Monday, September 17, 2012

Interview - Liz Steel

Sydney architect Liz Steel is an urban sketcher whose blog Liz and Borromini is an instant inspiration hit for anyone who sketches or aspires to sketch on location. She has been featured in The Art of Urban Sketching: Drawing On Location Around The World and has attended every one of the International Urban Sketching Symposiums, even teaching a workshop at the most recent event in Santo Domingo. Her commitment and dedication to regular sketchbook journal practice is awe-inspiring and I am incredibly honoured to feature her here today. Welcome, Liz!

All images Liz Steel

Tell us about how you started keeping a sketchbook journal.

A friend introduced me to watercolor pans in a field kit in December 2006 and I instantly feel in love with them. Inspired by her use of them and Danny Gregory’s books I started my first sketchbook in Jan 2007 with the intention to sketch regularly as ’training’ for a trip to Europe in September that year. Not only did I achieve that goal but the almost-daily habit became an end in itself!

Initially the training consisted mainly in sketching from photos of the places and architecture of my travel destinations (being an architect, I love drawing buildings) and only occasionally did I go out and sketch on location. But that changed after I got a flickr account April 2008 -  thanks to the motivation from online communities I am now totally addicted to ‘plein air’ sketching!

What motivates you to continue sketching regularly?

Ah! I started to answer that in the first question. There is no doubt that the online world has been a huge part of my motivation and yet looking back, I was highly motivated in 2007 without it…I really, really wanted to have the skills to be painting on that trip to Europe - simply a desire to develop my skills was all the motivation I needed.

But, since I went online, I have been overwhelmed by the encouragement received from artists all around the world. Danny Gregory’s Everyday Matters group (now on Facebook) was the first I joined and I learnt so much from the members and doing the weekly challenges. Since Dec 2008, I have been honoured to be part of Urban Sketchers. That group, which has become a world wide community (meeting people in real life), has been the biggest source of inspiration in getting out on the streets sketching and pushing me to try new things all the time.

However the biggest motivation of all is the fact that I just LOVE sketching – I get a huge adrenalin rush out of it. It gets my creative juices pumping in a big way. Sketching on location, out in public, is such a rich way to record the moment, it makes you slow down and appreciate the moment, but it also often creates the moment as well. While you are sketching amazing things happen. (Don’t get me started on some of the fun things that have happened to me while sketching…)

What are your favourite types of locations for sketching?

The simple answer is…anywhere and everywhere!!!! But of course I do have favourites. For me the best location is somewhere new, and so sketching while traveling for me is the ultimate as everything is new and different.

Most people would say that I sketch complex buildings (Baroque architecture is my favourite) and cups of tea all the time and there is no doubt that I do that a lot. So, I have to admit that a tearoom (or cafĂ© with a good tea) with a view of a fancy piece of architecture would be my all time favourite. Recently, while in New York city, I spent three hours in a fancy Japanese Tea House – sketching the view inside the tearoom, the tea cup, pot and my food (and eating and drinking and making great friends with all the staff!) and I didn’t even get a chance to sketch the view out the window!

I also love sketching in crazy situations such as Times Square on a Friday night in drizzle. I drew while standing up on the slippery red glass steps and then, although I had a seat to paint, every time I looked up the colours were totally different. This kind of craziness is so much fun to capture on paper and is so much more dynamic that photos!

Is your sketching mostly incidental (during the course of everyday life) or do you take regular excursions for the purpose of sketching?

Both. I do go out for specific sketching excursions on Saturday but no matter where I am, I am always looking for an opportunity to sketch. I often try to sketch in a similar way that people take photos ie. I would like to record every event in my life. Of course that is not possible - though I sure try when I am traveling! In many ways the most exciting sketching adventures happen when I am on my own – often on my way to meet friends – and something catches my eye (as a consequence I am often running late and this has had an impact on how fast I sketch!).

Group sketching outings are great for inspiration – seeing how other people sketch the same thing in their own way is always special. There is a great group in Sydney – Sydney Sketch Club organized through Meetup and I am trying to build a network through Australia - using the USK AUS facebook group as a way of coordinating.


You recently attended the 3rd International Urban Sketching Symposium in Santo Domingo. Could you tell us a bit about that experience?

In a word AMAZING!

I am very privileged to have attended all 3 of the Urban Sketchers Symposiums (Portland 2010 and Lisbon 2011) – each have been different and special in their own way and each year becoming more developed as an event. This year it was at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (in the Caribbean) – somewhere I never expected to visit as it is somewhere I knew nothing about! I loved it – despite the fact that the heat and incredible humidity was draining (we are out on the streets sketching hard every day- NOT relaxing at the beach!)

It is a three day event with morning and afternoon on-location sketching sessions- the last afternoon is an open event for people in the city - part of an international sketchcrawl day. This year, a feature was the interaction with the locals, who were incredibly friendly! All the workshops were contained within the small historical area of the city, so I kept running into the same locals and saying hello each time! We really began to feel part of the city.

The workshops are designed to focus on a particular aspect of sketching and applying it to on-location sketching – such as sketching people, watercolour techniques, drawing fast, experimenting with different materials.

I feel very honoured to have been one of the instructors this year, teaching a workshop with Frank Ching on sketching architecture. Our workshop was based around the magnificent cathedral and it was so inspiring for me to see how each participant created their own interpretation of this large and imposing building.

