshops in Italy. He certainly enjoyed it and thought it time well spent. I am a retired science illustrator and now teach urban sketching/daily life sketching classes. I suggest many of your techniques to my students and always provide them with a link to your website. We look forward to your posts next year and for more years to come. Your work and enthusiasm are very much appreciated.

  • Happy New Year, Liz – I hope 2020 brings a lot of joy and sketching, and also an improvement in the fire situation in Australia. My thoughts are with all Australians who are suffering this New Year Eve because of the fires.
    I haven’t looked at my 2019 sketchbooks yet. Definitely worth doing. I do label and date them, plus I don’t have as many as you do, so I think I will start the day tomorrow with a sketchbook and a cup of tea! One thing I know from year to year is that I have far too many goals and resolutions to be able to complete even a quarter of them! And 2020 will be no different – I’m starting January with the SketchingNow Buildings, and also the Sktchy 30 faces/30 days. I also do life drawing and watercolours. At the moment, I feel I haven’t done as much watercolour painting as I’d like, so that’s definitely something that’s on my list for 2020!
    Thank you for the inspiration and guidance you have given all of us in 2019. The SketchingNow Watercolour on Location has literally changed the way I sketch. So, I just want to end the year by saying a big Thank You!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Happy New Year Marie-Helene! So lovely to see you again in 2019 and great to hear that WOL helped you. Hope 2020 is a great year for you.

  • Hello Liz,
    I looked at the drawings for my year 2019 – one book about meetings in France and Amsterdam, and the other about Normandy where I live. I feel stronger with the drawing, but it is hard for me to forget the difficulties I feel when I open my color box….I will still dream on the pages of your sketchbooks during the year!! Thank you very much for your sharing Liz, it was a very wonderful time when I met you in Gouda!!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Great to hear Annie – lovely to meet you in Gouda… thanks for coming down for the day.
      All the best for 2020!

  • Kirti patel says:

    Thank you for your blog, helps me understand your work and get inspired and motivated.

  • Anne Marie Percival says:

    Once more thankyou for your generosity in sharing all your discoveries and for your unfailing enthusiasm and inspiration. Look forward to another year of sketching with my worldwide ‘family’

  • Carmel Campbell says:

    Happy New Year Liz.. In past years I have done nothing. I just put the sketchbook in the bookcase when I have finished, This year I decided to pull our my sketchbooks and date them a white marker on the covers. To my surprise I pulled out 18 or maybe it was 19 sketchbooks. Some are from travel, coffee shops, markets and around town and the others sketching excursions. I have a sketchbook with me at all times. The one exciting thing about my sketches is the strong color ….there are no watery washes. Not every page is a perfect page, I can accept that ( I am a recovering perfectionist!) My favorite pen is the Sailor pen and a Sharpie extra fine tip, I owe a lot my process to you and your wonderful courses. I especially loved the last one. Although I don’t post a lot I do sketch a lot. It is my happy place. Thank you for helping me get to where I am today,

    • Liz Steel says:

      Wow!!!! that’s impressive and a testament to what you can do when you carry a little sketchbook with you everywhere. All the best for 2020 Carmel!

  • Linda Beattie says:

    Thanks for your blog Liz…I have come to a standstill …a complete block…in ky sketckbook! I had a feeling it had something to do with the size of it…a Moleskin landscape…about 7″ x 4…roughly…and it has eaten up all ky enthusiasm! So I need to get a bigget book ASAP! It has taken me a while to realise this…but the reluctance to start another page, the sense of dread even…has sapped alk my creativity!

    Now that I have come to that realisation, and agyer reading your blog…encouraging immediacy… I will order an A4 portrait watercolour book…reward myself…and start afresh for 2020. Size and shape …and quality of paper is all important!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Linda, I’m sorry to hear about your block. Trying a different sketchbook might help – working larger or working smaller.
      All the best for a sketching 2020.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    Your process reviews are always interesting and inspiring! I do something similar, but not at the end of the year. My “sketching anniversary” (the day I started sketching and continued a regular sketching habit) is in September, so I do my review and goal-thinking then. At the end of the calendar year, though, I do enjoy picking out my “top 10” most memorable sketches, and I saw that you did something similar recently (and noting how different your picks are from your “Instagram most likes”; mine were entirely different, too!). Happy New Year, Liz!

  • Marta Raaka says:

    Great post, Liz! After reading, I did a review of my sketchbooks of 2019. Although I use several different types and sizes, I realized that I am enjoying the larger format Stillman &Birn for the online classes. But I also always kept a small sketchbook and pens in my purse or bag. Some of my quick, random sketches are my favorites, so I will continue this practice.
    I really enjoyed doing the run through Foundations and SKN Watercolour on Location was fantastic. You provide so much in each course and I love reading your posts. Thanks for the continuous inspiration and guidance! And it was a thrill to meet you and take your workshop in Amsterdam.
    Happy New Year!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks for sharing Marta! It was really lovely to meet you in AMS.
      I love the quick simple sketches too!
      All the best for 2020!

  • Cheryl Christian says:

    Thank you, Liz, for all you do. Your work–visual and written–is inspiring and uplifting. You’re the model for us to try to emulate. Not the speed, necessarily, but the passion, daily rigor, experimentation, and transparency in showing us what you do. I look forward to the new additions to the course material. Thank you for taking the time to develop them for us.
    Best wishes for a bright new year and lots more sketching,

  • Maria Haythornthwaite says:

    Many thanks Liz. I always enjoy your posts and learn something each time. In 2019 during my trip to Australia, I brought along with me a number of sketch books in different sizes but found I used the little 3”x5” landscape the best.

  • Lisa Dunford says:

    This is so great. I don’t usually give myself credit for what I have done the past year. In fact, I seem to have some sort of selective amnesia, forgetting all I have done, instead seeing only what I haven’t finished or accomplished. Time for a shift in focus! Thank you for helping me remember to appreciate even the smallest sketching (and other) efforts I make!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Lisa, yes, it’s really important to pause and look back and see what you have accomplished! All the best for 2020.

  • This is so inspiring! Thank you for all the work you do to encourage and educate all of us! Your work is amazing! You have inspired me to do the same and review what I’ve done in the past year. Not nearly the output you have done, but I’m proud of myself, nonetheless!

  • Martha Gery says:

    A friend shared your review with me. It is very inspiring. I have wanted to do a sketching journal for some time now. Your review just makes me want to do this even more. Thanks for sharing!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Martha – I’m glad you want to do a sketch journal and that my article has helped with this feeling. Just start and aim to do something in it 3 or 4 times a week. Have fun!

  • Lu Gay Lanier says:

    BRAVO Liz! You are having such an impact on my art and life! Cheers to a great 2020!

  • Mayela Lameda-Lyver says:

    Hi Liz,

    I finally sat down with a cup of tea and read through your 2019 review. I truly enjoyed it. I know you put a lot of effort and time in every single blog post and I appreciate your candor and the amount of explanations you do. Love seeing your sketches in detail. I am grateful for your teachings in 2018 and 2019. Foundations, Edges, Watercolor and Watercolor on location had been the best courses I’ve taken in my life. You are a continuous source of inspiration and I look forward to continue my sketching journey with you in 2020. See you in the Buildings classroom.

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