"Why do you sketch so fast?"

April 23, 2013 | 28 Comments

I just thought I would expand a little on something that I mentioned in my recent review of James Richard’s book… and that has to do with sketching fast…. warning this blog post is long!

I know that I do sketch a lot and that I do sketch fast, at times very fast… but it is not my goal to sketch fast – in fact I do want to slow down but it just seems that when I am out on location, my creative juices start pumping and I just can’t stop!

I am not in any way advocating my approach for others but simply explaining that that is the way I am, the way I sketch… that I am not trying to create finished or perfect pieces and that I most of all have an incredible amount of fun sketching non stop!

A huge part of this is my foundational sketching as an architect. I know that I have mentioned this before…but the more I think about it myself, the more significant I realise it is. Firstly, I have never really had any art training – I have never sat in an art studio and laboured over making the perfect pencil sketch. BUT I have used up reams and reams of butter paper over the years sketching as part of my work as an architect.

Sketching is the way that I think, that I resolve issues, design and create solutions for imagined worlds and spaces. When I am designing, my approach is to draw non stop – often testing out ideas rapidly- trying to draw as fast as I can think – having an incredibly dynamic and stimulating dialogue  between hand eye and mind. The hand moves, the eye sees the imperfect linework and the mind asks “what if?”

It is the imperfection of the ability of the hand to depict what is in the mind that often leads to new ideas. And when through the copious scribblings, a solution appears on the page, the excitement and creative thrill of that moment is something really special. What keeps me doing architecture!

There is also a lovely freedom in my sketches, my linework and shading (often cross hatching is a reflex action while concentrating on a problem, more recently watercolor pencil) that comes when I am focussing on the design problem and not thinking about my sketching. Often these sketches done while I am designing are far stronger than the neat ones I prepare for the client once the design is more finalised.

Although the notes in this sketch are more about process vs product, the thoughts are running along the same lines and another example of my work thinking sketches.


When I started sketching from observation I found it really hard work – I had to set up perspective lines and train my eye hand coordination. But for some reason when I started sketching out on location things started to change – there was so many other things to worry about other than just doing a good sketch – comfort, distraction, moving light and weather changing. Fundamentally I am a very responsive person – I respond to things around me – and these external conditions made my work a little less in control and I started taking risks. I just can’t be neat when I am uncomfortable or hungry – it shows in my lines!  In many ways this was like my design sketching.

I then realised that what I really wanted to achieve was the freedom, spontaneity and creative buzz that I got from my design sketching. I started working on achieving this…. and naturally the speed has come as a secondary aspect to that. An example is my pencil setup lines – I do just enough to compose the image on the page and then sketch in ink as if there was no setup lines.

I often tell people that my sketching is all about capturing the moment but it is in fact the moment of discovery that is the key. I see something, I study and discover and then I have the urge to record that – regardless of whether it is really practical in the time that I have… I just go for it.

I am an obsessive recorder and therefore I have to strategise how to record this discovery in the time that I have. Having a strong focus of what I initially responded to is key (here it was the roof). So it is trying to record the discovery – not to sketch fast for the sake of going fast – that sets the agenda!

I am not trying to make beautiful works of art in my sketchbooks – I am trying to record my creative journey and I do that through recording my life through my sketches. Although there is a certain element of design to my pages (and yes I am a bit obsessive about writing neatly) I do see my sketchbook more as a working book, a journal that an art book. I do create more careful works at home including commissions for architectural illustrations (there will be more details of this work on my blog soon!) but my sketchbook is my space to record and to test and to experiment. In many ways I view my work in my sketchbook as glorified thumbnails.

Also, this joy in the moment of discovery does not need to always mean fast sketches. This sketch was done when I was in a very chilled mood but I was experimenting and got an incredible buzz through the act of discovering these new tools and techniques for the first time.

I also got an unbelievable creative thrill in January when I was up at Port Macquarie and sitting on the beach watching the waves, observing them carefully and then progressively over a number of morning visits working out the best way to paint them. But sadly, finding slow time in a busy life can be hard – when I go out I always seem to be rushing from one place to another  (and when at home sometimes lack inspiration)

And one final comment, which I have mentioned previously. In recent months I have been unable to sit on a sketching stool, to sit out on the streets in the one location for any length of time due to some treatment to my neck and shoulders. I have been limited to a maximum of 20 minutes for any particular sketch and have found that using markers last year, water colour pencils this year have helped me work within this timeframe.

It was really nice that I was able to sketch so much in Melbourne the other week – I wasn’t sure how much I would do but those creative juices started pumping again!

I am very much in awe of the people who do elaborate sketches /paintings/drawings which take them hours of time – but even if I wanted to, I am physically unable at the present time to do that. I do want to encourage people who have similar physical restrictions that it is possible to sketch in shorter periods of time.

Writing a LOT tonight… but I do hope that this explains a little more about me. Every single person is a unique individual and your approach to sketching, and your mark making, and your goals will be uniquely YOURS.

