Cockatoo Island Overnight Stay and thoughts about my sketches

April 18, 2018 | 13 Comments

Last week I stayed overnight in a “harbourview apartment” on Cockatoo Island. The island is located in Sydney Harbour and was a convict penal establishment between 1839-69 and then a huge shipyard up until 1951. It is one of my favourite places in Sydney to sketch but for various reasons it is nearly two years since I was last there. I’ve also wanted to stay overnight (glamping – glamorous camping) at some stage… but well it’s hard to get around to doing things in your hometown, isn’t it?

Recently I had a small job with Cockatoo Island and when I was offered a nights’ accommodation in one of the amazing apartment on the top of the island I said yes!

Here are a few photos of the views from the apartment. It was quiet at night so I felt as if I had the whole island to myself.

And wow! it was beautiful in the morning too!

The Biennale is on at the moment, so I wondered around to view a few of the works. They were ok but I was more interested in the buildings and spaces of the island. However it was very cool to be able to go inside the Powerhouse for the first time!

The idea was to have a mini sketching break and see what I could come up with over two days on the island. It turned out to be just over 24 hours as I left at 11.30 on the second day – I had done enough.

As for my sketching… I had a ‘no-pressure’ approach which meant I wasn’t trying to produce masterpieces – although of course I was hoping that a few would happen!?! So I simply used my everyday sketchbook (Stillman and Birn 8×10 Alpha Softcover sketchbook) rather than my special outing sketchbook (Moleskine Watercolour A4 book).

Here they all are:
(please keep scrolling as I have some comments below)

Although I sketched a lot (especially the first day) and had a lot of fun (ah! so great to have a good amount of time for sketching just for me) I wasn’t totally happy with the results. I just didn’t achieve what I was hoping for (I know I said no pressure!!!?)

I’m not 100% sure why I never felt in the groove but maybe it’s a combination of these factors:

  • the Alpha paper wasn’t working for me (true watercolour paper would have been better especially as…)
  • my timing and my pigment to water ratio was a little off and not suited to the paper (not exactly sure why this was the case as I use Alpha all the time and love it)
  • I have been to the island so many times that it was hard to be inspired to find new views. Normally I don’t mind sketching the same thing but when it comes to Cockatoo Island, the objects and scenes are getting less interesting to sketch as restoration work continues and rust disappears. (eg. compare the crane sketches below with the ones here.)

Now when making a statement along the lines of “I’m not happy with my work” I normally get three responses:

  1. I’m so glad that you do work you are not happy with and make mistakes! I thought you only ever produced masterpieces and it’s nice to know that you are human.
  2. Please don’t beat yourself up and let your inner critic put you down – you have to silence your inner critic!!!
  3. I wish my good sketches were as good as your bad ones.

So, in anticipation, here are my comments to these statements:

  1. Of course I make lots of mistakes all the time and regularly create artwork which I am not happy with. If I was happy with everything I created I would worry that my art had turned into a formula and/or I had lost the ability to push myself to improve. Here’s the thing, as your skills develop, your definition of a good sketch develops as well and it is still hard to achieve.
  2. My inner critic is my best friend and I not know what I would do without it! My inner critic spurs me on to improve. Sure it sometimes says some silly things, but I never let it prevent me from having another go. I hope my comments do not come across as negative. More about my IC here and here.
  3. Try not to make comparisons like this – everyone is at a different stage of their creative journeys. Also try not to use the word ‘bad’ about your own work. I prefer to think of terms like ‘a learning experience’.

I know that sometimes sketching can be frustrating, but ultimately regardless of whether I’m happy with the result or not, I always enjoy the experience of sketching out on the location. And I’m always keen to reflect on what I did do, and what I would do different next time!



  • Marianne says:

    “……as your skills develop, our definition of a good sketch develops as well and it’s still hard to achieve.”

    Oh my goodness! Would you believe that never ever occurred to me?
    This is very helpful for me to start sketching again, and more relaxed to do so. Thank you, Liz!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Marianne, I remember the first time I heard that (Charles Reid)… so obvious and yet the green is always greener!

  • pbass wil says:

    “…everyone is at a different stage of their creative journey […] try not to use the word ‘bad’ ” <— Such a crucial insight, thanks Liz!

    Calling our current efforts 'bad' is like calling the lowest rungs of a ladder 'bad' because they're not close to where we're trying to get to. :^) All rungs are equally necessary; every step up is a miracle of creative persistence. We've gotta be our own hero for every brave effort, don't we?
    Thanks for the regular inspiration, Liz.

  • Nola Parsons says:

    Hi Liz,
    Enjoyed your sketches and reading your comments. A friend recently bought a new Stillman and Birn alpha sketchbook and said the paper was not the same as previous books. I noted the paper seemed slightly thinner. Could that be a problem?? I am not surprised you may be feeling dissatisfied with your work. You appeared to have a massively busy year last year plus spent a lot of energy on the Watercolour Course. Sometimes we just plateau with our creativity and have to allow time for it to go to the next stage!
    I have done landscape painting for some years and got to the point where I lost incentive and the will to tackle any more landscape. Since completing three of your courses I have found inspiration to branch into other subject matter (ie buildings). The change in direction has been beneficial as I can now contemplate landscape
    again with new approaches.
    Your sketching his always wonderful, expressive, free and inspiring despite what you may think!!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Nola… it’s actually been a hectic 2 years and the watercolour course did take it all out of me. So, yes, I am in a plateau at the moment, but that is ok!

  • Neil Barton says:

    I really enjoyed seeing your sketches again Liz and thought they looked really good, but I do understand exactly what you mean and sometimes we take the wrong paper or sketch book with us and then to make matters worse sometimes we forget that the paper we have brought with us, for instance dries quick so needs working very quickly , whilst another doesn’t like any pencil marks being rubbed out etc.
    But they look great, and look forward to seeing more.
    Best Wishes

  • “My inner critic is my best friend…”

    I find it sad that we’ve become a society so afraid of the inner critic. It’s one of the most powerful tools in an artist’s bag, though you have to have sufficient self-confidence to have a conversation with it.

    I was surprised to hear you say that you were having problems with your pigment to water ratios on that day. Your watercolour course has shown me how woefully under-equipped I am in that regard as well as the path(s) to fixing it. I still have a lot of paint blotches do do 🙂

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Larry. In regard to the water:pigment ratio, I think it’s hard to be totally in control when out on location and some days my timing, mixing is a little off. Alpha paper needs the washes to be more juicy with pigment, and I was sketching super fast, so not picking up enough pigment. I think it would have been fine with a moleskine watercolour book.

  • I think it is great that you really analyzed what may have contributed to your unhappiness with your work. It is probably a combination of factors. Also, we are our worst critics and sometimes are happier with the work when we step away from it.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Yes, totally true about work looking better later on. These sketches look much better now than they did at the time 🙂

  • Constance Smith says:

    One of the best things I’ve learned from you is to analyze the painting I’m doing and learn from it. Also to accept challenges, not let them defeat me. Keep blogging. I enjoy being an art student, learning from a lot of teachers including you. Your Italy trip is coming up, bet that will get you excited again!

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