Foundations Friday 2017: Lesson 11 - Working from a Focus

March 31, 2017 | 5 Comments

Today I will share the last concept from my Foundations online course – working spontaneously out from a focus. In many ways this is a summary of the way I most frequently work and a description of what sketching means for me. Note: what I will be describing is very personal and certainly not the only way to sketch.

The thing I love so much about sketching is that it’s unplanned and spontaneous. Every time I start a sketch I embark on an incredible experience of discovery. It’s all about starting with the most important aspect of my subject (the focus) and working outwards instinctively.

It is a high risk way of working, and I don’t nail it every time, but I do love the process so much! It makes my sketchbook full of immediate and personal responses. And before I go any further I must stress that it takes times and a very strong foundation of fundamental sketching skills before you can do this. It’s a little like improvisation when playing a musical instrument – you can’t really do it until you have done lots of grind work with scales and theory etc.

I haven’t had a chance to set aside the time to do a new sketch this week, but what I thought I would share is this  20 minute sketch of a local shop in my area that I did sitting next to Jane Blundell last week (and chatting a bit at the same time too!) I knew I didn’t have a lot of time but I just started and had fun mixing up line and colour and seeing how far I would get before my alarm went off. I started with the wierd asymmetrical roof of the shop on the left and the juxtapostion of it with the more decorative shop on the right.
It’s not a ‘proper’ composed sketch – it’s really just a little study that is open ended and incomplete. But it is part of a nice colourful spread in my sketchbook.

And yes, I have received the new Daniel Smith paints to test out and will share more once I have a chance to play with them more. The thankyou card in the above image is hinged with tape and this is what is under it.

Most of my favourite sketches are ones where I was in the flow and working in this way. Here are a few from my recent trip to New Zealand that are good examples. You can read more about them in this article.

So have you tried working this way? Does it work for you or are you much happier if you do a thumbnail first? (See last week’s article for more about thumbnails.)

This is part of a series Foundations Friday where I am revisiting the lessons of my SketchingNow Foundations online class, and exploring the concepts in a new way. To find out more about the course click here.


  • I do better when I do a thumbnail, but I’m often too lazy and want to jump right in. Then there are the times I do a great thumbnail, but forget to actually follow the value pattern I set up there. Erg.

  • Evie Conroy says:

    I am finding that going with the flow of paint is liberating me from too many lines. Prior to Foundations it would not have worked plus I would have not been ready to take “the risk” :-/ My favorite sketches are now those I have started with paint shapes then added lines. I do need to work on the paint itself, though – amount of water as well as colors. I love your Oamura Warehouse and Akaroa Harbour (boathouse) sketches. Simplicity and saying more with fewer lines is one of my goals when I begin Edges.

  • Cathy Inzer says:

    I love the idea of starting with a focus and going instinctively from there! Too many “rules” or “shoulds” turns a creative outlet into work for me. I’m looking forward to learning more!

  • Rachael Ayres says:

    You wrote: And before I go any further I must stress that it takes times and a very strong foundation of fundamental sketching skills before you can do this.
    Does your foundations course address this? The clue could be in the name, but maybe – just maybe – it is not really for absolute beginners.Drawing and watercolours are two of my main learning focii for 2019 (along with Spanish and history and a lifetime reading plan) – all of which need to be fit in with regular walking and crocheting blankets and knitting socks and growing vegetables and homeschooling a bunch of kids. Should I spend the year “just drawing” and then take the course after some experience, or will the course be of benefit right at the beginning of my journey?

    • Liz Steel says:

      HI Rachael, Yes Foundations is for a beginner- especially someone who wants to become an urban sketcher. It will be much easier to see progress if you know the basics right at the bigger. Please note: the Foundations Friday series is more advanced applications.. so what I do now is based on the core concepts but in the course I explain the basics.

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