What I love about the online art community is how rich is the experience of seeing everyone’s personal style … and especially for those of you that I have been privileged to meet in real life. Meeting and knowing you adds so much more meaning to just seeing your work.

And finally (really and truly finally!) the big message of this blog is not to be like me…but that I hope to inspire others to start or continue on their own creative journey – to be themselves!!!! And I hope that they have as much fun as I do!


  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you Nina!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Thank you Anthony! there is a transition between architecture and painting. I am finding that painting is a completely different thing to sketching volumes and forms that we do as architects. I am really looking more at abstract 2D shapes and light now!

  • Anthony Duce says:

    I did enjoy this, the sharing, the insight. Have been visiting often over the years. Being a now retired architect myself, I find your ability to achieve a smooth transitions between art, journaling and of course “the profession” very inspiring.

  • Hi Liz, a lovely, idiosyncratic explanation. My students sometimes grizzle about being made to work fast, but I insist on it because the art of the sketch is the distilling of complicated shapes to their bare essentials of area, value and colour. The fleeting glimpse is more telling than the long gaze. Often I see students drinking in too much information and attempting to render it all – the result is never as good as being made to look and draw quickly. Bravo and we'll have a drawing race at Cockatoo Island. You have a good chance of winning! JH

  • Serena Lewis says:

    * freedom, spontaneity and creative buzz *

    This is why I find your sketches so inspiring, Liz. I crave to loosen up and not be so pedantic about creating the perfect sketch of which I rarely have time to do. I want to focus more on capturing that special moment in time. I thank you for sharing your own process and thoughts on the subject.

  • A truly inspiring post. There is a little gem of a painting here too – the "chilled mood" one of the tea and cake. It is really beautiful – love the muted colour, free brush work and the sure lines of the jug and cup.

  • BJR says:

    I love your work. I am in between fast and slow…that's how I work. We each have our own pace…but I enjoy seeing/watching yours! It inspires me. I have lupus and it brings lots of pain restrictions, so I can understand the time limits to a tee!! Keep on being "Liz"!…

  • Thank you for your beautiful, insightful and honest post. You are an inspiration.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you John – you make a great point which I was thinking of mentioning in sketching fast – part 2. See you at Cockatoo 2!

  • Liz Steel says:

    Thank you Serena! I do hope to share more in the coming weeks of ways to work faster – oops, fast is not the goal – looser is. But a time limit does focus you.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you Carol. Yes, that chilled sketch is very special to me- it was my break through moment from my Singapore trip.I have that moment in my brain often and am trying to get myself into that chilled mood when I relaxed but regulating my looseness (as opposed to pure frenzy!)

  • Liz Steel says:

    Thank you BJR!!! As much as I try, there is no way I can be other than Liz…
    Sorry about your lupus – painful! One of the posts that is kicking around in my head is good sketching posture- working on it with my physio. Next visit I am taking my sketching stools for review.
    There is a fast which is bad – a careless fast which doesn't observe…so slow is good too. In fact, my teacup sketches are relatively slow! We are all different- which is so much fun!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you!

  • Art by Wiley says:

    Absolutely love this post, Liz. I love the insight it gives into your own work and it also made me reflect on what I do too, and why. Very inspiring. (P.S. I bought a Stillman & Birn book – yay!)

  • Paula says:

    Hi Liz! Ever since that first online workshop with Cathy Johnson years ago where i first encountered your work, I've been a big fan. I would love to be able to watch you in action. Any chance of a video? I find I can learn so much watching others work. This post gave me hope that maybe we don't all have to be architects to sketch well 😉
    Paula in VA

  • Liz Steel says:

    I am looking forward to having you with us. As for needed to train before hand…NO! I don't expect you all to sketch as fast as me!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you Paula! Yes, doing some video's is my next big step!
    Certainly don't have to be architects to sketch well!!! Just go for it and be you!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you Jodi – glad it helps! Have fun with your S&B!

  • suzi poland says:

    Great post Liz, I am looking forward to sketching with you in your upcoming course. I wonder if I'll need some speed training to keep up with you! Haha. So inspiring to see what you do and how it's all evolved from your architectural days.

  • Really many thanks for sharing

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you! I hope it helps!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thank you!

  • Annee says:

    This is so helpful in clarifying my ideas and quest for spontaneity and freshness in my sketches. I get so trapped by detail. Need to loosen up and take risks!

  • Jasmine says:

    That last bolded paragraph? You are. And you do. So thank you.

  • hi liz…thanks! very inspiring works ???? luv it very much!!!????????????

    • Patsy Wallace says:

      Hi Liz I am late to this site which I loved..your honesty and sharing are inspiring. My best (my judgement) sketches are the fast ones which I do in life drawing classes but I want to improve my sketching outdoors and that’s where I run into trouble. I feel I have to slow down to get the correct perspective of a building or street scene. I will endeavour to just speed up and live with it. Thank you Liz.

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