Europe17: Seven Reflections from my Italy & Scotland trip

June 23, 2017 | 30 Comments

One of my favourite traditions is to write a ‘trip reflections’ article within a week of returning home after a big sketching trip. You can read the full collection here.

This year’s visit to Europe was all about teaching two 6-day Palladian Odyssey tours (PO Tour) back-to-back, followed by a week with my sister and family. It wasn’t ever going to contain any relaxing vacation time. I really love travelling and am happy to live out of a suitcase, moving locations frequently for long periods of time – such as last year’s 8 week adventure.

However, this year, I felt ready to come home at the end of the second PO Tour – I felt as if I had an amazing adventure, had done enough and would have been content to jump on the next plane home. I think this was the result of the incredibly rich itinerary of the PO tour and that although I was drained from the intensive nature of the teaching component, I had received a lot of inspiration and ideas for my own work during the two 6-day tours.

As I mentioned in my last article, I only had two solo sketching days, the first and the last of the trip, and it would have been good to have carved out another fews days like that, just so I could really get my creative juices pumping. For me, vacations are not about rest, instead they are a chance for intensive development of my art. Working out a way to balance teaching, rest and some creative ‘me-time’ is an ongoing challenge for me.

But enough of the general comments…

I want to now share a few concepts that emerged from my sketching this trip. A number of themes from my last trip to New Zealand were still very relevant – such as mixing it up, more than one sketch to tell a story, limitations, leaving work incomplete – but here are a few new ones:

1. Paint Only

The biggest ‘new’ technique of the trip was doing more sketches directly in paint with no line. These days I normally start with paint as it’s significantly quicker and helps me achieve better colour and values in my sketch.

Although I have done a lot of paint-only work before (eg. 90% of my morning latte sketches are paint-only) it was new to do this on larger scenes. There is no doubt that using my Series 772 1/2 inch dagger brush from Rosemary & Co is a big factor as I can draw with the tip and then use the side for broad strokes.

2. Rapid Line Sketches

While I started doing quick sketches more seriously in NZ, this trip I really developed an extremely rapid form of drawing (in under 60 seconds) using my Lamy pen. Previously my fast sketches have been done using a tool with a thicker or more expressive line so it was new to be using a thinner line.

It has taken me years of training, but I finally feel very comfortable doing these type of sketches – i.e. to have the confidence to just go for it, the improved eye-hand coordination and the quick visual thinking to make instinctive decisions as to which are the important edges to record.

I am very excited about this as it will enable me to pause more when I am walking the streets of a new city and quickly record, in sketch-form, scenes and spaces. I would have normally just taken photos of these scenes, but of course I much prefer to sketch them so they are encoded into my visual memory.

3. Being super inspired by the subject matter

It was an unusual experience to be sketching the same places two weeks in a row (as part of the PO tours) and I was a little worried that I would be a little less inspired on the second week. But that was certainly not the case!

I think the most excited I was all trip was while I was quickly sketching the garden front to Villa Cornaro during the second tour. I had tears in my eyes thinking about how amazing it was to be sketching a Palladian building in real life, and not only that, I was buzzing from a wonderful conversation with the owners – it was a real Palladio fan-girl moment.

Aside: don’t ever underestimate the importance of your own personal interest in a subject matter and how much that affects the ‘quality’ of the work. Sketch what you love and it will show through!

I must also add that there was a lot of inspiration from the both groups – so thanks again to our wonderful tour director, Mike Botton, and everyone who was part of an incredible experience.

I miss hanging out with you all… a lot!

4. Sketching during guided tours using my full kit

Another cool part of doing the tours back to back is that I had a second chance to improve my technique during our guided tours. When travelling and doing tours I have often thought ‘I would like to sketch, but… what? and how?… hmm, it seems like too much trouble.’

However because I was teaching, these guided tours were an important opportunity for me to do some sketching for myself and some bonus demos for the group – they could see how I sketch standing up and in limited time frames. During the first week I tried using some fast tools, my small kit and a waterbrush but I wasn’t totally satisfied with the results.

In week 2, I pre-prepared so that I had my normal palette clipped on my support board ready to go. I was much happier with the sketches done using my normal kit. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to get the full kit out initially, but in the long run it turned out to be easier to use.

5. Creating a record rather than a sketchbook of masterpieces

The more I sketch, the less I am concerned about producing masterpieces or filling my sketchbook with predominantly watercolour paintings. Instead my sketchbooks are becoming increasingly casual and looser as I sketch more rapid line sketches and/or leave my paint sketches incomplete. I do feel as if these days, I am truly saying more with less.

