It wasn’t the best of weather, a little chilly and windy, but Notre Dame on Isle de la Cite in the centre of Paris still called to travellers and we answered the call! In the beautiful garden at the back of the cathedral I rendezvoused with Liz Steel. We sat and chatted and drew the sweeping buttresses and arching roses. It was the first time we had met even though we hark from the same state in the same country.

Notre Dame - Liz Steel Sketch

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Recently I noticed Liz’s drawings included more and more people. I began to wonder what an artist who didn’t usually draw people thought about the challenge, so I asked her!

Hi Liz, thanks for taking the time to talk about sketching.
First I want to say that I am very excited about your new blog and totally chuffed to be asked to be interviewed… I feel that I am only beginning in my adventures with drawing people. It is has been a struggle and a mind game for me (‘I am an architect and am no good at drawing people’) but the desire to be more confident in figurative sketches is very strong at the moment. So recording my thoughts is a great way for me to rationalise the various threads in my head at the moment and it will hopefully focus and strengthen my resolve.

Liz Steel Sketch - Piazza Maggiore

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Why do you sketch?
As an architect I sketch as a way of thinking, designing, testing ideas and then either these sketches are used as presentations to clients or the basis for computer generated drawings. So this is very process orientated and has formed the foundation for my sketching (I have had no formal art training). As an artist I sketch to record the moment, celebrate the act of observation in my own way. I sketch to relax on the one hand, and on the other hand to keep my creative juices pumping – the buzz I get from on location is something that I thrive on!

When did you start sketching?
I have always tried to keep an architects sketchbook but only really started in earnest in January 2007 when a friend introduced me to watercolour in pans and I totally fell in love and feel a great drive to learn how to use them. The desire to use my watercolours helped me get past the initial fear of what to sketch… because my goal was higher (learning to paint) the sketching just seemed to happen!

Liz Steel Sketch - Morning tea

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What is your favourite subject and why?
Architecture and in particular Italian Baroque facades, and teacups (also teapots, scones, cakes and tearooms but mainly teacups!) Interestingly both have a defined structure (normally curved) and fun decorations!

Given that your favourite subject is architecture and tea cups, how is drawing people different?
Movement is obviously the big thing!!! But two other major factors are

  • there are no hard edges so drawing faces in particular with ink lines is very different from the crisp edges of architecture.
  • there is the silly ‘likeness fear’ as everyone can tell if a sketch of person looks like them but they will never notice if you got the proportions of even a very famous building incorrect
Waiting at Sydney Airport - Liz Steel Sketch

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Is drawing people a challenge? How did you learn to draw figures?
Yes!!! I am still learning…but I find that as I am an architect I want to understand the structure and forms 3-dimensionally so have spent time studying a number of books – Jack Hamm Drawing the Head and Figure and Gary Faigin The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression. (I spent a lot of time pulling faces at myself in the mirror when I was reading this!)

Liz Steel Facial Expressions Sketch

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I also (strangely) found that fashion illustrations books were quite helpful…because tying in with your comments about life drawing, I want to draw personalities, real people who make statements about themselves by their clothes and hair and handbags.

Liz Steel Sketch

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I have no desire to go to formal life drawing classes to draw formal poses of “the body.” I want to draw people being who they are and doing what they are doing. Also I don’t want to have to make time for my art…my art is just part of my life.


I found when I was in Paris in 2007 (where I met and sketched with you!) instead of being frustrated that I couldn’t see the base of buildings due to all the crazy tourists in the way, that I started to include these in my sketches. I really loved doing this – particularly as I was recording the funny things that they were doing (eating lunch,taking photos etc). It created a much richer record of the space and experience to include them.

When you are sketching out and about, do members of the general public speak to you? How do you deal with sketching in public?
I rarely sketch in public without someone noticing me! I love it!  SO many people are interested and sometimes I am rather apologetic about my people sketches “(I am an architect”) but I know that I shouldn’t be. I normally flick through my sketchbook to show the range of sketching that I do and how personal it is (in terms of expression and subject matter).

