New Zealand Trip: 7 reflections from our sketching adventure

January 18, 2017 | 16 Comments

I arrived home yesterday afternoon and to continue one of my traditions, I want to record the big thoughts in my head at the end of a big sketching trip.

1. What a great location New Zealand is for a sketching trip

My first trip to NZ was over 20 years ago and although I did a few sketches in my travel journal back then, I waskeen to return for a dedicated sketching trip. Part of the purpose of this trip was to prove how close and how easy it is to ‘hop across the pond’, and to ‘case the joint’ for future trips. I was particularly taken with Christchurch as an amazing location for a quick sketching getaway, but there are so many beautiful places to visit and I really would like to explore the north island more.

2. Mixing it up

The techniques which I use for squeezing a quick sketch into my every day life are completely transferrable to my travel sketching. Even though my main purpose for travelling is to sketch, there are still times during each day when there isn’t really enough time for a proper sketch. This is especially the case when moving from one place to the next.

My number one strategy for making the most of these half chances is to have a number of different techniques suited for fast sketching and to be constantly mixing it up. I often talk about having a fast tool, but the more quick techniques you have the better, as some media suit some subject matter better than others. The result is a great variety of styles in my sketchbook, and I really like this look.

This trip my fast tools/techniques included the following:

  • using water-soluble Faber Castell Aquarelle Graphite pencil on its own or over a few initial watercolour washes
  • drawing with my Sailor Fude pens for expressive lines and also using the one containing De Atramentis Document Fog Grey ink in conjunction with some water to create water-soluble effects
  • creating line drawings with my Lamy pen either using a simple continuous line or adding tone with a little cross-hatching
  • using a few watercolour pencils to get colour, line and texture on the page quickly.

3. Learning more about landscapes

I don’t sketch many landscape scenes, so it is always fun when I get a chance to improve my approach to doing them. I find landscapes are much more open to interpretation than urban scenes as the light moves faster (especially on distant hills) and you have more choice adjusting the value/tone of the various shapes (hills, trees, water etc). In fact, I feel as if is it more critical to have a value plan and the big shapes worked out before you start. (Note: I never actually did a thumbnail sketch first, but I was trying to work it out mentally before I started sketching.)

It is really easy to create very patchy landscapes if you focus on one part after the other without having a clear idea of the big focus. You also have to be really careful to control the amount of detail or texture in a sketch. I want to share more about this in a separate article.

4. More than one sketch to tell the story

On a number of occasions, I wanted to describe a place rather than do a single scene and to achieve that I did a number of different sketches to create a more accurate record. Two examples are the street in Clyde and the harbour in Akaroa (refer to image for point 1). Both times I mixed up my media as well!

5. Limitations

Unless you have a lot of time in the one place and a low expectation of what you can achieve,  you will always find it hard to sketch as much as you would like when you are travelling. This is especially the case if you need 30-60 minutes for each sketch.

I have a pretty good feel for how much sketching I normally do when I am travel sketching. I often complete an entire A4 moleskine watercolour sketchbook in a week, especially when I am based in the one location. However on this trip, as we were moving around a lot, the weather at times was too cold, wet and windy, and we were both sick quite a bit, my output was a lot less. I am totally ok with that, but it did mean that there are a few gaps in my sketchbook.

I often travel solo which means I can sketch whenever I want (and push myself a lot), and I am totally in control of balancing the demands of being a tourist (seeing things) with the desires of being an artist (see less but sketch more) and normally the artist wins. But obviously, when you travel with someone else, things are different! It’s a lot more social which is nice and sometimes you do more sketching, sometimes you do less. But even when travelling with a fellow sketcher you have to be pro-active in seeking out times to sketch because it is easy at times just to go with the flow and not sketch at all. These two sketches we done in less than 5 minutes during a busy morning being shown around Christchurch

So in summary, there are always limitations when you travel. It’s all part of the fun, and the big challenge is to make the most of the opportunities that you do have.

6. Leaving work incomplete

As the result of some of the aspects mentioned above (weather and sickness), I have a number of incomplete sketches in my books. This sketch of Port Chalmers was done on the day I was sick and it was just too windy and cold for me to do anything more than a few lines and a like colour.

I decided early on that I was going to take it easier this trip including minimising the amount of evening homework finishing off my pages. So the number one strategy to achieve this, was to be content with incomplete sketches – what I managed at the time had to be good enough. I  really love the resulting incompleteness in some of my sketch as it tells more of a story about what happened at the time.

