Learning from the ups and down of a big project

May 8, 2017 | 25 Comments


There is a great saying that states that we shouldn’t compare our backstage to other people’s front stage. It sounds so obvious and yet we do it all the time, as all we can see of others is their front stage while we live surrounded by our messy backstage.

This blog is my front stage where I share my artwork and the art-based ideas behind it – like this cup of tea sketch. It’s an object of beauty and I normally share ideas about colour and line etc but not the real-life thoughts that also occur while I sketch. Although you don’t get to see my backstage, I sometimes hint at it in the notes written on the side.

Today I want to share a bit about my recent rough patch and in particular some positive takeaways from my experiences. Just imagine us sitting down having a cup of tea together – this is what I would tell you!

Sketching my life and sharing the experience

The ‘tagline’ for this blog is “sketching my life and sharing the experience” and that is what I aim to do. I share my adventures and thoughts here on the blog in the hope of inspiring others to pursue their creative journey. And then over at SketchingNow I share my techniques in a way designed to help people build their skills and develop their own style.

But in the recent year or so, the ‘sharing’ part of this mission statement has well and truly taken over the ‘sketching’. I am still sketching but no way as much as I would like to. Aside: I know I am not alone in my wish to have more time to sketch!

The commitment of online courses

I love the fact that I am able to share my ideas through online courses, but it is a massive commitment. Not only the effort needed to put together the content of the course itself but also the decisions regarding finding way to host them (using an establish platform or host it yourself) and then the on-going time commitment to manage the whole thing. In my endeavors to do this, I have gone down the route of ‘building my own platform’ to host my courses.

I had no idea what would be involved in that when I started, or how much replying to support emails would become a constant part of my life. And for the last 18 months I have wanted to build my own simplified version of Flickr so that discussions and image sharing could happen on my site.

An ambitious project

I have seen first hand the struggles that bigger companies have had with their platforms, so knew that it was a massive undertaking for me and the small local design agency who is working with me. But I wanted to do it as I am committed to providing the best possible learning experience for those who enroll in a SketchingNow course. I want SketchingNow to be a place that people can return to frequently so they can be reminded of important concepts and be inspired by others working through the same issues.

I knew it would be a challenging project and I put everything I could into the planning stage in order to minimise the issues and pain when it went live. We did extensive testing and I created a detailed programme to co-ordinate all the updates that I needed to do. But well, when it comes to ‘tech stuff’ the unexpected can always happen, and we have had more than our fair share of issues on the live site.

I have found it hard to cope with since we did so much work beforehand and yet there were still problems! But hardest of all is not my workload and frustrations, but having glitches that effect the user’s experience. I know that in the scheme of big important things in this world, my little online courses are not that big a deal. But I take the transaction I have with every customer very seriously, and this project has taken over my life in the past two months. So it’s definitely been the biggest thing in my head lately.


I truly believe that everything in life happens for a purpose, and to go even further, as a Christian I believe that God is in charge. Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

So I have had a lot of comfort through the ups and downs of the last little period, but I have also learnt a lot:

  • how difficult it is to roll out major upgrades to a live site with active members!
  • as much as I try to control everything, I can’t! Things will go wrong, but it’s important to minimse the frustration in order to preserve energy to get back to it as soon as possible, and do what you can to fix it.
  • how important is for me when working on a big ‘grind’ project like this, to carve out time to keep my creative juices pumping. The last two months have been relentless – with ‘grind’ work and project management – and even though I work harder when I’m putting my courses together, I am much more energised then because I am creating!
  • how mistakes and challenging situations are always part of going to the next level. The important thing is to learn from every mistake and keep improving.
  • how generous people are – I have been greatly encouraged by the supportive comments from people who have emailed me in the past few weeks – thankyou!

I could go on and on, but I think the big realisation last week when I was feeling discouraged by how big the process of fixing everything was that it has been an incredible learning experience. I have been thankful that I could use all my ‘project architect’ skills for this endeavour, but it has been great to start to develop a whole new skill set as well.

But just to bring this back to sketching and something that might relate to you. Two final thoughts:

  1. How amazing it is when the tech stuff gets too hard, to pick up a pen, pencil or brush and do a little sketching in a sketchbook! When I make a mark on the page with my pen, it stays there and on the other hand, when I lose control with watercolour and let it do its own thing, it often rewards me with something truly special and unique. Tech issues are the opposite – what you think works suddenly starts misbehaving, and when things are out of control they get more so!
  2. If you are just starting your sketching journey and every time you put pen to paper you feel as if it is all going wrong, just go slowly, take every line on its own merit, do your best and be committed to learning. Nothing new and exciting comes without the grind.