That being said, the rare occasions when I did have the freedom of no time limitations were very precious to me, and I seem to be making better use of them to slow down and go with the flow. Note: Slowing down for me is still very fast by most people’s standards.

6. Making nice journal pages out of teaching pages

My teaching pages are usually fairly scrappy and done in a secondary book. But this trip with 5kg of paper needed for the PO Tour, I didn’t take an extra teaching sketchbook and instead used my ‘good’ A4 watercolour moleskine sketchbooks throughout the teaching sessions.

Despite the PO Tour being non-stop touring, teaching and socializing from breakfast to dinner, I am happy that I fairly easily managed to finish off my pages during the week. It was the really useful be able to share these with the group during the last morning ‘show and tell’ as I could demonstrate how I created nice spreads from incomplete sketches.

7. Recording Instagram stories

My main form of doing updates this trip was using the 15 second videos in Instagram. Last year I experimented with Snapchat (to a handful of viewers) and loved it, so it was great to do it for my main audinece this year. I have all the videos saved so I can put them together in a more permanent form, but I just loved the casual and instant nature of doing these short videos on location.

A special thankyou to Nick Moroney for filming a number of stories in Venice and adding to the entertainment component of my videos.

Thanks to everyone who followed along and sent me messages. It was great fun to share my adventures with you!


My biggest takeaway for the trip was:

Travel Sketching for me seems to have become, for the most part, simply reflex sketching.

The majority of my sketches in my sketchbooks were done in compressed or limited periods of time and therefore I was relying heavily on my reflex sketching skills.

In my daily life I am constantly training my visual skills to see more clearly (eg. to quickly analyse the important edges, shapes and volumes of a scene) and also continually training my eye hand coordination. The fact that I am always building these skills gives me a confidence to take a lot of risks when I travel – I just go for it hoping that the ‘hard yards’ I have done previously will mean that my sketch will turn out alright. I work very hard to make it seem effortless.

I had really hoped to include more people sketches this trip, but although I did start off well in the airport, I found it too hard to maintain, especially during the intensity of the PO tours. This made me realise that I am a long way from being able to sketch people in ‘reflex sketching mode’. It was just too much of a brain switch to start people sketching while I was doing my rapid sketches on the move. Ah! here is something to work on before the next trip.

(Hmm, did I just add an extra point – it’s now 8 reflections. I’m hopeless at sticking within guidelines I set for myself!)

Okay, well I think that is a wrap for this trip.

I have a short turn around in-between my trips this year. Only 4 weeks till I head to Chicago (actually it’s just over 3 weeks now!) so it’s time to start thinking about skyscrapers, Frank Llloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe!

But before I start posting about the preparation for my next adventure, I would love to know if you have any questions about this trip. Is there an aspect of my adventures that you would like to know more about? What part was your favourite?


  • Sherry Rix says:

    Thank you so much for these wonderful posts, I really enjoy looking at your sketches and paintings. In this post, I particularly like the second single-page sketch of point number 5, creating a record – the little touch of blue in the windows is perfect!

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Sherry – that sketch is a favourite of mine… it was the sketch to mark the end of the Palladian Odyssey tours and had a lot of emotion in it!

  • Laura Hale says:

    Thank you Liz for sharing such useful information! Not only that, but you look beautifully joyful. Not only do your sketches reflect the fact that you are doing what you love, but your photos do as well. Thank you again for the info—and sharing your joy.

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Laura – yes! I had such a great time in Italy and Scotland this trip. I’m glad that that shows through

  • Ania Drozd says:

    “Paint only” approach shows your confidence Liz – impressive!

  • Maggie says:

    These relections are wonderful. You do such a good job of wrapping things up to reinforce learning–both for yourself and for us–after your trips AND in your online classes. My favorite sketches from this trip are your paint only ones that are more of a vignette. I’d love to see a step by step on how you build one. 🙂

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Maggie – the wrap up IS an important part of learning for me. Thanks for the request… a step by step paint only sketch is added to my list of future articles!

  • Suzann Cromer says:

    Have followed you for several years now and love watching you grow and your drawings/paintings evolve, very inspirational and such a good learning experience for all of us. Thank you for sharing.

  • Sharon Roy says:

    I would like to see more information about #6—Making nice journal pages out of teaching pages. I don’t teach, but my sketchbook pages are filled with little fragments of my day. I would like to arrange them to be more visually cohesive. I hope to see you in Chicago. I didn’t snag a spot in your workshop, but would enjoy meeting you.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Sharon – make sure you come up and say hi in Chicago!
      The images in point 5 show some of my strategies – putting borders around, adding different coloured text. Adding this to my list of future articles!

