CA18 Trip: Sketchkon Part 2

November 24, 2018 | 5 Comments

In the last article I described my activities in the 1.5 days in Pasadena before Sketchkon. Now it’s time to tackle the big event itself.

I attended it as a normal participant (not a presenter) but had two small tasks (giving a short talk and leading a 1 hour sketchcrawl). Not having a heavy work load was a real treat and I was looking forward to really having a full Sketchkon experience and sketching a lot!

But before I get into my account on the event here are a few facts:

Sketchkon was a sketching convention run by Sketchbook Skool (SBS) and Artist’s Network.

It consisted of 2.5 days of talks, short activities, art supply demonstrations and other fun stuff. The was an optional add-on workshop day. You can see the schedule here.
I mainly attended the talks as I really enjoy the opportunity to pause and soak in new ideas and inspiration. The activities were fairly popular, so I didn’t want to take away a sort after seat, and my current focus is working on my people sketching. So a front row seat in the lecture room was perfect for me.

It was based in the first floor convention centre of The Westin hotel in Pasadena and was expertly run. Incredible organisation for a jam packed programme (of 1 hour sessions) and impressive logistics and sound/AV etc. Congrats on such a great event!

Sketchkon was the first get-together for the super supportive and up-beat community of Sketchbook Skool and there were about 400 attendees at the event. There was a lot of activity on the Facebook group leading up to the event which was a lot of fun. There was some serious preparation happening including making artists trading cards and getting business cards or stickers printed (BTW I am totally sold on the idea of stickers instead of business cards for an event like this!)

I didn’t take a lot of photos but here is one taken a few moments before the opening assembly of the amazing Morgan Green (SBS Dean of Students) and Danny Gregory (Co founder of SBS).

My goal was to take notes and sketch non-stop and so I will be sharing these in full. The good, the bad and the ugly!

My sketch of the opening assembly from the second row.

At one point they asked everyone to stand up, but as I was sketching I was thinking about sitting it out. But then I realised they were asking people to sit down based on how far they had travelled – with the people who had travelled over 12 hours the last ones standing. I had to stand up didn’t I? I was thankful that I was fully set up with my support board so that I was able to stand relatively easy. Thanks to Brenda Swenson for this photo.

Note. The lovely smiling face on the right belongs to Courtney Jordan from Artists Network whose comments about the Highly Satisfied Artist you can see in my notes above.

First session was Veronica Lawlor’s presentation on the history of Reportage with lots of great examples!

Needless to say it was very inspiring!

Next up was another USK friend, Melanie Reim, sharing for the first time a bunch of sketches from her visits to the Dominican Republic.

This was also a very inspiring talk and just what I needed as I’m always thinking about telling better stories in my work.

It was also lovely to see her DR sketches and it brought back memories of my wonderful time there in 2012.

It was a very jam-packed morning and I then retreated to my hotel room for the 2 hour lunch break. The reason for this anti-social behaviour is that I had a talk next and I didn’t want to get trapped talking non-stop to people.

After lunch I gave a 6minute 40 second talk as part of the community session: Show and Tell. There were 6 Pecha Kucha presentations (20 slides, 20 seconds a slide) and I was the last one in the hour, talking about Watercolour Freedom. I hope to share my talk as a separate article but in the meantime here is a sneak peek of four of my slides, and here is a description of what I talked about:

Lots of people say that watercolour is hard but for me it represents freedom! So in this talk I want to explain how watercolour helped me leave a successful architectural career and carve out a new and exciting life – becoming a full time urban sketcher. Along with the story about what happened when I started sketching with watercolour, I also want to share other lessons which watercolour has taught me – how it’s freed me to be bold, take risks and much more. In many ways my free expressive sketching has become a metaphor for my life as an artist and teacher.

I really enjoyed giving this talk although it involved an insane amount of preparation in order to get ‘perfect’ timing for my words. (I have much more than 20 seconds worth to say about each image!) I also really loved hearing the other talks in the session and getting to know some of the community members.

I was a bit tired after my presentation and sat in the back corner during Prashant Miranda’s lovely talk about his sketchbooks. I was too far away to sketch the speaker, so I did some of the audience.

The day ended with a panel discussion on travel sketching.

If you are wondering about the stamps on my pages… SBS created a different stamp for each talk. It was a really nice touch.

Once again, there was no chance for a quiet dinner, but a table of eight was a perfect number.

It was lovely to have some time with a few of the activity members of the Sketchkon/Sketchbook Skool Facebook Groups – to talk about sketching and what people struggle with when it comes to sketching out on location.

We drew our amazing meals (or drinks)…

… and then although I was tired I wanted to record the group. This was a perfect opportunity for some blind contour portraits – so much fun, but sadly, I couldn’t convince anyone else to join in with me.

The next morning we (Ohn Mar Win and I) headed out really early (6.45am) for a non-hotel breakfast and ended up at Urth Cafe for a lovely (but oversized) breakfast.

One of the highlights of Sketchkon was hanging out with Ohn Mar – a wonderful illustrator who is doing amazing things on Instagram and Skillshare. It was so much fun to compare notes with someone in a slightly different industry. I find her super inspiring!

Another illustrator that I got to know during the event was Salli Swindell (founder of They draw & cook) who was speaking in the first session.

Salli gave a really fun talk that sparked a lot of ideas for me.

