How everyday sketching differs from dedicated sketching outings and why it’s often harder!

July 24, 2020 | 51 Comments

As previously mentioned on this blog, I’ve recently decided to ‘up my game’ when it comes to everyday sketching.

I have no problem sketching non-stop when I’m travelling, or when I go out for a dedicated sketching outing, but I’ve often struggled to find adequate time to focus on sketching during my day to day life. My normal everyday urban sketching (pre-lockdown) consisted mainly of cafe sketching or quick line drawings from carparks.

I’ve always focused on creating a narrative of my life and so whatever I managed to achieve was fine. Although, to be honest, I’ve longed to create ‘better’ everyday sketches.

Since our lockdown restrictions eased (in mid-May) I’ve been taking more time to sketch in my local area and I’ve also started using bigger books with watercolour paper which I normally only use when travelling. As a result, I’ve had a number of insights which are making it easier for me to sketch. And in addition, there have been some great questions inside the SketchingNow Watercolour On Location classroom about ‘story’ which have helped me pull together these ideas even further.

So this is what I’ve been thinking about lately…

Dedicated Sketching Outings

By this term I’m referring to occasions when I go out with the main purpose to sketch. I might explore a new part of Sydney, revisit a favourite sketching spot or simply go to an area where I know there will be a very sketchable scene.

I would normally dedicate a number of hours for these types of outings and sometimes the whole day. When I travel, I’m basically on a long dedicated sketching outing that can last for days, weeks or even months!

Sometimes a dedicated sketching outing is with a friend, or it’s part of a local sketchmeet, but it can also be solo. When I’m out solo I’m more focused on my work and when I’m with friends there is always a danger that we will spend more time catching up than sketching! But it’s always special when we have some art conversation and pick up ideas from each other’s work.

Because these are outings for the specific purpose of sketching, inspiration comes easily. I often see many things which I would like to sketch and so the big decision is which scene and/or story is the most interesting and then where can I sit or stand to sketch it.  I normally have a subject and a story before I start sketching.

For these outings I usually have my full sketching kit with me, my support board, stool/seat etc.and I’m hoping for a ‘good’ sketch.

Everyday Sketching

I use this term to refer to the sketching I do when I’m going about my normal routines. It’s all about making the most of small opportunities and fitting sketching into the in-between moments. I often don’t have a lot of time and I’m normally thinking about my work or other chores as much as I’m thinking about sketching. There is always a pull to get back to my desk!

I’ve always struggled to find the time for sketching sessions in my daily life but in the last year or so I’ve lowered the expectations of my work (ie. not trying to producing a ‘good’ sketch) and have managed to fill sketchbooks quite easily.

The subjects which I love to sketch the most are complex buildings, interesting public spaces (squares, piazzas etc) and street scenes. I love being surrounded by the buzz of a busy city. I also like landscapes with dramatic rocks (think Scotland or Port Macquarie beaches!) and cityscapes. These don’t exist in my suburb so I rarely get a ‘I must stop and sketch this‘ type of feeling.

In addition, it’s much easier to be stirred to sketch when seeing something new – rather than the same places over and over again. Some of you might live in beautiful and inspiring locations, but I know that a lot of you do not. So if all we see is ‘ordinary or boring’ suburbia it’s hard to get excited about sketching it, isn’t it?

Another really interesting thing about everyday sketching for me is that I feel more reluctant to sit down on the streets in a conspicuous position when I’m in my local area. This is really strange as when I’m travelling I’m frequently making a spectacle of myself sitting in crazy spots. So I know that I’m totally fine with being a very visible urban sketcher!

Why is so hard at home? Maybe it’s because I’m more likely to be spotted by someone I know? Or it might be because it will be considered weird to be sketching ordinary suburbia as opposed to a picturesque or interesting part of town.

I love engaging with people while I’m sketching so I have always found this reluctance to urban sketch in my local area a little odd. However, I have found that since the lockdown restrictions have eased I’ve been so keen to sketch on location that this no longer is preventing me from sitting down.

