Foundations Friday 11: Working from a focus

May 20, 2016 | 6 Comments


Ah! this is the Foundations lesson that I have been waiting for as it represents the heart of the way I like to sketch – spontaneously without pre-planning.

However it is not haphazard! I have a number of strategies that I have developed over the years that allow me to work in way that leaves my options option so I can design as I go – and that generally involves starting with the most important aspect of my subject (my focus) and working outwards.

In Foundations Lesson 11, I share some of these strategies which include:

  • Thinking of a scene as object and context
  • Simplifying complexity to the one part that interests you and starting there
  • Working within time constraints (such waiting for someone) and working so that you can stop at any moment
  • Using the power of white – keeping your options open (leaving the sky till last)
  • Threading images together

After the great discussions relating to last weeks post on thumbnails, I realised that I rarely draw a frame first as I find it too limiting. An vitally important part of architect’s design sketching (my background) is being open to explore new ideas. So I realised that even when I do thumbnails, I draw my subject first and then draw a frame around it that suits what is already on the page.

Keeping the options open is the key for me!

I haven’t had a chance to do a new sketch this week, so I am simply re-visiting a few previous sketches. The cover is a sketch of the Melbourne skyline where I was clearly thinking of the scene in terms of object and context.

I think every USKer who visits Singapore sketches this view in Kampong Glam. I love the details of the shops lining the street leading up to the Sultan Mosque but I didn’t have the time to sketch them all. So I started with the dome and then only hinted at the surroundings.

I love working with open ended compositions so I can create interesting journal pages.

Or just unusual shaped ‘frames’ that are balanced with text added to the page later.

Even when I do a full page sketch like the ones I did when I was on Norfolk Island, I start sketching my focus first and make decisions on how much detail or paint I will add as I work.

So here I started with the buildings first and made the decision on how dramatic to paint the sky towards the end. Whilst I can’t be dogmatic, my memory is telling me that the sky got more dramatic during the time I was sitting there, meaning that I was able to respond to the changing conditions as I worked. So rather than a frozen moment in time, this sketch brings back a dynamic memory.

Of course this is certainly not the only way to work! It’s simply the way that gives me the most enjoyment – I am completely addicted to the risk-taking of this approach.

As I said last week, and reiterate constantly during the Foundations course, the most important thing is to find the ways of working that suits your style best. I share my approaches, not so people will copy me, but to give you a heap of ideas for you to try out as you continue on your own creative journey!

Have you tried working this way? What did you find hard about it?
Would really love to hear what your challenges were as it gives me ideas for further content to share.


  • melinda says:

    I struggle to know when to stop painting – I tend to paint everything I draw. I am currently browsing through Foundations before actually tackling the lessons from the beginning. I look forward to this lesson as your first image here (Melbourne skyline) gives me hope that I can get there!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Melinda. Knowing when to stop is something that I think every artist struggles with all the time. I stop as soon as I think the question (when my flow for the piece pauses..”what’s next? when do I stop?”
      I am always glad to hear that something gives one hope… its takes time but worth the effort. I hope you enjoy the course.

  • Corinne McNamara says:

    My tendency has been to draw everything. So, even if I start with a focus, I’ve drawn every detail out to the edges of a page. I have to really be conscious of what I’m doing. My goal is to be more direct and use fewer lines and looser watercolor. I like minimal set-up and leaving parts of a drawing incomplete or unpainted, but my tendency is to over-do. I had no idea these were skills that could be learned (with patience, practice, & persistence).

    • Liz Steel says:

      yes everything can be learned (to some extent!) It has been a deliberate attempt on my part to work out ways of simplification. I can’t cope with sitting in the one spot for more than 20 minutes so that is an additional motivation.

  • Carole Jurack says:

    Hi, Liz… Really enjoy your Friday blogs! I didn’t know it had a name “focus” but of course it does! That is what I like. When I look for something to sketch I am attracted to the specific feature which first attracts me and go from there. I like to draw what I like best first!

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Carole. These Friday posts are a bit of work but I have loved putting them together and have hoped that they help. Yes- draw what you like best first – always a good plan!

Leave a Reply