Seven reflections from my 11 weeks in Europe

August 29, 2018 | 29 Comments

It’s time for me to (finally) wrap up this year’s big trip to Europe and to share my reflections from the adventure. I love doing this after an overseas trip – you can read the other articles here.

It’s been four weeks since I returned home and it’s been a hectic time with teaching, getting SketchingNow Watercolour ready for re-opening and writing articles about my time in Portugal (these took so much time). I’m thankful that I wrote some notes in my Bujo during my flight home so that these thoughts actually reflect the thoughts I had right at the end of the trip.

Waring: this is a long article so you might want to grab a cuppa before you start.


1. Getting the balance right – work vs vacation

Most of you know that 5.5 years ago I left my full time job as an architect and that I’m now living as a full time urban sketcher, supporting myself mainly through teaching. This new business (especially the online course component) is non-stop, meaning that I never get to have a full break (well, apart from my weekly day of rest on Sundays).

Travelling has become part of what I do – it’s the time to teach, to meet other sketchers and it’s also the time when I produce the most amount of artwork. This sketching is essential both for my blogging and teaching, but also for my own development as an artist. Without the travel, I would really struggle to find time to sketch for myself. I can’t express in words how important it is for me to keep that up so my creative juices are always pumping. But the distractions of the business pull at me all the time, even when I travel.

In recent years I’ve been struggling to find the right balance between work and pleasure when I travel. This year’s mega trip was worrying me a little – how could I possibly keep up with all the emails, messages, comments and work coming in for a 2.5 month period?

Well, in summary, I managed to carve out dedicated work-time through out the trip and I also became super disciplined with my emails – managing zero inbox (or at the most 2 or 3 emails needing to be replied to) for the entire trip. I had one scheduled work week in West Weymess which was wonderful, but I also had more time in Stornoway than I expected. As my sister was working full-time (previous trips she was on vacation or maternity leave) I had most days free until 4pm. This really helped me keep on top of the projects I had to work on, and catch up on blogposts and all emails, and do a little forward planning.

It’s a bit bizarre to say that one of the best things about my trip was how much work I got done, but that is the truth! Being on top of the work meant that I could more enjoy the focused sketching time, and hanging out with family and friends (the only vacation time I really had.)

Another big factor in getting the balance right was a mindset shift. Instead of thinking of the trip as vacation I thought of the whole trip as remote working – because that is indeed what it is.

I must publicly give Chantal Vincent a huge huge thank you for all the work she did behind the scenes during my trip. She works for me on an ongoing basis, but everything she did made such a difference to my travel experience – totally taking care of all the support emails, keeping an eye on everything, organising and bringing over extra supplies for me in Porto and much more. So thanks Chantal!


2. Getting the balance right – teaching vs sketching

In recent years I have found that all the teaching I have done while overseas has had a negative impact on my sketching. I really really love teaching, but it does drain my energy levels and means that I often don’t feel like sketching.

As I mentioned in my Porto posts, this year at the symposium I decided just to focus on teaching and talking to people, having lunch with my workshop groups and just savouring all the converations. I suspended all expectations of sketching and as I arrived in Porto early, I decided to be content with what I achieved before the big event – even though there were a few significant views I didn’t get to sketch. And this approach worked, creating a very special symposium experience for me.

On the other hand, during the Palladian Odyssey tours (two back-to-back six day tours in Italy during May at the start of the trip) I decided to push myself to sketch more during the times when I wasn’t teaching. As it was my third and fourth time doing the same workshop I had a very good handle on what I needed to do with the teaching component (even though I was refining each time.) I was also with the same group of 15 people for a week, so although there was a lot of quality social time when I wanted to spend getting to know them during the meals and travel times, it was manageable. I also realised that doing some sketches during the meals was a good opportunity to have a short break from talking. And finally I skipped some of tours by our local historian on the second week so that I could do a solo sketch.

These small decisions to carve out some time for my own sketching added something extra to an already incredible experience. I had a record in my book rather than just my memories and a few photos. I was also very happy with the sketchbook layout compositions that I was able to achieve on both tours. (Hmm, maybe I should do a separate article about this – would you like that?)

So in summary I’m pleased with these two approaches – to push myself (a little) to sketch when doing a repeat long workshop with a small group vs abandoning sketching during the symposium craziness.


3. Getting the balance right – socialising vs solo time

The time I spend with people is always the best part of travel and this trip was no exception. There are no words to express how much I love spending time with my sister and her beautiful family on the Isle of Lewis. It’s hard for them being isolated from family on the Isle of Lewis, so I feel unbelievably grateful that at this stage of my life I have been able to travel to Europe and spend so much time with them. I also have lots of special church friends in Scotland, so it’s nice to see some of them again this year.

