Five Reflections from my 11 week virtual trip to Europe

July 17, 2020 | 9 Comments

Continuing with my normal travel sketching tradition, here are five reflections from my 2020 Europe Virtual Trip.

1. A daily challenge

Like any daily challenge it was hard going at times, but always worth the effort and discipline! I really wasn’t sure that I would be able to keep it up as I have had a lot of other projects going on… and there were a few days when I did consider abandoning it. But I’m so glad that I stuck with it and I’m very happy that I didn’t miss a day (Mon-Sat) since I started my virtual trip.

To start with, I was trying to sketch first thing in the morning, but I then switched to immediately after lunch and that worked well. I would then leave my book open on my desk and it was really nice to be constantly looking at the sketches/pages during the afternoon. This is something that I am going to continue to do with my everyday book. Having my sketchbook open and having the spread ‘speak to me’ during the day helped me to think about composition and was a constant reminder to do a quick sketch during the day (eg. while waiting for the kettle to boil).

I varied the pace of my sketching sessions over the 11 weeks. There were a few intense periods (such as my first week in Rome, the Palladian Odyssey virtual tour weeks in Umbria and Veneto, my direct watercolour week in Venice and my week in Brussels with Frannie) but in between them I had some lighter weeks. The goal was to create at least a double page spread each day (Mon-Sat).

2. Surprisingly satisfying

Sketching from photos can never compete with sketching on location. I absolutely love connecting with a place and creating my sketches whilst being surrounded by its buzz. So in that respect sketching from photos often feels flat and lifeless.

However, I was surprised by how much I was able to recreate the feeling of being there. I watched all my videos from previous trips and I put some real mental effort into reliving memories. And as a result I almost felt as if I had actually visited places. This made me really happy as I felt a connection to the place and then sketched thinking about this. A number of zoom/skype sessions with friends and family helped a lot too. I think the fact that most of my virtual destinations were places that I have visited before made a big difference as I had memories to evoke. The new places I visited virtually were definitely harder to sketch.

There were some serious limitations of sketching from photos though…

  • It takes a lot of time to get together a collection of photos to sketch from and this was a little frustrating at times.
  • I find google street view good to get a feel of a place but I don’t like its radical distortions so in general I preferred to sketch from my own photos (when I had them).
  • I found it much easier to sketch from photos of individual buildings rather than more complex street scenes and public places.
  • It was much harder to sketch panoramic scenes (such as landscapes) from photos.
  • I also didn’t do any people sketching  during my virtual trip.


So basically, I was limited in the subject matter due to the collection of photos that I had but once I realised this I was okay with it and made the most of what I could easily do. But having said that I’ve done a lot of sketching classical buildings in the past 11 weeks and that has made me very happy as I can’t sketch some of those types of buildings here in Sydney! And of course it was good to get my yearly dose of Palladio! 🙂

But perhaps the aspect that was the most satisfying was…

3. Creating a narrative

Designing my pages is always a big thing for me, but this project made me realise just how important it is when I’m travelling. I absolutely love creating a narrative of my day and then designing interesting page layouts full of a great variety of subject matter.

One of the reasons that I’m personally not that keen on sketching from photos in my everyday life is that it’s a bit arbitrary and not connected with the story of my day.

Recreating an actual day of sketching (especially at the beginning of the project here and here) was so much fun and I tried to get some local food to eat and sketch as well. BTW this project made me realise how useful it is to sketch circular objects (coffees and food) for the composition of my pages.

4. The impact of the choice of sketchbook

Last year I fell in love with the vertical format A4 Moleskine and didn’t think I would ever go back to landscape. That was a bold statement and since then I used landscape for Brisbane trip, Port Macquarie trip and my city break.

I’m undecided which format I prefer, but right at the moment I think that, although more awkward to handle, the landscape format is the more flexible in terms of composition.

It was good to get to know the Hahnemuhle paper (I really love these sketchbooks) but I struggled to do direct watercolour on it.

But as soon as I tried some Moleskine pages (to extend the life of Volume 4 – see more here) I realised that Moleskine watercolour paper is so much better for my approach to direct watercolour. (Further reading on this topic here).

5. Travel sketching thoughts

This project highlighted a few important aspects of travel sketching. And I think that these insights are helping me to ‘up my game’ when it comes to my everyday sketching practices.