I am still coming to terms with drawing people on location – especially people looking my direction in cafes! I have no problem sitting in a prominent position on my sketching stool to sketch a building no matter how silly I look but to draw people near me requires courage that is sometimes lacking.  But it is all about practice and building up confidence.  I try to find people that are occupied so are less likely to notice my head bobbing up and down all the time.

Liz Steell Colloseum Sketch

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Can you describe your process of creating a sketch?
In recent years I have developed a very quirky personal habit of sketching a rough outline in red pencil (it is along story why!) This initial outline helps me composing the drawing on the page and get the general outline or structure of the building/ cup/ person. Then I start with the ink as if the pencil was not there. Normally I think I try to get the overall outlines first and then build up the details.

Because people move I am finding that I often don’t have time for the pencil lines and just go straight in with the ink line. The person moves and I am left with some lines I am often not ‘happy’ with. A fundamental break through earlier in the year was to realise that I was not adding colour. I am often not happy with my circles while drawing teacups…but the paint changes that and it has never stopped me having a go!!! So now I try to add colour (if not at the time then as soon as possible afterwards while the impression is still fresh)

Also if I am not 100% sure of what I am doing with my painting, I leave my sketch at a 70% completion and review it when I get home – I think that I have often saved ruining a painting this way!

Eiffel Tower - Liz Steel Sketch

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When you are sketching people, how do you deal with the fact that they are always moving?
When I Lisbon at the Urban Sketchers Symposium I did a great session on Movement with Eduardo Salavisa and Monica Cid. They recommended that you spend all your time watching people, feeling their movement, taking on their personality and then draw from memory. I really like this approach but feel that I need to practice a lot and really understand the structure of the body better.

At the moment I am just drawing partial blind contours, very quick and loose outlines…but I want to make these into more developed sketches.

Do you ever sketch from photos?
Rarely – I try to avoid it. When on location and don’t have time to sketch I will nearly always try to do so anyway!?!… get a few lines down and take a photo on my phone to complete later – that way I have established that all important connection with the object.

However photos are good for practice, or to work on certain things you want to improve.  I found recently that I got very excited sketching faces of artists from the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Lisbon and established a wonderful connection between me and the person (via the photo) that it was very satisfying.  If I sketch random people from photos that I don’t know I want to try and make up a story about them first – so that they are a real person and not just a photo of a body or a face.

Liz Steel Sketch

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Does sketching tie in with your other work?  If so how?
There are many connections with my sketching and my work. Generally sketching has helped my design skills as an architect.  The observation needed for sketching gives me insights into the mind of the original architect and the discoveries that I translate to paper seem to be permanently registered and inscribed into my memory for inspiration and re-interpretation in my own real life projects.

The constant sketching of anything in my daily life has also helped me at work, as it has improved my ability to be able to describe design proposals in quick  hand drawn coloured sketches – in an age where digital images abound,  quick freehand presentations sometimes make more of an impact.

But in regard to figurative sketching  I have recently become extremely keen to record people in  my architectural sketches – the spaces in front of or inside of building are inhabited and used by people.  Without people, architecture is barren and irrelevant.  So I really want to focus more on this aspect ….something that many architects ignore.  I think that presenting sketches of their new building or office interiors with really people doing things will really strike a chord with clients.  No more pea-headed blobs!!! (the way I have indicated the human scale in my drawings for years)

Do you have a favourite sketching medium?
Yes, definitely ink and watercolour  – of course this might change over time but I hardly use any other medium.

Liz Steel Musicians Sketch

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Can people buy your art and if so, where?
I  have self published a number of books available from Blurb: – my latest book is a summary of all the sketching I did last year which included an 11 week sketching trip around the world.

“I am in the process of setting my etsy and zazzle stores – details will be on my blog in the near future

What are your top 3 tips for readers who want to sketch people in public?

  1. Practice, practice, practice (this is what I keep telling myself I need to do!!)
  2. Enjoy the process and don’t expect too much in the beginning
  3. Be confident and go for it!!!!
Liz Steel Movement Workshop

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Thanks so much Liz! 

And thank you to all The Artling readers!  I am so appreciative of all your support.  If you haven’t already subscribed and received your free sketching ebook, please do so using the form in the sidebar. There will be some very exciting news soon.  A unique opportunity for my readers.  Stay tuned!

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