An amazing part of the Symposium is that we know so many of the instructors and participants beforehand via the online world - we are already friends. The quality of so many of the sketchers is outstanding - so often the other participants are ‘online celebrities’ - and just to sit beside them sketching is inspiration enough. Everyone who loves sketching is accepted as equal – we are all learners!!! The creative buzz of 100 sketchers in one place keeps me going for months afterwards!

But for me the most special part is quite simply…the people! The online art world has become a positive environment where we can share our work without the criticism and set-downs that many people have experienced in the past – the “you can’t draw” type comments. And yet, when I meet the people that created the artwork, the artwork is SO much more meaningful – I understand it so much better and the online experience is then all the more richer because I now know the person. And these people become my friends. So...people are more important than art!

One final comment about Urban Sketchers – as more and more of our life becomes digital and more and more of our interaction with others is online, Urban Sketchers’ great strength is the fact that it has brought people from all around the world together in real life to sit on a street kerb with a pen and paper! You can’t get more ‘back to basics' than that!

What tips would you give to someone just starting out in keeping a regular sketchbook?

My three standard phrases are
    •    Just do it…
    •    Practice practice practice
    •    No such thing as talent - it is all desire and ‘hard work’

But the two most important things are:

Make it YOU! Think about why you want to keep a sketchbook, what you want it to contain and then start sketching, writing etc about the things that interest you the most. By all means look at and copy the work of others – but try to translate that for yourself, to your own circumstance, your own experience. I used to mentally beat myself up because I thought being an architect I should do very neat sketches with perfect perspective… when I realized that that was not what I wanted to do, I relaxed and became looser and had more fun. So…do what you enjoy!

Secondly, it is essential that you enjoy the process! Don’t worry about the end result as much as enjoying learning to see the world around you. When you are more caught up with the joy of discovery and a desire to record this, the stress about creating perfect artwork lessens a lot. If the NSW government thinks that a teenager needs 120 hours to learn to drive (enough for a P plate) then put 120 hours into sketching and see where it gets you!!!

Can you list 5 blogs or websites you love to visit?

It is always hard to answer this type of question – I hate limiting myself but here are five main blogs (rather than individual blogs of artists):

1. Urban Sketchers – this blog has 100 contributors from around the world and literally shows the world one sketch at a time. There are also many regional blogs. I have started one for Australia and am always on the look out for people who love to sketch their lives and the places that they live: Urban Sketches Australia.

2. Artists Journal Workshop – a blog based on a wonderful book by Cathy Johnson (my friend and amazing artist). This is the book that I recommend people to buy if they want to start keeping a journal: Artist's Journal Workshop: Creating Your Life in Words and Pictures
3. Roz Stendhal – an amazing sketchbook artist - her blog is full of lots of interesting posts. A recent one I read was budgeting our expenses at art stores!!!

4. Marking a Mark – a very informative art blog (not just about sketching) and perfect for someone in the UK as Katherine Tyrell does a lot of exhibition reviews. What I love the most is her weekly “Who’s made a mark this week” summary of interesting stuff online. She also tackles the latest big issues – like copyright and Pinterest etc.

5. And finally, I want to say that recently I have discovered the world of sewing blogs (for some reason I discovered Colette Patterns – through a colour blog?) and then found this amazing community from that. I love the generous nature of many of the bloggers (always sharing tips and learning new techniques) and it has given me a real desire to make my blog include more sharing rather than just “I went out and sketched and this was the result” type post. Although this takes more time writing and I just want to be out sketching! BTW I have a very part time sewing (and sketching of course) blog too!!!

What are your favourite tools/materials for sketching?

It does subtly change over time but I definitely have an addiction to ink and watercolour. I use a Lamy pen with Noodlers Bulletproof black ink and watercolour (a combination of Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith). Here is the most recent sketch of what I carried with me everyday on my recent trip (July 2012). I am going through an experimental phase at the moment and trying my hand at Copic Markers…fun!


Can you tell us how Borromini bear got to come along for the ride? :)

In anticipation of doing a lot of solo travel over a number of trips to use up my long service leave, in 2007 I bought a small traveling companion to be a subject in my photos. (Lots of people do this too - I remember having a lot of fun posing my sister’s bear Arbutus as we traveled around the UK in 2000). His name is Borromini, my favourite Italian Baroque architect. When I first got my flickr account I was paranoid about people knowing who I was - I mean, you can’t tell the world your name or anything about you, can you? As Borromini (BB) came on my first sketching holiday, it was very appropriate to use him to hide behind. It is funny that I thought I was hiding my identity…but BB is so adorable and memorable that everyone got to know the BEAR and I almost created a brand! When I started meeting other sketchers they all wanted to meet him and sketch him (and even crochet some hats for him!)…You will have to meet him one day!!!!

Liz Steel, Danny Gregory and Borromini Bear
Thanks so much for your time and generosity in answering these questions, Liz. I know I am inspired by your work and I'm sure after reading this, many other people are heading out the door with their sketchbooks and art supplies the very next opportunity they get. Thank you!

To see more of Liz Steel's work, head over to her blogs:
Liz and Borromini
Sketching Architecture
From Sketching to Sewing

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