Sketching when out with friends

June 28, 2024 | 22 Comments

As I was flipping through the pages of some recently completed sketchbooks I came across three different sketches from cafe visits when I was catching up with a friend. And they got me thinking about the different strategies I use when I’m out and about with others.

A lot of my family and friends are super interested in my sketching, and the rest are not so much.

When I’m out with the first group I typically open my sketchbook and start a sketch (often with my watercolour) as my family/friends like to watch. (I’m thinking of my nieces and nephew particularly!) Sometimes my friends/family will take photos or videos as I work.

But when I’m with the second group I often don’t feel as comfortable sketching so I will typically do a super quick incomplete drawing just so I have a record of the occasion. I’m just trying to get something (anything!) on the page as a memory.

The following three sketches were done using the second approach – when I didn’t want my sketching to dominate catch up but managed to do something in the background. Background sketching… hmm, is that a new term I could use to describe this approach? 

As these three occasions happened quite close to each other I was able to test different approaches and media.

Cafe Visit 1: All I got done was a few very loose lines and then I added watercolour in a similar style immediately afterwards. I wasn’t super happy with this one so I decided that the next time I tried to do a sketch like this I would put down colour first. In general I prefer ‘rushed colour’ rather than ‘rushed lines’ as shape distortions seem to look better than line inaccuracies.

Cafe Visit 2: Next time I was in a cafe with a friend I reached for my Neocolor II crayons. Starting with them felt comfortable for a super loose reflex sketch. I then added a few ink lines over the top and a few strokes with a water brush and the sketch was done.

Cafe Visit 3: This time I decided to use coloured lines so I reached for three watercolour pencils (brown ochre, ultramarine and a grey). I was talking a lot and knew that I wouldn’t be able to get as much done as I did during Cafe Visit 2, so I decided to leave this sketch very incomplete – but I did grab my fude fountain pen to add some ink lines. 

As I review all 3 sketches together I’m realising that I’m happier with the result when I start with colour.

I know that a lot of you worry about sketching in front of your friends/family, and I totally understand.

There are times when I don’t even attempt it, but a lot of the time, if I lower expectations and do something in a few minutes (or less) it’s not an issue at all.

How much sketching I get done when I’m with friends is very dependent on the nature of the conversation.

Sometimes if my friend is doing most of the talking – giving me a detailed update of their life – I feel more comfortable sketching. My friends know that I’m listening and that by sketching I will actually remember the conversation more as their words get encoded into my linework. At other times, if the conversation is more active, the chances of me getting much sketching done is greatly reduced. And that’s totally okay as the point of the occasion is catching up with a friend.

Sketching is always secondary!

Of course, on some social occasions I hardly get a chance to sit down let alone get a sketchbook out so I’m mainly thinking about times at cafes and restaurants when all the serving of food is done by others! 🙂

Sometimes my friends prompt me to sketch!

One occasion that stands out in my memory is a night when I went out to dinner with a friend whose grandma had just passed away. Because I wanted to devote my attention fully to my friend I decided not to sketch but when the first course of food came out (and was very interesting) she asked me why I wasn’t sketching. When I explained that I was focusing on her, she replied that she wanted me to sketch and record this occasion as ‘Nan’s Memorial Dinner’. I’m so glad that she prompted me to pull my paints out as the sketch is now special – with lots of memories encoded with my marks.

So in summary, I’ve found that the more I sketch around others the easier it becomes but it’s always important to be aware of how comfortable they are with me sketching! People always come first with me but if I can manage to do a quick incomplete sketch I’m happy to have a record in my sketchbook.

Do you fit in sketching when you are with others? Are you comfortable doing so?


  • Prashanta says:

    Thanks for sharing this Liz – you’re right about being conscious when sketching in front of others…..and its good to know it happens to the advances sketchers like you too 🙂 By the way, all three sketches are beautiful! Thank you for the inspiration

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Prashanta – yes I struggle with a lot of the same things too – I just have ways of pushing through or working out them.

  • Yvonne F says:

    I’ve never developed a habit of sketching in social situations. I think that’s partly because the act of sketching is a fairly private thing for me – at dedicated sketching meetups I’ll be the person who wanders off to find a subject/location where I can sketch alone even if that means not sketching the landmark that ostensibly we’ve all come out to sketch.

    I’m also hopeless as multitasking and I simply cannot sketch and participate in a conversation at the same time. One or the other suffers badly and I end up feeling very, very irritable. Sometimes I think if my technique were more fluent and less reliant on conscious thought (in the way that an experienced car driver doesn’t have to consciously think about the basics of driving) I might be able to sketch and chat, but I’m not there yet.