Particularly inspiring were the examples of abstraction which she shared – for example: how abstract can you go and still say ‘watermelon’.

At the end of the talk she shared 10 ways to draw food (see below) and then threw a few of her favourite small Kata Golda sketchbooks into the audience.

For the next session I decided to roam between the various options (talks and activities) and stopped in for a few minutes to one of the Pasadena Noir sessions run by Andrea Joseph. These were life drawing session with the models dressed up in 1920s outfits and enacting a murder mystery story.

At 11am (the third session for the morning) I led a casual one hour sketchcrawl. I took the group (about 30 people?) out to sketch Pasadena City Hall (really!?! are you surprised?)

It was a sketchcrawl, not a workshop or demo, but somehow I ended up having a group watching me sketching. So naturally I started talking about what I was doing!

Whilst I really loved the talks and activities inside… my happy place is being out on the streets sketching with others.

Someone asked me if I missed teaching… while it was great being a participant and being able to really enjoy the event and sketch a lot, I did really miss the connection with people’s work which I get when I teach. This mini-sketchcrawl filled that gap a bit.

An hour for a sketchcrawl sounds like an insanely short time, but look at all the amazing work people did!

This is what I achieved in the hour – despite non-stop talking.

A highlight was meeting Marcia who runs a sketching group at a nursing home and who told me about Ruth a 90 year old sketching legend.

Here’s the happy group at the end of the hour!

Just a few steps away was two food trucks – organised by Sketchkon (what a brilliant idea!).. I ordered the rainbow box of dumplings which begged to be sketched. A lovely relaxed lunch sitting outside talking to Jennie and Debra from the Bay Area.

I then decided it was important to spend time talking to people rather than attending every session so I spent most of the afternoon roaming and chatting.

But I did sit in on Stefan Bucher‘s fun talk.

As you can see I sketch a lot (and very rapidly) during the talks – searching for a likeness.

A quick B&W sketch of the contents of the swag bag (I never got a chance to add paint and doubt that I will now)

More hanging out with some of my great sketching friends and inspiration – Lapin and Brenda. Photo taken by the lovely JJ (Danny’s wife) who I wish I had had more time to talk with.

At 6pm we had the big keynote of the event. Austin Kleon!

He is known for the best selling books Steal like an Artist and Show your work. (I want to talk about these books more in a separate article at some stage.)

After Austin’s talk there was a big party (with a day of the dead theme). I was super tired and after talking to a few people decided to have a quiet  dinner (with Ohn Mar) and have an early-ish night. This photo was taken from the balcony outside the conference rooms, looking down to the plaza. The Westin was such a perfect location for an event like this.

Sketchkon wrapped up on Sunday morning – but I didn’t attend. So Saturday night was it for me.

As you can tell from this article, I filled a lot of pages in my sketchbook (A4 Moleskine Watercolour book). During the presentations I was constantly taking notes and sketching the speaker/s. This is the first time that I have used this book for recording messy notes and was relatively pleased with the results.

My writing is messier than normal and I do wish that I had had some prep time to draw some lines (using a fountain pen with turquoise ink) so to control my writing a little better. I managed to do this last year at the seanwes conference for which I used a Stillman and Birn Alpha book which is more suited to note taking than the more precious Moleskine. (Note. having neat writing contained into blocks is a big deal for me due to my architectural background). As I was just writing directly into my book without any guidelines I came back later and drew in some lines as a compositional element. Overall I’m fairly happy with how these messy pages (according to my standards) turned out.

As for sketching the speakers… I really enjoyed doing quick ink and wash sketches of them during their presentations (often starting with paint). I’ve got a long way to go until I can capture likeness of moving people, but the practice was good. I was using the technique I developed last year (at the seanwes conference). You can read more about that here.

All in all, a fantastic event. Congrats to Sketchbook Skool and Artist’s Network for an outstanding conference. I sketched a lot (despite not being outside as much as I would have liked) and gleaned a lot of new ideas and inspiration as a result of the sessions. And I made some new sketching friends!

At times it seemed like an extravagance for me to attend this event and have big this Californian trip (especially in light of my big European adventure earlier in the year) but it was totally worthwhile. I’m so happy I made the decision to come!



  • Hashi Clark says:

    We’re glad you came to SoCal! SketchCon was out of my budget, but I (and others) certainly gained benefit from your attendance. It was great to meet you at the USKLA events.

    • Liz Steel says:

      SO lovely to meet you Hashi on that scary day for you – glad that your house was all ok in those recent fires. Hope to stay in touch!

  • Liz, I really enjoyed reading your notes and seeing your sketches. You have a wonderful way with words. You’re able to put into words your experience, feelings and views. So well done!

  • Andrea Palma says:

    It was a dream for me to go to Sketchkon and meet you, Ohn Mar, my roommate, and many of the wonderful teachers and artists who share a wonderful passion. I learned so much and it did a lot for my confidence as an artist and person, in general!

  • Aeron Mack says:

    Liz, thank you for your wonderful notes and descriptions of the Sketchkon event….. I was really on the fence about going (due to finances and also the long journey from Virginia….. which of course pales in comparison to your journey!)…. so in the end I decided to wait and see what the general feeling was from the attendees. Based on your description, I think I will plan to attend next year……. it sounds like it was great fun, and an opportunity to learn a lot! Cheers! -Aeron

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