I am very happy to report that I have no back-home homework to do, and did little evening homework during the trip. Note: I needed to allow an hour or two each evening for work (keeping up with emails and SketchingNow stuff) so I added notes etc when I could during the day.

7. Rich art conversations

It was really wonderful to spend the full time travelling with my great sketching friend Chris Haldane. We talk about art concepts all the time (often on the phone), but rarely actually sketch together. So this trip gave us the chance to work alongside each other and also talk about art more! When we were driving we would often ask “How would you paint that?” or “What paints would you use for that?” or “Is that French?” Of course that last question was shorthand for asking whether we would use Ultramarine for the hue of distant hills!

Chris works in a very different way to me – her sketchbook is full of gorgeous finished watercolour that often take more than an hour to complete. I really love travelling with sketchers who take a lot longer than me as it slows me down or gives me more time in one place to do multiple sketches. While we didn’t always sketch sitting side by side, it was really fun to compare our different interpretations of the same scenes. Sometimes I did the big picture while Chris zoomed in, other times it was the reverse. Over the course of the two weeks, I really got a good sense of what type of scene would suit her… and while I knew it before, I appreciate even more now how much she is obsessed with rusty buildings and also with cranes! She likes sketching foliage (trees, gardens etc) too. It was wonderful at times to be able to watch her work and see her merging of watercolour washes.

And at the end of our sketching session we would discuss them, what worked, what we struggled with and what we would do differently next time. Chris often finishes off her work in the evening while, as mentioned above, I rarely touch my sketches afterwards. So this meant that I was free to discuss with her the sketches she was working on. Often a little value variation or adjustment of details/texture could pull a piece together. There is much more I could say about this topic, but this article is already long enough!

Ah! these conversations with Chris throughout the whole trip was definitely the highlight for me. It was a really privilege and honour to be travelling and working alongside her for the last 2.5 weeks. And needless to say it was a lot of fun too! Thanks Chris for an incredible holiday.

Further reading:

  • If you missed it, the other articles from our NZ trip are found here
  • Other trip reflections can be found here
  • My book 5 Minute Sketching: Architecture contains a chapter dedicated to various fast tools – refer to this article for more.

Do you relate to any of these thoughts? Do you have similar experiences when you travel? I would really love to hear your comments!


  • I’m so glad you had a great trip. I feel very lucky to be living in NZ for a year and I’m getting through a lot of cobalt turquoise light with the amazing sea colour! So lovely to see your sketches, especially the ones of buildings I’ve also recently been drawing in Devonport!

    • Liz Steel says:

      How wonderful Tabitha – and yes, its great to be able to use CTL all the time. The water colour in NZ is just the best

  • Chris Haldane says:

    It’s great to read this summary of our time together! And thank you for your inspiration throughout the holiday too… I’m definitely impressed with how much you got done despite our limitations. I need to draw more quickly! Thanks for such fun and motivation and I loved our discussions too.. Aren’t we lucky!??!

  • Fenne says:

    beautiful sketches, very inspiring. When traveling I’ m mostly the only one sketching, Sounds fun to have some others to share it with.

  • Fiona Campbell says:

    Glad you had a great holiday in spite of being sick – thanks for sharing great sketches. I’ve always created a painting which ‘filled the page’ but really like the way you compose your sketches and crop ‘the view’. The Akaroa harbour group in different techniques really work together to convey a sense of place. Is the lighthouse done using the Aquarelle Graphite or are the shadows watercolour washes ?

    • Liz Steel says:

      thanks Fiona. I love other people’s books which have a sketch per page, but seem to like the more varied pages in my own work. Hope you have fun trying it!

  • FIONA HAYES says:

    What a fabulous wrap-up here of your NZ trip, Liz. So much info for us to take on board regarding your thoughts about quick sketching etc while travelling. I have checked out Chris’s beautiful sketches too, as I follow her on Instagram as well. It has given me much “food for thought”, as I am having 11 days in the north island of New Zealand in early May (with my non-sketching husband). We will be based in Auckland for much of that time but doing daily trips all around the north island. I will be keen to chat more to you about NZ sketching, when I attend your February workshop in Sydney. Looking forward so much to that, Liz!

  • Linda Sprouse says:

    Another wonderful blog filled with your beautiful artworks, great tips and sharing information about yout trip. Even though you were a little under the weather, it sounds like you had a great trip
    Thanks for sharing.????

  • linda zaner says:

    still working through your foundations course, love it, makes my day. BUT would LOVE to know where you got your stamp for the day and date, the huge size is wonderful, i would so buy that set.

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