And as for sketchers…

It seems that everywhere I go there are sketchers – either a local group (Edinburgh, Krakow), a SketchingNow participant (Hi Letizia, and Alison!) or someone that I have met online (Karen Abend) or from a previous trip (Katinka from Lucca).

This trip I also crossed paths with a fellow USK instructor – Jim Richards – in Florence, made some new sketching friends in the days before the symposium in Porto, and then had bonus sketching time with a bunch of people afterwards in Lisbon.

There were also lots of great times with people during my teaching times – two incredible groups doing the Palladian Odysseys, four wonderful groups during the symposium and the 800 odd other sketchers in Porto.

But even though I had lots of great times with people (and it sounds tiring listing it out like that, doesn’t it?), I also had lots of solo time this trip. I’ve missed these times to recharge in the trips last year, but this year I got the balance of solo vs socialising right. And that was huge!


4. My sketching – different phases

What I found interesting about this long trip was that I went through a few different phases with my sketching. This was different from my normal 3-4 week trips where I’m normally working on the one theme the whole time with one of two new break-throughs.

So what were the different phases?

  1. Italy – more experimentation and mixing it up. This was mainly because I was repeating a workshop and had already sketched the scenes in the Veneto on previous trips.
  2. The month of June – focus on paint only sketch. This was a result of taking part in Marc Taro Holmes’s wonderful 30×30 direct watercolour challenge. I do direct watercolour often in my normal sketching, (eg. my daily coffee sketch) but it was great to push myself to do it more regularly and work out the best occasions to do it.
  3. West Weymss – back to traditional ink and wash. I’m not sure why this happened, but I found myself going back to drawing with ink first and then applying paint, and enjoying it!
  4. Porto – the return of the fude pen. My Sailor Fude pen hadn’t been flowing but suddenly when I reached Porto it started working again. I re-discovered how great this pen is for doing quick sketches on complex scenes.

I think that these different periods of focus have created a very rich trip from an artistic point of view – something that I haven’t fully processed yet.


5. My sketching – kitchen sink vs abstraction

Even though I was very much in the groove – a result of sketching non-stop the whole trip – I found it interesting that I was still trying to do everything (the kitchen sink approach) with my first sketch of a scene. My aim with my sketching is to say more with less – to do minimal lines and washes and to achieve a realistic abstraction (is that the right term?) But at present I still need to do the ‘normal’ sketch first before I get in the right way of thinking how to abstract and simplify. I think was most apparent in the sketches I did at St Andrews and at Belem.


6. Finding myself again

I’m not sure whether you picked this up or not… but earlier in the year (mid Feb – beginning of May) I was a bit burnt out. Teaching the Watercolour online course in the height of summer was tough for many reasons and when it was over I fell into a bit of a hole. I was tired, unmotivated, eating badly and not moving. This is not at all surprising considering the craziness of that course on top of the hectic pace of my life over the last five years.

I was still working on stuff, blogging a bit and starting projects to get myself back on track – but did you notice I never shared my progress on them? I just didn’t feel my usual enthusiastic self. But it was okay. I wasn’t happy but I knew not to worry too much and to give myself some ‘nothing time’.

But as soon as I arrived in Vicenza, it all came back. One of the most significant sketches I’ve done for a long time is this one above of Palladio’s Basicilia in Vicenza. It was my first sketch as soon as I arrived (before a good nights sleep) and it worked! Normally my first sketch is a bit disappointing, but I was so happy with this one. It was a sign that “Liz” was back.

Even though I was totally exhausted by the end of my stay in Lisbon, and the fact that I got sick when I arrived home, I have been super motivated and focused for the past month. Whilst being overseas is the best way to recharge myself, I have realised that if I ever go into a slump like this again, I will organise a mini-sketching break just to revive my creative juices. I need them to be pumping in order to get my work done.


7. Travel logistics

Traveling for a long time (especially when sketching and teaching) has some bit challenges. The biggest one is paper weight. I had 5 kgs of paper to take over for the Palladian Odyssey and during the trip I filled 8 Moleskine sketchbooks (700 grams each so totally 5.6 kg) and I also had extra weight of my Porto workshop stuff and all the goodies we received or bought (I took home 15 blank sketchbooks – a lot of these were my own purchasing).

But with some careful planning I managed to balance it all – by sending home books and teaching materials (thanks Peter, Lionel and Mike), picking up sketchbooks along the way (thanks Alison, Esther and Janet) and having stuff brought over to Porto (thanks Chantal).

I was pretty happy with my art supplies – you can read more here about my palette provisions.

I have my travel packing list streamlined these days, but I made a mess of the clothing and shoes that I took this year and ended up carrying much more than I needed. But sometimes part of this is unavoidable – such as unbelievably warm weather in Scotland so I didn’t need most of my ‘winter’ clothes. But, oh well, you win some and lose some.

