Rookwood Cemetery visit and some early work

December 17, 2021 | 5 Comments

Last Saturday I wanted to go out sketching!

I had the goal of sketching a modern building with some good volumes so that I could do the Mapping Light and Dark exercise (Lesson 4 of my Buildings course). I was thinking of heading to the inner-city suburb of Alexandria to explore a few award-winning buildings, but it was an overcast morning and I didn’t feel like a big day sketching if there wasn’t going to be any sun.

Instead, after lunch, I suddenly had the idea of going to a cemetery where I knew that there would be some good volumes to sketch even if there wasn’t strong light (direct sunlight). I thought about Rookwood Cemetery (the largest in Sydney) and then wondered if Jimmy B (James Barnet) was buried there. Yes, he was… and also had a street (Barnet Ave) named after him. Note: He designed the Mortuary Station at Central and also one at Rookwood which is no longer exists.

I then remembered a lovely visit to Rookwood with Esther Semmens in 2007 (just after starting to keep a sketchbook) and that the Old Presbyterian section was a great spot for sketching.

So Rookwood became my destination for the afternoon!

The first stop was JimmyB’s grave which was easy to find but I really wanted to do my Buildings sketches… so I didn’t stop.

I then sat down to sketch this building which had some good volumes. It was overcast when I started, so I decided that the right side would be the ‘light side’ and then began to paint some shapes on the ‘dark side’. Midway through the sketch, (which only took me about 10 minutes), the sun came out and I could hardly see what I was sketching.

Here is the finished sketch. Ah! it is also nice to be sketching out on location even when the lighting dramatically changes and ants start crawling all over me!

Next, I sketched some of the gravestones/monuments in the Old Presbyterian section. I remembered that in 2007 the first two graves I visited had significance to me (connected to my church) and it was exactly the same this time. The first I noticed was this grouping of the McIntyre family – one of which was a special minister of my church in the mid-1800s.

The third sketch I did was of these three spires.

At the time I wasn’t sure how to finish this sketch/ spread…


but when I got home I decided to extend the plinths down to a horizontal edge so that related better to the text block I wanted to add.

These sketches were all shape-based – in fact for the graves I was only painting the shadow shapes (what I refer to as the dark side). I really enjoy sketching this way and love varying the coolness/ warmth of my washes to reflect the difference between shade and cast shadow.  This is a more advanced application of ‘Abstracting Shapes’ which I explain inside my Foundations course. The ability to see shapes clearly, and in particular shadow shapes is such an important sketching skill!

I wandered around the cemetery a little more trying to find the grouping that Esther and I sketched in 2007… but couldn’t, as it was in the Methodist area. However, there were plenty of views inside the Presbyterian section that I would love to sketch… and some of these made me think of the church spires of Edinburgh.

When I got home, I looked up my earlier sketches done in Sketchbook No. 3. BTW these recent sketches were done in Everyday sketchbook No. 153, so it’s fun to think about how my work has changed over the course of 150 sketchbooks (oh! plus the 100+ travel sketchbooks!)

As I love revisiting my work, I thought you might like to see my sketches from the June 2007 visit to Rookwood. 🙂


I often talk about the classic beginner tendency to draw things from an aerial perspective because beginners are using their object brain and don’t know how to draw the edges as they see them. ( Refer to my recent Foundations Live Demo for more about that).

However, thebove sketch isn’t an example of this as it was intentionally drawn as an aerial view. I wanted to record the layout of the three gravesites and so I made a deliberate decision to do an isometric drawing. This is a type of drawing which I did a lot of when I worked full-time as an architect. I certainly wouldn’t draw this type of view now (I would draw what I see) but this sketch will help me locate this grouping on the next visit to Rookwood.

On that occaasion, I also did a second sketch of the detail of one of the graves. Oh ah! look at all that fine linework and cross-hatching. Such a contrast with last Saturday’s shape-based sketches hey?

After we visited Rookwood back in 2007, Esther (Eza) and I went to a cafe in Burwood and I did this sketch of our two orders. This is my first cafe sketching session and I remember feeling very anxious and was worried about a staff member noticing us sketching. The waiter did see my sketch and we then had a lovely chat with him. I also remember thinking to myself that there was no need to be afraid of sketching in public 🙂

I could write more about these two outings to Rookwood, but one thing is certain… it’s a great sketching location and I definitely want to return soon!

Finally, if you are interested in my Foundations course… just a little reminder that I’m offering a Group Run-through in the new year. It will be a chance to work through the course with an inspiring group of sketches from around the world. It starts on 5th January and will go for three months. Each week I will be hosting a bonus livestream to recap on the concepts from the current lesson, review selected work from the classroom, answer questions and do a new demo. I’m so excited to be going through Foundations again in this interactive way and I know it will be a great way to kickstart my sketching for 2022. Find out more here.



  • Jane Varley says:

    Hi Liz, great to see these pages comparing your recent work with sketches from 2007. Such an interesting development! Useful for me too, to look more closely at another example of the way you tackle shadow shapes. It’s finally sinking in I think. After the Buildings run through, it’s now time to consolidate this and all that you covered in the course. Thank you so much, it was a wonderful course. Best wishes, Jane

  • Jamie C says:

    The direct watercolor sketches are so vivacious!

    I love the side by side view of the two trips, years apart from each other. Not just for the evolution of your style, but also what was important in the moment each time. Which story you chose to sketch and focus on each trip. I love that!

    Those aerial isometric drawings mystify me! Is there a reference or book that you know of to learn how to do that? I adore maps, and that skill would be handy for documenting trips!

  • Mercedes Walton says:

    Hi Liz, love your posts, they are so inspiring. I am sure you noted that you visited your favourite Australian architect on the anniversary of his death – 16 December? Was that planned? ??

  • Linda Watson says:

    I’m looking forward to the walk through in Jan. I’ve done the first parts on my own, but know I will learn so much in person. These stories about how you sketch, and your evolution really help. Makes me see my own journey in a much better perspective. Thank you!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Linda – will be great to have you in the group… and yes, working through a course with a Group Run-through is the best way to do it 🙂

Leave a Reply