So just to wrap-up what has become a long article…

I  am super excited about what is being built over at SketchingNow. There have been lots of ups and downs in this massive project and fixing glitches and making refinements will be an on-going process, but I know it will be worth it in the long run.

And finally, I just want to express my deep gratitude to everyone who has helped me and have been so patient and supportive in the last few weeks.


  • Carla Giller says:

    Liz –
    Thanks for sharing your struggles with the platform. But as a relatively new sketching student I can say don’t fret, I still can work through the lessons just fine. We’ll wait patiently for the kinks to get worked out.

  • Dottie Aiken says:

    I know what it’s like and feel your pain. I thought I could go it alone, develop my website and manage everything. Not so! I need help but didn’t want to spend the $$$$ when unsure about the return. I’m still working on it but considering a change. You, on the other hand did something about it. I appreciate that and your smile and attitude through all of this. Keep on keeping on. Nothing is ever perfect; we just have to keep pushing though. You have my support!!

  • Sharon Roy says:

    I am just a beginner at sketching and watercolor, having started just over a year ago. Your blogs have been a source of great inspiration to me, so don’t worry about bumps in the road. I certainly see my share in my sketchbook. I did not manage to get enrolled in your workshop at the USk Symposium in Chicago (although I logged on as quickly as possible—your session was completely booked when I got “in”), but I hope to meet you there and thank you personally for the many lessons you taught me.

  • Sue Hodgetts says:

    I have to say how refreshing it is to read something like this, that just explains everything that’s going on in a really human way. As I only ‘discovered’ Sketching Now (as a result of stumbling across the Facebook page) in the last few weeks, when I enrolled on the Edges course a week or so back and found it to have a lot of technical issues, I was initially very worried that I’d been scammed! It was only because you emailed me back personally a couple of times that I started to have faith in this being genuinely an unprecedented issue (that you were in the process of resolving). It took ages yesterday for the site to come up online, but I persevered and eventually when it came back, I worked through the first part of lesson 1 and got completely immersed in the videos and instructions. It was well worth waiting for. Now, reading your post today, I really feel for you – what a massive undertaking! You’re doing an amazing job, hopefully the teething trouble will get ironed out soon and not give you too much long term grief so that you can still enjoy doing the things you love best. Writing this post to explain things was a really worthwhile task, thank you for being honest and up front.

    • Liz Steel says:

      hi Sue, I’m so sorry that this was your first experience of SketchingNow. Your experience is exactly why the last few weeks have been super tough for me. I couldn’t have prevented the tech issues, and I am learning a lot about how to manage it! Thanks for being so understanding and hope you continue to enjoy the course…and we have a fully functioning site really soon!

  • Julie-Anne Rogers says:

    I know exactly your dramas Liz, and you aren’t alone. I work for a company that develops highly secure websites with databases, etc, for banks and the like. You can never be 100% sure that anything IT-related will work no matter how hard you test it. Even the highly educated pro’s can’t pick them all. Just drink that cuppa (after sketching it), take a big breath, and soldier on in the knowledge that we all feel for you and appreciate that you give us the opportunity to learn from you.

  • Margaret Peters says:

    As someone who counts her 15 year old grandson as her personal IT dept., when last week-end’s glitch happened, I said to myself….”oops, I broke it!”…it took me a while to email you, Liz, as I was going through the probable causes for my not being able to access “My Courses” including our time differences, but you got right back to me…in spite of all you must have had to do!…

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Margaret. I might not be able to control the site problems but I can certainly do everything in my power to respond to the people that email me to help!

  • Jessica Vivien says:

    Hi Liz, Thanks for all you do. I wanted to share a couple of thoughts.
    First, I was lucky enough to sit next to a large-ship-recommissioner from Greece for a 4hr Perth-Melbourne flight. This was a man at the top of his game in a very high-level business world. He told me that the word “hero” means, literally, one who struggles. A hero is not just an ultra powerful person who wins at everything. It is a little person fighting through the big obstacles. Never forget that YOU are most heroic when you are in the middle of a struggle like this.
    The other is the realisation that the biggest struggle is often not to let the stress inside, and to help others do the same, so it becomes a communal experience of riding a wave together, when it becomes something that uplifts and transforms us, however frustrating and hard it is. I saw this at my local service station when the poor guy’s Credit Card reader stopped working, and people quiietly took out cash from the ATM in the corner and helped him through with a smile instead of yelling about the wait.
    Your classes are brilliant, and your thoughtful and personal interaction, and determination to do an excellent job for your students even when trying to make difficult changes, is a shining example of love and care in a world where such things are often lacking.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Oh Jessica – thank you so much for your supportive words. Means so much to me. sending you a virtual thankyou hug!