I have also noticed in the last few months that my first consideration when I’m everyday sketching is to find a place to sit. This is partly due to finding a comfortable, non-obvious spot and I normally don’t have a stool/seat with me.

So the big realisation I’ve had is:

During sketching outings, story and inspiration comes first but when sketching everyday, choosing a spot to sit comes first and story/ inspiration comes second!

Why Everyday Sketching is often harder

It’s this fact of story and inspiration coming second that makes everyday sketching harder for me. The freedom to start is often not there (I’m often asking myself ‘do I really have time to sketch?’) and it’s much harder to be inspired by the things which I see every day or which I have sketched numerous times before. So I think the battle is won by simply forcing myself to sit down and get my sketchbook out!

The good news is that the realisation of these challenges has made me more committed to regular everyday urban sketching.

My new routine has been to get a takeaway coffee and then sit and drink it in a spot that I want to sketch from. While sipping my coffee, I’m looking around and searching for a story and then I’m keen to start sketching. On busy days I’m going back to one of a few comfortable spots and looking for new ways to sketch the same subject. If I have more time, I’m exploring further afield.

The result is that I’m getting used to sketching the same scenes over and over again! Some days the inspiration is not there, but the discipline of repetition is really helping me to think about new things to try. This challenge is such a good thing for my art – the more I sketch the same subject the easiest it gets!

Note: I’m sketching a lot of different versions of the big Spanish Mission building on Lindfield Ave and the nearby St Albans church.  I’m really thankful for these two buildings which I can so easily sketch from quiet benches in the lovely Sydney winter sun.

There are more concepts on this topic that I’d love to share with you, but I think I’ll leave them for another article!


Finally, I want to end with quote which is often in my head – and even more so lately:

Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision – it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so. The world is waiting for people with vision – it is not interested in mere pictures.

We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace. It is so much greater to make much out of little than to make little out of much – better to make a big thing out of a little subject than to make a little thing out of a big one.

– Charles Hawthorne

Isn’t that just so inspiring?

I know there are some urban sketchers who never lack motivation, but I know that a lot of us find it hard to be inspired to sketch at home. So I hope these few thoughts help and that, if you are able to do so safely, you can get out sketching your local area more.

I would love to hear your thoughts/experiences on this topic in the comment section below.



  • Ceri Donovan says:

    Just bought a tiny sketchbook to keep in my bag, so I’ll have no excuse to sketch more! Although sketching outdoors in a Welsh winter would require waterproof paper! 🙂

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Ceri – a small sketchbook is such a great idea (if you can work that small! I struggle with this part – ha!) – All the best with that!
      And ah! Wales… love your part of the world SO much!

  • carmelcampbell says:

    I love that quote from Charles Hawthorne. Thank you for sharing. I have found it difficult to go out and sketch after being at home for so long. I have lost my drive. I know it will return. In the meantime I take my sketchbook on my daily walk and have been sketching the same tree over and over again. I used to sneak sketches of the tree during the “Stay at Home” period. Each sketch is different..different tools, different views and colors. I am sketching something …a tree. Plus I am now looking at trees differently.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Carmel – great that you have a tree to sketch. It’s taken me a long time to feel my urban sketching flow since the lockdown… I have plans to share more about that soon!

  • Mary Eastwood says:

    I really enjoy reading your articles & I always look forward to seeing them in my inbox. You inspire me to get out and sketch more and More specifically to plan time to sketch more as part of my day. I struggle with that. You are such a talented artist!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Mary! Yes, it’s hard to find time for sketching unless you can make a routine so that it becomes a habit!

    • Hi Liz, Your blog is great, such an intersting journey of sketching and how the lockdown affects artists who like to travel and paint. I started a watercolour series of metro stations in my city, was inspired by your blog. Cheers, Peter

      • Liz Steel says:

        Thanks Peter – all the best with your new series!

