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Monday, January 3, 2011

Interview #2--Liz Steel (and Borromini!)

I first met Liz Steel online a few years ago, and became entranced by her bold sketches on Flickr.  Such bright, fresh, dedicated and funny work.  When it came time to pick artists to be involved in the Artists' Journal Workshop book, Liz was among the first I asked! 

I was delighted with the opportunity to get to know her better when she stopped by here near the start of her long international journey this past summer, and more so when I did this interview.   (I've kept the original spelling...this IS a truly international project and it only adds to the flavor.  Or flavour!)

Q. First, were you born in Australia?   
A. I was born in Sydney Australia and have lived there all my life (and love it!)

Q. How long have you been an architect, and how did you decide to do so?
A. I have been practising as an architect for over 16 years. I decided that I wanted to be an architect at age 10 when I discovered that there was such a thing as a plan which described the layout of a building - up to that point I only drew the front of houses. I found a book in my local library entitled “She’s an architect” which confirmed to me that that was what I wanted to be when I grew up!

Q. What kinds of things do you design? 
A. I design all kind of buildings – residential buildings (single houses to multi-storey apartments) commercial buildings, office fitouts and interiors and for the last 14 years I have also been specialising in television related projects.

Q. How did the time off for this summer’s trip work?  How long was the trip? 

In Australia, working more than 10 years in the one firm entitles you to Long Service Leave – a bonus 2-3months of vacation that you can often take in one block of time. I have been with my firm for 15 years and have been chipping away at my allowance for a few years. This year, I had to use up my leave- so I was able to have a 11 week vacation.


Q. How did you plan your meet-ups with other sketchers, and how many did you meet in the course of the trip? 

A. There are MANY online sketching friends that I would love to meet, but I normally don’t plan my trips around meeting up with them – I determine my itinerary and then work out  what sketchers I will be near. This trip had two exceptions – the first was the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Portland which occurred in the start of my trip and the other was my visit to Kansas City to see you! (I couldn’t fly across the states without popping in!)

* Kate's not:  Big smile when I read that!

I usually contact people beforehand to organise but sometimes I have unexpected meetings while travelling thanks to Flickr comments and emails – it is really a very exciting and dynamic way to travel when you blog from your iPhone along the way, This trip, apart from the 70 odd people at the Urban Sketchers Symposium, I meet up with 16 online sketching friends.


Q. What’s your most vivid memory, if you can isolate one!
A. I have so many amazing memories from my trip – the Urban Sketchers Symposium and meeting other sketchers, special time with special friends and family in the UK, 2 weeks of dedicated sketching in Italy with a friend and then having the courage to sit on the streets in Rome sketching alone, having days when I felt so much in the groove...etc etc! 

But the most important memory, the one that I want to remember, is the feeling I had when I got on the plane to come home. It was a feeling that my trip was a journey that would continue when I got back home, it was an enormous sense of satisfaction that I had filled all my sketchbooks, that the sustained period of sketching had resulted in development of my skills and it was a feeling of sheer joy that all my wonderful experiences were recorded by my own hand in my own way in those books! This feeling was reinforced when, on my first full day home, I went out to sketch the Sydney Opera House – sketching the most famous icon in my own beloved hometown while still in ‘trip mode’ was a wonderful blurring of the edges between the end of my big trip and  the resumption of my normal life.

Q, Tell us a bit about Borromini, and how many other people have sketched him.

Borromini (which is the name of a famous Italian architect of the Baroque period) is a tiny little bear that I bought in 2007 to take with me on my holidays. I often have periods in my travelling when I am on my own so I wanted a travelling companion to photograph. His first trip was in September 2007-this was also the first that I kept a sketchbook - so Borromini's existence is integrally connected with my sketching. When I went online in 2008, I was very cautious of revealing my identity and so it was natural to hide behind the wee bear! It didn't last long till things changed - but the Bear has his own identity now and seems to make his own friends. I can't keep up with him!

Q. Would you give us a link to your books?  I would love for you to get some orders from this.  Are the latest trip journals going to be available as books, or have I missed that?

A. I have a page on my blog with links to my books

I have a Paris book(sketches from 2009)  which will be available for purchase in the next few weeks. And hope to do something with my sketches from this year (now that I am finished scanning all those sketchbooks!) but not sure exactly what I am going to do yet – so watch this space!

Q. How long have you been keeping a sketch journal, and what inspired you to start? 

A. 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 own 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 has become an end in itself!


Q. How does your sketch journaling relate to your job as an architect?

As an architect, sketching is the way that I think and communicate. I draw all the time when I am trying to solve a design problem – it is a almost a reflex action of my brain and the simple action of drawing over and over can reveal solutions. Once I have a solution I draw to explain what is in my head. But when I started sketching from life, I had to make a big switch -  I had to stop and learn to look.

This stopping and looking 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.


Q. You do a lot of travel sketching; how do you plan what to take?
A. It is a balance between simplifying and flexibility – and somehow packing light. Most of the time I only use my ink pen and watercolours but as I am travelling and sketching more than usual, with different scenes and different situations I have to be prepared for anything. So I pack a few things for specific occasions such as my brush pen for when I only have a few moments and a few watercolour pencils for galleries etc where I wouldn’t be allowed to paint. Drawing my kit before I go always helps me to rationalise – I also do this with my clothes!


