Liz Steel loves her work!

For 18 years, Liz Steel successfully pursued the vocational path she'd set her heart on at the age of 12. And then, despite the reward and joy that career was giving her, she took a leap of faith to follow her north star. More success! I interviewed Liz last week. Her career story is an inspiration of what can be achieved when you truly commit to what you truly want for yourself.

What is it that do you do exactly?
I am asking myself this all the time. For over 20 years, I worked as an architect, which heavily influences what I do … I describe myself as a blogger, an artist and a teacher. 

What do you love about your job?
I have the freedom to be me, I’m doing my own thing on my blog and people respond to it. I do my own thing when I teach – teaching what I know and sharing from the heart. Sometimes I can’t get to sleep at night because I’m so excited about what’s going on.

What did you do previously?
I was an architect with a small practice for 18 years. It’s incredibly unusual these days but I worked on a range of exciting projects: residential, commercial, media and I loved it.  I used to think I was afraid of change and doing new things as I was in the same job for such a long time.

I’d always loved to sketch and was always drawing. I wanted to maintain a sketchbook when I travelled but almost never did it. In 2007, I discovered watercolours in a little field kit, and it was a major turning point in my life. I realised almost immediately that I’d found what I wanted to do. Instead of just drawing architecture, I wanted to draw the whole of my life. I not only wanted to draw but I wanted to paint and the goal of painting meant that the drawing just started happening.

How did you get into your current work?
If you told me eight years ago that I would become a full time artist, running my own classes, I would have said ‘impossible – completely impossible’. It was, and remains, a work in progress – one step at a time. In 2007, I bought a kit and a paint book and started training myself for an overseas trip I was taking that year. Then, when I travelled, I filled two sketchbooks and was hooked.

In 2008 I began putting my work on line and people started to respond. Urban Sketchers had started, and I was invited to be part of it right at the beginning.  This really changed my life because it connected me with inspiring people doing the same thing, initially online, then when we met face to face - and it became real and rich.

In 2010 I took some long-service leave and travelled around the world for 11-weeks, sketching full time. For a whole bunch of reasons, at the end of 2012 I decided to take a break from architecture, and spend three to six months doing my art. I intended to go back to architecture, but I also wanted to use the experience to move into teaching. Almost straight away, work started coming in for me. I got two really exciting opportunities from London to do illustration jobs. They found me via Google!

I’ve been obsessively blogging for eight years so I had something already boiling when I left architecture. I’d been keeping my hand on the lid of the boiling pot when I was an architect – and took the lid off when I left. I gave myself the chance to really develop my art and teaching the way I really wanted. I loved architecture, but my art had more momentum and I really was struggling when I was trying to do both. I was able to follow my passion.

What’s really funny, leaving my job was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But for everyone else, they’d just assumed I was leaving to become a fulltime artist - and I never saw that myself! It was a bit of a sign of what I should be doing.

Now I teach hundreds of people around the world online, and I don’t know what I’ll be doing next so just take each day as it comes.

What was your first ever job?
My first ever job was working part-time job in a cake shop. Before I worked in the cake shop, I’d seen myself as shy and retiring – but in that shop I learned that I loved talking to people. What’s funny is that I’m famous for my sketches of tea and cake, and I’ve only just realised the connection with my first job.

Can you remember what you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
Quite distinctly! When I was in 6th grade, I had a light bulb moment. I discovered there was such a thing as a house plan; that there was a drawing to describe how a house was put together and I decided right there that that’s what I wanted to do. That year, Dad gave me a drawing board and a ‘T-square’. I was buying house magazines because I liked to look at the design of houses. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do as a child.

Have you done formal studies?
I did my Architectural studies, but I’ve never done art classes. I’m self-taught but massively self-taught. I’ve done the equivalent of an Art Degree by researching and reading as much as possible in order to help me to codify how I do things. The analytical nature of being an architect makes me question art concepts more than they are standardly dealt with. My style is distinctive and architectural.

What makes you choose specific courses or conferences?
Urban Sketchers have a yearly international symposium. It’s the gathering of the whole network and it’s a years worth of inspiration in 3-days. That’s the only thing I regularly attend and am honoured to have been an instructor on three occasions.