Overall the travelling component of this trip (despite some Ryanair and Stansted dramas) was very smooth and I am so thankful for that!

I love living out of a suitcase and getting into a rhythm of packing and nightly hand washing and just basically surviving with minimal possessions. So apart from the tiredness associated with Porto and Lisbon, I could have continued travelling for another month!

I could go on and on, but this is already a very long article… so I think it’s time to wrap it up.

In summary it was an incredible trip on so many levels. Thank you to everyone who was a part of it (in real life) but also thank YOU for following along with me and leaving comments etc. It’s really special that even though I often travel solo, I know there are a lot of people coming along for the adventure. So thanks again!



  • Mary Evelyn Hoffman says:

    I appreciate reading your learnings…growth is good!! Balance is a very good thing!!!!

  • Love reading your articles. I have started sketching a couple of months ago and what you do is very inspiring!

  • Joanne kalvaitis says:

    Thanks Liz. Being one of the stay at home sketchers you mention, I particularly love your informative wrap-up blogs. I follow along with the travel posts too and it’s almost as good as being there to read your and other sketchers/teacher’s comments about the marvellous places you see and sketch.

    Thank you for the energy and time you put into the blogs and teaching,


  • Anne Marie Percival says:

    You are so very generous sharing your thoughts and processes….glad we had an opportunity for a brief chat on the waterfront (with Karen and Ian) in Porto before the symposium proper started!

  • Deb watt says:

    It was lovely to catch up with you in Porto. I’m in awe of your energy as you live the glamorous jet setting life of a self employed teaching artist. Keep on dancing….

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Deb – yes! lovely to see you in Porto. Yes, I love what I’m doing as well… but there is a less glamorous side 🙂

  • I’m so glad I got to spend a little time with you and be a tiny part of this big adventure!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Elizabeth – yes! I was so happy to spend time with you too – and find out what you actually do for a day job. Amazing how much we feel as if we know each other, but rarely get good time to actually talk!

  • Thank you for sharing your reflections, Liz. And thank you for sharing your time with so many of us in Porto. It meant a lot to me to meet you and talk with you! You are so generous with your time!
    And I couldn’t help noticing that your planner goes to 2021!!! Wow!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Marie-Helene – it was SOOO lovely to meet you in Porto.
      As for my planner… I was just trying to think big picture and I was able to fit up to 2021 on the page. I’m not booked out until then, but it was good to look forward and try to find some big blocks of time for planning and filming new courses.

  • Emily D. says:

    i would love to hear about sketching layouts! i’ve been wanting to experiment with that in my book but I’m not sure how to start.
    I’m so glad you’re feeling better, Liz! 🙂

  • Frank Bettendorf says:

    This is an interesting and very informative report that I enjoyed reading. Your honesty and ability to look realistically at what you are doing with your life is refreshing. I’m pleased that the change you made with leaving the “world of work” to be on your own is providing you new opportunities as well as insight. Thanks for your clear and straight-forward reporting.
    I hope you are finding some happiness in all of this hurrying about.
    Yes please write about composing a page rather than merely doing a sketch.
    Frank B

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Frank – I don’t feel I left the world of work 🙂 – just the world of office work. Yes, I’m very happy!
      Ok… will think about a composition article!

  • Chantal says:

    Liz, you have further refined the working travel experience once more! Always great to see how well you manage it all. You’re a pleasure to work with and make it all feel effortless, but never a dull moment! 😀

  • Lien Vong says:

    That’s quite a long time to be travelling and to only get sick at the end of it was pretty good going. I find 3 weeks is about my limit. I’m usually a bit homesick by then. I never get the packing right although my last Europe trip, I made do with 2 pairs of pants for 4 whole weeks and realise it’s totally do-able.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Lien, I take flu defence tablets so don’t normally get sick… except that I forgot to take them right at the busy time of min sleep.

      I never get homesick – could travel for longer – although always pleased to get home and always start thinking about it on the last few days.

      Well dene on the 2 pairs of pants… I do actually handwash every night so I know its totally doable – but why do I always pack extra???

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I always look forward to your post-travel insights and reflections! Welcome home.

    – Tina

  • It was great to see you in Porto, and although we didn’t have more than a minute to talk I appreciated you stopping to say hello. I realized from reading your posts while you were gone how busy you were and how overwhelming having to socialize with so many people can be. Great reflections from your trip! Sorry you got sick when you got back. I’m still trying to shake the cold I got as soon as I returned home. Porto and in my case Latvia too were just wonderful.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Joan – yes, It was just a quick hello wasn’t it. The socialising at times hits me (yes,rather overwhelming) but then I just focus on one interaction at a time and it’s fine. Hope you are back to 100% soon!

  • Jen Austin says:

    I love you artwork ! It’s lovely and inspiring to read such an honest account of your travel/work – thankyou for sharing.

Leave a Reply