    Occasionally I feel a little envious of people who can integrate sketching into their social lives without feeling distracted or self-conscious, but mostly I just accept that sketching is more a focused, meditative thing for me, and that it provides a valued escape from an increasingly distracted world that divides our attention in myriad ways.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Yvonne – thanks for sharing. Many other people are just like you and there is no requirement for sketching around others.
      I started sketching with a friend so from the very beginning it has been a social occasion – but I suspect that it would have become social anyway. And I love challenging myself constantly. 🙂

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I only sketch at the table when I’m with other sketchers (whether or not they are sketching with me). With non-sketchers, I don’t, as I don’t ever want to appear rude, like I’d rather sketch than attend to them. My solution is to arrive early and sketch something before they arrive. It still works as a record of the occasion, and I always write something about the occasion on the sketch afterwards.

  • Gayle Coward says:

    I don’t think any of my family would be happy to let me sketch. They would take it as a lack of interest in them. However my sketching buddies completely understand.

    On another note, how do you get ink to draw over neocolor please? I have no luck with that at all.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Gayle

      Glad you have sketching friends to hang out with. There are certainly occasions when I would never attempt to sketch around others but I was surprised in the early days how much my family loved it when I sketched and somehow made me more present! And then got involved in it. It’s certainly more acceptable than being on your phone which many people do.

      As for drawing over neocolor – it does clog up my pen (so I’m constantly wiping it) but I hardly touch the surface of the paper aiming for the ink to sit on the top.

  • Ionne McCauley says:

    Hi Liz, I tend to have the same experience.. If I am with friends who know I like to sketch, I just do it and either they are interested or just let me do my thing while we talk and laugh. And I have other friends who seem to be more “uninterested” – let’s say – and I usually just do a very quick sketch, either no colour or just colour. Or I get there ahead and do it before they arrive, that gets that sketching itch scratched! 🙂 I just don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable while I am sketching so I keep an eye out for it. I love what you said about “memories encoded with marks” – perfect way to put it!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks for sharing Ionne – yes every situation is different. Turning up early is a good way to get a sketch done at times.

  • Misty Pursel says:

    Liz, these are helpful thoughts about when/how to approach sketching around others who aren’t sketchers and also I your observation interesting about using shapes first when short on time. This makes me want to get out more of my other media again–I’ve been focusing on watercolor this month for the 30×30 challenge. 🙂

    I’m getting more comfortable sketching in a restaurant with my boyfriend, but not really in front of others yet. I’ll keep working on it!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Misty, well done for sketching with your boyfriend – it takes time to build the confidences/comfort level and your own style of reflex sketching for these types of situations.

  • Sharon Fong says:

    Hi Liz, I find I’m not confident to sketch when in others company. Partly because I don’t want yo be rude and secondly afraid the sketch may be wonky and it gets laughed at.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Sharon – I do understand that. A quick blind contour drawing (intentionally wonky!) is what I use at times.

  • Katie says:

    This post is so encouraging! I love that you have some friends who know you well enough that they know you are still ‘with’ them and listening, engaged, while sketching. They love and accept you and see the beauty in sketchings place in your life. That’s so lovely to see. 🙂 I also love reading about your process development with those more quickly done sketches, it makes so much sense and gave me some ahas of my own regarding shape and line preferences. I love your adaptability with your differing relationships, that is another kind of lesson in friendship and love, give and take. Sure wish I lived in Australia sometimes… like I wish I was your neighbor. 😉

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Katie!!! So happy to read that it was encouraging. And yes I’d love to have you as a neighbour so we could sketch together!

  • David Campbell says:

    I loved hearing about Nan’s Memorial Dinner sketch. Thanks for sharing that!

  • London Yazgan says:

    These are such great strategies for sketching with different groups of people. Thank you for sharing them! I will have to start experimenting with these methods. I agree with you about putting down color first and then adding lines. 🙂 Nan’s Memorial Dinner also sounds like a very lovely memory. 🙂 <3 I'll echo Ionne McCauley, too – "memories encoded with marks" is such a wonderful expression! 🙂

    It's interesting you've noted that sketching makes you *more* present with other people. I wish I could say that about my own sketching practice, but I feel distracted from the people I'm with if I sketch. Maybe that's because my process is still fairly slow, like Yvonne F mentioned. I don't have this issue if I'm sketching the people themselves, of course, but not everyone is comfortable with that.

    I do find that sketching along with other artist friends is the most wonderful social activity on earth. 🙂 If I'm the only one sketching, though, it's a real struggle. If I could find a way to sketch and give attention to others at the same time, that would be wonderful! I'll start experimenting with the methods you shared, though, and we'll see how it goes! 🙂

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi London. Thanks for your comment. Yes I think you need to develop a reflex sketching approach before you can comfortably sketch when with others. This is something I worked on a lot for years when I first started.

  • Cassandra Scott says:

    Definitely not comfortable sketching with anyone around! ? not even at home with husband n kids

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