      • So true. I earned the moniker “theTravelsketcher” because of sketching while traveling. Home can be harder, it all seems so normal. These are good words, thanks. I realized that when I travel a high percentage of my sketching is from the cafe or pub I stop at, well that is just what you are recommending, just find a place to sit. Great, and thanks

  • lise guathier says:

    About your previous topic … why it is harder to sketch outside … Sometimes and more actually … I reproach myself for my lack of motivation to sketch outside … I have travelled a lot around the world, old country like Europa, Birmania, India, China, Japan, Peru, Bolivia, Africa … coming back close Montreal, quebec, really I found scene very not inspiring … too young country … perhaps I have to change my mind … and appreciated for my story more little scene … I’m really reconforted to read that you find it hard also when you come back home after trip to sketch outside at home … I was embarassed to fellow your course because I said to me , the big job will be to find interesting scenes to show to the group, because theory parts are easy for me to stay motivated , I like it very much … my heart was very very happy to fellow your course, very happy to draw, to learn new thing, to go outside take air with intention to draw a ‘masterpiece’ … but my mind said Do you like very much to sketch outside , … And my heart said ‘oh yes, but I don’t find interesting story’ … My work now it is to join my mind and my heart together to fellow your course without to be shy, what about I do … I’m very happy to be in your great group … and I will try to remember me, each time I am discouraged, the fact to see beauty in the small thing around me, outside, in my country … to Have fun because I like sketch, I like colour, I like plein air … Thanks so much, this paper this morning give me wings to go on more easily through your great course … thanks a lot! … Good night or nice day!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Lise – yes the secret is to find shapes and edges that are beautiful even in boring modern places. Glad you are enjoying Watercolour On Location – such an amazing group!

  • Barbara Khachane says:

    Hi Liz,
    Thank you for this post. Until I read your blog, I thought that it was lack of inspiration in my immediate surroundings, but the more I think about it, it is more about finding the comfortable and safe place to do a sketch—my more “successful” sketches are a result of having been in a quiet or hidden setting at that time. I think that I will try looking for the comfortable spot first and then find “beauty” in that surrounding.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Barbara – it’s been a lightbulb moment for me too! All the best with your local sketching!

  • Suzanne McVetty says:

    I have been going out with a few friends and an instructor to the same small park each week over this CoVid summer to paint. He keeps telling us that everywhere you turn there is another beautiful painting to be made. We often can’t find it and then laugh. All we see is green and more green. I took a moment to find the quote you gave and to learn who
    Charles Hawthorne was. I then shared it with the teacher. Thanks for the inspiration and giving me the courage to take
    the bull by the horns and sketch some of my local area, ugly buildings and all! .

    Hawthorne on Painting: From Students’ Notes Collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne, J.C. Hawthorne, 1938; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960, p. 17.

    Charles Webster Hawthorne (January 8, 1872 – November 29, 1930) was an American portrait and genre painter and a noted teacher who founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899.

  • Marta Raaka says:

    Thanks Liz, for these wonderful blogs. This was a great topic for right now. I just realized the other day how important it was to find a good spot to sit where I feel safe and out of the way. Doing the thumbnails helped me find a better story. Thanks for that inspiring quote, too.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Marta!!!! Hope you are going well. Yes, finding a safe soft is so important these days isn’t it?

  • Kate Powell says:

    “Or it might be because it will be considered weird to be sketching ordinary suburbia as opposed to a picturesque or interesting part of town.” Therein lays part of the problem, our judgements about everyday buildings. I think it is even more true of architects… We see things quickly and in my part of the world, so much is downright ugly that I tend to want to dismiss it. But I am looking again. Graffiti, old business signs, the curve of war warehouses, the juxtaposition of mundane with a glimpse of the woods or river behind.
    During this lockdown I’ve enjoyed Suhita’s sketches the most… Sketching trashcans, her kids, the cat, a pear, and turning them into an interesting compositions!
    About story… I work full time. I don’t have a moment to think about where I want to sketch and so sketch waiting in offices, looking out my window (the bright orange trucks constantly change position) and I’ve learned things about my story telling after the fact….

    • Liz Steel says:

      Yes totally Kate! And yep! Suhita’s work is always so inspiring, but especially so at the moment!