Q. Do you ever go someplace with the idea in mind up front of sketching?  (I mean do you choose a destination TO sketch it?) 
A. If I am re-visiting places I do normally choose a destination because I want to sketch it. But when visiting a city/country for the first time I plan my itinerary around the places I want to visit (like any other traveller) but I make sure I allow some extra time for the all important sketch. Sometimes I choose not to go into a tourist attraction/ museum/ historic house etc preferring to use my time sketching the exterior.


Q. What do you enjoy most?
A. My two favourite things to draw are complicated architecture (particularly Baroque buildings) and a good cup of tea (with accompanying cake). So a café table with a good view is the ultimate – comfort and inspiration in one!

Q. How long do you normally spend a day with your journal?

A. Normally 20 minutes to an hour a day – either at lunchtime, in the evening while having my post dinner cup of tea or sometimes I get a creative urge late at night when I am tired and really should go to bed!
On Saturdays I often go out for the day for a sketching adventure – then I am using my sketchbook all day.


Q. Other thoughts? Whatever else you feel is more important, personally, to YOU...
A. The most important thing for me is the excitement of really starting to ‘see’ the world around me. Often the visual exploration of an object or scene give me a real buzz – in a way, the resultant sketch is less important than this discovery although I think this excitement is often reflected in the sketch.

Also my sketchbook journal is the celebration of the little things in life – the everyday becomes special and worthy to record and it is a great way to realize how much we have to be thankful for – even in hard times.

The final thing is that my sketchbook is MINE – it is there for me to fill with sketches of the things I like, the things that I want to remember, the way I want to sketch  or the way I want to develop my skills.  I think that when you find the YOU in your work, you have more enjoyment, confidence and satisfaction.


A bit more about Borromini Bear here http://www.lizsteel.com/p/about-borromini.html

It was lots of fun for other artists to sketch him this year – I can think of about 12 artists that sketched him – but it is possible that there are more. I do plan to make a gallery of sketches and put this on my blog.

Here's one of mine!  -Kate
Q Did I remember to tell you that’s going to be a whole separate page on North Light’s website?  I had my sketch, Joseph’s, Laura Frankstone’s, and Vicky Williamson’s, so they wanted to do a whole page on Borro!) 

A. WOW!!!!!


Check out these links for more information...you'll be inspired by Liz's work and her energy and dedication, too!
Liz's (and Borromini's) blog: http://www.lizsteel.com/

LIz's Blurb books...I have the wonderful little A Perfect Cuppa, it's delightful!  http://www.blurb.com/user/BorrominiB

The bear has caught the imagination of a lot of us, and he gets sketched often!  Liz has made a Flickr Gallery of the little fellow here:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/borrominibear/galleries/72157625607354553/#photo_4885532417 --you'll see sketches from several of our blog correspondents!


  1. Fantastic interview, Liz & Kate! I've long admired your journals, Liz. Thanks for sharing and inspiring!

  2. What fun! Great interview, Kate and Liz! I certainly enjoyed meeting Liz in Portland and sketching and dining together!

  3. Love this interview! I found myself saying "Wow!" and "Really?" repeatedly. She's not only a talented artist but a great communicator as well. And her interest in life comes across as well. Thanks for this Cathy and Liz! (Borromini was kind of quiet today, but that's okay!) :o)

  4. Glad you both enjoyed it! Liz has TONS of energy and enthusiasm, and it does come across here...

    And Ellen, Borro's really more of a watcher than a talker...

  5. Hello Cathy really enjoyed reading your interview of Liz and other bits as I was not familiar with your blog, congratulations and a Happy New Year.

  6. Thank you, Isabel! I am pretty excited about the way it's going and the reception it's gotten. I added the link you sent me privately, too, thank you! Looks lovely...

  7. Liz, I especially loved your comment about visiting places that interested you AND building in time for the sketching! It's hard to do both without a little forethought and planning.

    Thanks for sharing your process!

    Great interview, Kate!

  8. Liz made it easy, Laure! It helps that I know all the people I asked, to one degree or another, so all the interviews won't run together!

  9. When I first saw Liz' Cuppa book while visiting you, Kate, I was totally smitten. It is not only charming for journalkeepers, but also for tea afficionados as well! Thanks for the link, Liz--I ordered it immediately. Wonderful interview--it's so nice to affirm my devotion to sketching while traveling as well as picking places to travel to just for sketching. I love to meet up with other sketchbook journalers--I wonder if we could somehow create a "bulletin board" or other technique where journalers could post the location they will be traveling to and others could respond, so we could meet up with those we don't know and have some fun!

  10. I love that little book too; I look at it again and again.

    And Maria, that is a TERRIFIC idea to have a meet-up resource! I believe I'll make a page at the top that will help do that. Also one for classes our members are giving, or taking...

  11. I can see this blog is going to become a favourite. Delightful interview with Liz, Kate. I can see I'm going to have to track down your book.
    It takes a lot for me to sketch in a cafe but having coffee with BB just had to be recorded. It was also lovely to see our little Tuscan town through Liz's sketches.

  12. Oh what a wonderful interview, great job. We love you Liz and Borro. I love feeling like I am traveling with her through these amazing places!

  13. What a wonderful interview! I found Liz accidentally, quite awhile ago - before finding you, Kate, and Laure Ferlita - and have been enamored of, and inspired by, her work and thought processes. This interview just gives me a bit more insight into her work process. These interviews help all of us reflect on our own work.

  14. Thanks Kate - another winner!!


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