Last year my second reflection from my 14 week trip to Europe was “it’s always about the people” and this is an aspect which I have been trying not to think about too much! Seeing friends and meeting people when I’m out sketching on the streets is definitely the highlight of travel for me – much more than simply visiting beautiful places. So not getting a chance to be in person with my friends and family (especially my sister and family) is sad! But having said that, I have always been unbelievably thankful that I have been able to travel so much in recent years and I never took it for granted. And I’m so thankful for all the technological options we have these days for keeping in touch and this project has made me realise that I should make more of an effort to catch up with some of my Urban Sketchers friends who I normally only speak to at symposiums. It’s important to keep the peer inspiration happening!

When I’m travelling I’m normally in a season of intense focus on my own work, so one of the big goals for this project was to force myself to make time for my art. But the reality was that with my constant and heavy SketchingNow workload it was almost impossible to carve out the time I had hoped for. Once the lockdown restrictions lifted here in Sydney, I wanted to get out sketching. And oh! working on two sketchbooks at the one time was fun too!!! Fun? more like crazy!!! 🙂

It’s hard to recreate the liveliness of urban sketches when you are at home working from photos. I do have a few tricks (which I will share in a separate article) but I did find that there was more danger of overworking. But also on the other hand, it was much easier to wait for washes to dry (or use a hairdryer) so it meant a little less wet in wet work. I also noticed that I was doing less quick line drawings – my paints were open and ready to use so most sketches involved watercolour.

I had hoped to do more experimentation during this project but the requirement to keep up with my itinerary meant that my goal was simply getting a few sketches completed each day! I generally didn’t have the time or energy for extra mental effort needed to get into an experimentation mindset.

I did manage this a few times during the trip – my Baroque day in Rome and my Direct Watercolour week in Venice – so that was great!

Last weekend I went out to sketch some Sydney icons. I’ll share more about this outing next week, but in essence, it was a great way to wrap-up my virtual trip and transition into more Sydney sketching.

So in summary… this crazy 11 week virtual trip was a fantastic project and I’m so glad that I made the effort to stick with it. It really felt as if I had had my yearly trip to Europe and it has gotten me thinking about my work in some new ways!

And finally… I have an idea for my next project which will build on the best parts of this V-trip but will also enable me to work on my art goals in a more focused way.

Thanks for coming along on my trip and especially to those of you who have taken the time to comment on my articles. I really appreciate it! And if you have any questions about this project, please ask them in the comment section below.

If you missed any of my articles you can find them all here. Enjoy!



  • These are amazing sketches done from photos and memories. I’m impressed that you kept up such a positive attitude during this time of isolation. It’s inspiring. I am also missing my family and friends, and it’s a reminder that we can still bring back those memories and keep sketching! It’s a connection I have with them and the places they live. Thanks for sharing your journey and the things you’ve learned along the way.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Maria! I always strive to be thankful and content in every situation. I miss seeing my friends but I’m thankful for many other things here at home. This virtual trip gave me a reason to sketch these places as if I was there. All the best for your sketching and journey!!!!

  • Alejandro Pardo says:

    Estimada Liz: encuentro estupendo tu viaje virtual y lo que me ayudan tus reflexiones. He notado que tus acuarelas son más pausadas y más detalladas que las que hiciste in situ, debo reconocer también que se pierde la espontaneidad del trazo. Gracias por tus descripciones y pensamientos. Me han servido mucho en la extensa cuarentena acá en Valparaíso – Chile.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Alejandro – yes it’s almost impossible to have the same energy and spontaneity when sketching from photos. These sketches are not ‘slow’ as such, as most completed under 20 minutes, but are more detailed and careful than what I do on location as I was sitting in comfortable without a limited time frame 🙂

  • Jane Varley says:

    Hi Liz, yes, the fact that you have maintained your usual liveliness whilst working from photos is truly remarkable. I’ve never been a fan of using photos for the reasons you mentioned. So very much looking forward to your article on the topic. Many thanks for showing us all your hard work. Jane

  • Ted Bunker says:

    I’ve been intrigued by your Virtual Tour concept, revisiting and retracing last year’s European trip. In thinking of it, I place reference photos in three degrees of experience and gesalt;
    1. The photograph you took yourself standing in that place.
    2. The photogragh of a place you’ve been-to and experienced yourself, but someone else framed and shot.  Perhaps a historial view, or a different season.
    3. The photograph of an unknown place to you.

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