  • Hashi Clark says:

    As Corita Kent said, Ordinary + Extra Attention = Extraordinary.

  • Maria says:

    Thanks for sharing your new daily routine. Making time to sketch on location has been my challenge, but making it part of a routine would make it easier for me. I also like the idea of finding a safe place to sketch. You’re blogs are inspiring. Thanks so much!

    • Tim Hunt says:

      Thanks for this Liz. Poingant today as I went out with the intention to sketch and just could’t settle on the right spot. While I was off work, i was able to keep up with a daily sketching regimen, but now that things have become more routine again, it’s been difficult. Today being Saturday, i think I was feeling a lot of pressure to sit in the perfect spot and make the perfect sketch, forgetting that “details” and “thumbnails” and 5 minute sketches can absolutely be as satisfying. And yes, finding a spot in the shade that is comfortable can be key. Thanks for your timely insights?

      • Liz Steel says:

        Thanks Tim – yes it can be hard to settle on a spot. for my local sketching I force myself to sit in the same spot!!!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Maria! The routine is so strong now that I’m going out even when its cold, windy and rainy!

  • Emily DeArdo says:

    LOVE that quote!
    I’ve been having this problem too. I don’t really want to sketch my house or the view from my windows over and over again, and since I’m immunocompromised, going out isn’t really happening, although I do have doctor appts. and I have been sketching there! LOL. But they’re not really “nice” sketches.
    I’m actually going through SK watercolour again so I can improve my skills!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Emily – it’s important to sketch those boring scenes too. They are a very special memory. All the best- stay safe!!!

  • Angela woods says:

    I’ve also been more reluctant to sit down somewhere in my neighborhood to sketch! It is unusual and draws a different sort of attention than the kind of attention I’m used to when sitting in a high volume tourist location. Thanks for sharing- I hadn’t really realized it until you mentioned it! I now also realize the only way to do so properly social distanced from the sidewalk walkers is to be 6’ into someone’s yard which I feel uncomfortable doing without the owners permission. I’ve found I take walks and snap photos of little things in my neighborhood- a bird or mushroom or tree whatever, and sketch from the photo as soon as I get home. Has a nice immediacy and lets me sketch stuff there isn’t adequate social distancing space to sketch in place.

    • Liz Steel says:

      HI Angela – I actually like sitting on the kerb… and sometimes between cars is good. No one sees you there. I got that tip from Lapin way back in 2010!
      Nice that you have something which is working for you. keep it up!

  • Fiona Campbell says:

    What a great quote from Lise – “to join my mind and my heart together”.
    I live in a beautiful place on the west coast of Scotland, but as you know only too well Liz, there are times when the weather closes in and those beautiful mountains and sea views vanish in grey mist. We’ve just had a fortnight of it ?. How to keep sketching ?
    People who go on pilgrimages always come back feeling inspired by their many varied experiences, maybe chastened by advice from others, or thrilled to learn new things. The main reason they feel that way isn’t that they had particularly amazing experiences, it’s because they invest in the trip – not with money, but with planning, reading up on places, praying and anticipating good experiences. They expect good things, and they focus their effort on challenges.
    I think we often drift out to sketch locally feeling guilty (other work, the children, the shopping) but trying to keep the habit. We haven’t put much effort into why we’re going, what story we might explore, or new technique we might practise, but we’re disappointed when we don’t produce a great sketch !
    Back to Lise and the joining of heart & mind – go expecting great things to happen !

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Fiona! yes! weather is a big factor as well. And yes, it’s so different when travelling and expecting to go nice places…. vs the guilt from taking time to sketch in a busy day.

  • Lee Morgan-Kellow says:

    Hi Liz, i enjoyed reading your comments- you have an easy and relatable way of reflecting on these issues. i was recently in your area for an appointment and had the opportunity to see the locations you speak of and where you sketch. The facade above the shops is lovely- i’ll have to walk across the road and look up next time! I didn’t sketch on my visit- shame about that- next time i’ll at least do some thumbnails which can be quite satisfying- maybe developed as a value sketch.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Lee – wouldn’t that have been amazing if you would have bumped into me sketching! And yes thumbnails are a good option when we don’t have time!