  • Jenny Werth says:

    Thank you for sharing all of this, being honest and vulnerable is an open door inviting people in to be taught it seems like it would be scary, but so powerful! You are an inspiration on so many levels. Its always amazes me to watch how God chooses to use people and their talents. Thank you again for sharing and I plan to join a course soon!

  • Joanne McCabe says:

    Love the idea of a self-contained platform for your courses, Liz, since I found the external “Flikr contraption” to be cranky at best, and exclusionary at worst. While I could read the instructional material you posted, I often had difficulties accessing comments and student postings, and that (at least during “Edges, Live”) was where I learned a lot. Hopefully it’s all under one umbrella now, and more fluid to access.

    A year ago (after Sketchbook Skool, Foundations and Edges), I started studying open studio with a local artist. It’s great having someone present each week to say “No, try it THIS way,” but my take-aways from Liz’s courses have been firmly “taken.”

    Today, I was starting with a new medium (acrylic), and wrote a list of what I wanted to experiment with. Essentially, it was Foundations Lesson 1 (“play with the new stuff”), but along with “make a color wheel” and “compare matte media vs water” was one simple term: “Edges.” It encapsulated more than that, of course, but “Edges” was all I needed on the page to jog my memory because it meant “Liz’s Edges.”

    For me, Edges was the artistic game-changer. For sure, it required some consternation and contortionist thinking when I was working through it, but it elevated my thinking about “drawing stuff.” Best art course investment I ever made, IMHO, so kudos to Liz for her ongoing commitment to the online world.

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks so much Joanne!!! I am so glad that foundations and Edges have helped. I think there is a lot of content in Edges that I need to review often. 🙂

  • Liz,
    so sorry to hear that building your online platform for courses has been such a struggle. All software projects are! I should know, I worked all my life with computers. Try not to let it get to you. Easier said than done! Here are my few tips:
    If a software engineer tells you it “should” work, that means it doesn’t work, but they don’t want to upset you.
    If a software engineer tells you it will be ready next week, add two months, and you’ll be about right.
    If a software engineer tells you that the person doing the testing doesn’t have a powerful enough computer, tell them that most of your customers don’t have powerful enough computers. Open their computer and take a RAM chip out.
    Lie to software engineers about your deadline. Tell them you need it for June, and it will be ready for August, when you actually wanted it to be ready in the first place.
    And most of all, remember that software engineers are amongst the nicest people on earth. They were just blessed with the optimistic gene.
    It will be worth it in the end.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thank you Marie-Helene – you made me smile. I see my problem, I only had 6 weeks float – I needed 8! 🙂

  • Elizabeth Hepola Roth says:

    Sorry to read about your issues with your project. From your brief discription of the project, I have some ideas as to for you, regarding next iteration. In my experience, it should not have been that miserable. I’m a former Large Enterprise & Data Warehousing IT Technical Program/Project Manager (25 yrs IT, starting as a system tech, then developer, web master, Lg Enterprise Intranet (running applications for Auto Mfg). I have had numerous projects go as planned & launch on time (including critical infrastructure upgrade of an energy grid command center phone system) As well as utter disasters, earlier in career (Which you learn the most from & galvanizes you to bulletproof you work) Happy to discuss offline via email as I have designed learning systems & software downloads, albeit a while ago.

  • Natalie Hill says:

    Hang in there Liz…. technology issues are unfortunately just a part of today’s life….no system anywhere is ever 100% bug free..????.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Liz! Have you thought about crowdfunding to help fund some IT support? I’ve seen people get funding for all kinds of strange stuff, but your’s seems like an obvious pitch. I’m sure there is demand for your course, and with help you could run more in the future covering all sorts of topics. You could offer rewards from Liz Original post cards, prints and of course tokens for online lessons. Stuff which is a within your gifting to do and would help pay for IT to help free you up to sketch more!

    Ps. I am a student furniture maker who is learning to sketch and paint all over again and your work and energy is hugely helpful and inspiring. Thank you.

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