  • Diane Harvey says:

    Liz, could you clarify your comment “sketching during guided tours”. Are you literally sketching as you are walking around these lovely buildings? I know you’re crazy fast, but how do you capture enough & then paint too??

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Diane – no I am not sketching while I am walking! The thing about guided tours is that tour guide stops in the one place for an unknown amount of time. So, you start a sketch standing up and have to work in a way that you can stop whenever the guide moves on. It’s one of the principles of travel sketching – work in a way that you can stop at any time – Foundations Lesson 11 is the key. Also starting with paint helps a lot too.

  • Julie Dober says:

    Hi Liz,
    I’ve enjoyed reading about your adventures and learning from your learning! I’m only just starting to do urban sketching and find it difficult to cart a stool around and am getting a bit to old and stiff to sit on steps or pavements.

    I’d love to know more about the best way to balance the sketchbook etc while standing up. Is that something you could share please or is it in one of your classes.

    Thank you for your infectious enthusiasm – it seems to be delightfully contagious!

    Cheers, Julie in Bendigo.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I always enjoy your process analysis posts, Liz — I think it’s so helpful to look back on one’s process and see what was learned. “Sketch what you love and it will show through” — so very true! And the opposite, too — if I’m not engaged with the subject, the result is almost never good.

    – Tina

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Tina. I agree about the reverse, although I would like to work out some techniques for finding something to engage myself in what ever situation – to rather beauty in the boring!

  • Nola Parsons says:

    I really enjoy your sketches and reading your comments. I love the looseness of your sketching especially the ones done with just paint. As you say a result of years of sketching and seeing edges and form which has in turn become more spontaneous.
    I would love to know how you ‘scale your subject up or down’ to fit the space on the page. I either start too big and can’t fit it all in or end up doing a sketch which is too small. Perhaps this comes from years of experience as well!
    Nola Parsons

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Nola!
      In answer to your question, yes, a sense of scale and proportion comes with practice and after many sketches of careful measuring – sighting using your pen/pencil. I often draw the whole first and subdivide OR if I think I am going to run off the page do some creative cropping or shrinking! Also I often pause and plan how big the sketch should be before I start. SO it doesn’t just happen all the time!

  • Great reflections on your trip. I love the first two sketches done directly in paint. I think sketching with the brush makes you use more dramatic values. That is something I would like to try more of myself. One of my workshops in Chicago is with Marc and I believe that is what we will be doing. You also mentioned the Rosemary & Co. dagger brush. I bought one after you recommended them and it is so great to be able to use one brush and not have to switch back and forth.

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Joan – you will have a wonderful time with Marc! And yes, you have to get your values right the first time when you work paint only!

  • Gabrielle LR says:

    Thank you for sharing your process and knowledge with us!! I loved looking at you IG stories (and very grateful that you did use this instead of snapchat, I find IG much simpler than snapchat!!!) and following your trip! it’s also great to hear your comments looking through your journal. I am currently traveling myself (6 months in europe with my boyfriend) and doing my best to record through my sketches what I see, it really is a great learning experience and such great practice! I was never the best to draw building and architecture in general (more into faces and flowers) and now I do my best and learn everyday! Your blog and IG help and inspire me everyday, thank you!

  • Bob Cochran says:

    Liz, I really like reading your posts on sketching. They are erudite and so well expressed. I admit I can’t travel at the pace you do. Australia to Chicago! I’d be a blob of ‘exhausted person’ if I attempted that. Now that is strength!

  • Liz…your posts never cease to amaze. I laughed when you talked about working really fast and yet slowing down on occasion. I’m sort of ‘adequate’ when working slowly but making a determined effort this summer to learn to capture things quickly, burying my need for capturing all the details.

    BUT…it was “…improved eye-hand coordination and the quick visual thinking to make instinctive decisions…” that really caught my attention. As a biologists I’ve been surprised that the art world throws simple phrases on the process of learning as an artist, relying almost completely on “hand-eye coordination” and “see like an artist” as though these were explanations for what allows people like you to perform the way you do. Every professional baseball player has fantastic hand-eye coordination but I doubt that many of them can draw. It’s really the training of the visual cortex of the brain (about 25% of the mass) that is what makes the artist. Your reference to “visual thinking” isa really important one and closer to the biological reality than I typically see.

    Do you know when you’ll be in Montreal yet?

  • Bev Clark White says:

    hello, Liz, I have been looking at the pictures of your daily sketchbook, the dates with a scripture verse next to it….do you use your sketchbook for scripture learning or some other sort of Bible study???

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Emily. I simply record some part of my daily devotional reading. This year I am using Daily Light by Samuel Bagster but it can be anything – sometimes my own reading through a commentary not a specific daily reading book

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