  • Tina Koyama says:

    The only location sketching I’ve done since mid-March is on my daily neighborhood walks of about a square mile, and I do sketch almost every day (even when it rains). As you might imagine, everything is overly familiar, and nothing is particularly interesting. So the challenge is in trying to make interesting compositions of the same old stuff. And I enjoy it! I do have to take greater care to stay out of the way of other pedestrians, but it’s a quiet neighborhood where passers-by are infrequent. Also, I never care who might see me sketching — either in my neighborhood or in another country! “Oh, there’s that eccentric woman sketching again.” 😉

  • Bonnie-Britt says:

    Wow, you put in words exactly what I struggle with : dedicated sketching outings are no problem, but daily sketching is really complicated for me too. Your article is very helpful , as usual !! Thanks again for all the inspiration you share so generously !

  • Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts and struggles with us!! I totally get the reluctance to sketch locally. I suffer from that too! And, yes, absolutely, it’s hard to sketch again after the lockdown. We’ve started sketching outside again as a chapter in the last few weeks, and I felt so rusty initially, despite the fact that I never stopped sketching and doodling. It’s just that when you have so many choices again, it’s hard to decide. It’s like information overload, and I want to sketch it all!! Plus all the health and safety considerations. I find that wearing a mask while sketching helps me – if someone approaches to have a look at what I’m doing, they tend to be more considerate, and ask first if it’s ok to come closer. It’s been a strange few months, but we will adapt!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Marie-Helene – great to hear that you and group are out sketching again. I’ve felt rusty too – for me it was more the logistics of handling my gear. funny isn’t it? All the best… I’ll miss seeing you this year!

  • AJ Skamser says:

    “Everything is interesting. Take a closer look.”
    from How to be an Explorer of the World
    (This charming little book is like a reminder to sit up straight. We know this but forget it.)

  • Ted B. says:

    I’ve always taken comfort in the quote from John Singer Sargent, “I find a comfortable place to sit …then I look up. Too many obsess over the perfect location, but there’s alway something to sketch or paint.

  • Liz Steel says:

    Wow! thank you all for taking the time to leave a comment. I’ll reply to each of you soon!

  • Stephanie Fassnacht says:

    Thanks so much for this article, Liz. Since lockdown, my sketching has come to a virtual standstill. Simple, everyday tasks like buying groceries, buying & making protective equipment, & having children move back into my small apartment have seemed to take all of my time & energy. I do miss sketching but during the past months have had a really hard time getting calm enough to give it my attention. Things are beginning to settle so I hope to be sketching again soon. It’s nice to know that others are having similar issues. Also, I appreciate your comments on feeling more conspicuous sketching in one’s own immediate neighborhood. I’ve found that to be the case as well.

    All of your blogs have been super helpful, so many thanks for making the time to create them.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Stephanie – glad you enjoyed the article and I know it’s been tough for a lot of people. I hope things settle for you (most importantly!) so that oyu can start sketching again! 🙂

  • Audrey Fouquette says:

    Very inspiring! Thank you!

  • Marie Fennell says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your virtual trip, Liz. You’re always so inspiring! I love seeing your lively sketches but also your comments that capture your joy of experiences with people and place. I actually hear you talking! I have so much fun sketching and learning watercolor, but I wish I could get more comfortable staying outside in a less controlled environment. I’m lucky to finish a value study and snap a photo. Maybe I need to create more of a weekly routine, like exercise! Thanks for the Hawthorne quote too – I love finding beauty in the mundane.

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Marie – I hope you are going ok. It takes repeated practice to feel comfortable outside and a regular routine is recommended… 3 times a week would be best 🙂

  • Marie Fennell says:

    Yes, I’ll try getting out 3 times a week now that I’m back on your station albeit 2 weeks behind. We’re just getting over Covid in fact – all 3 of my “super spreading” young adults have fortunately healed and have just been released from isolation. Somehow my husband and I dodged it. It will be nice to be free and sketching again!

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