Have you got work or career ideas for the future?
The concept of career and business feel so foreign. My focus is to make a living and support myself, which I’m now doing after three up and down startup years. To a certain extent I live each day as it comes. I want to get back into the architectural profession, more in the drawing area, to inspire architects to come away from the computer and draw more.

What does your work week look like?
Well! When I’m running an online class I start work at 8:30 in the morning and go to 11 in the evening, 6 days a week. I have several breaks but I’m filming and writing and drawing and maintaining an online course and it totally consumes my life. I’m trying to reduce those hours a bit. The rest of the time? One of my biggest challenges is to get more structure into my workweek, and contain my hours. My hobby has become my work so my work/play balance doesn’t exist at the moment (or perhaps is my work is all fun?). That’s my dilemma! I worked hard when I had a normal job, but I had play when I got home. It’s a nice problem, but there’s still a balance to be found.

Are clothes important in the workplace?
I have to be comfortable and my clothing needs to be practical, so I sew my own sketching outfits. I am often in hot places and need cool, comfortable clothing, with big pockets, that can transition from day to night. I nearly exclusively wear skirts and dresses. I never have enough pockets in things when I teach – pens and paints and my phone. They have to be long enough and wide enough so I can sit cross-legged, but not too much width so if there’s a wind I’m not bothered. I also sew in secret pockets into my skirts for travel so I can carry my passport and money and stuff.

What is your standout proudest work moment?
Finishing my first online course, which was called Foundations. It was a 12-week program. Two weeks beforehand I hadn’t got any of the content together; I’d never filmed myself or done video editing and I did it all on the run. But I got so much encouraging feedback at the end of it. The idea of the course was to outline the foundational ideas to help people start sketching, and to explain them in depth to a degree that is rarely offered in an online course. And also with my architectural background, it was a bit more about being conceptual rather than just learning techniques.

If you had the possibility to go back and change anything in your working life, would you?
Not really. I could say that I stayed in my architectural job longer than I should have, but I got all that long service leave, which gave me the time to develop my skills while travelling. I feel everything happened as it should have, in it’s own time.

Do you have a mentor?
I don’t have a mentor, but being part of the Urban Sketchers network means that I have a connection with amazing experts in a whole range of different fields. They’ve been incredibly supportive, and given me advice when I’ve needed it.

How do you unwind?
Having a cup of tea and sketching it. That’s why I don’t have any work/play balance. The act of sketching helps me unwind because it gives me processing time.

Do you have any idea of what you’d be doing, if you weren’t doing your current work?
Not really, who knows. I used to think I couldn’t be anything other than an architect and now I’m an artist, so you never know.

What do you want more of in your work right now?
The ability to say ‘no’ to things. I get offers all the time, I want the wisdom to know what to say ‘yes’ to and ‘no’ to I suppose.

And less of?
Overcommitting myself.

What do you think the biggest fail a person can have running their own business (or career)
This idea of striving for perfection and being set in your ways about the only way to do something, or the only thing I should be doing. I accept that I will make wrong decisions so I’m open to always learn and change as I need to.

What is one word you would use to describe yourself as a child?
Shy, afraid of other people and conscientious.

If you knew me really well, you’d know …
I’m an introvert at heart which people find hard to believe. I need a lot of ‘me time’ to recharge.

What kind of impact do you think you have on the people you work with?
The impact I hope to achieve is that I inspire people to have a go and have confidence in their own ‘marks’, and never to compare themselves with others.

What are you like at work when you’re stressed?
I drink too much tea and I don’t want anyone to talk to me – I just want to get on and do my work.

What are you like at work when you’re relaxed?
I talk too much

What’s really important to you?
Finding beauty in the everyday –I celebrate my tea, drinking it out of a fine china teacup. I sit down to have something fancy, but basically, it’s just a cup of tea. It’s kind of a symbol of what I’m trying to achieve and teacups are what I’m known for, I sketch them over and over again, and they track my journey.

and finally, a quick pop quiz:

Favourite song or piece of music? The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams

Favourite book? The Bible

Favourite movie? Something black and white from the 1940’s

Favourite piece of art? Spring Frost by Eliot Gruner [link NSW AG] 

Favourite place? Pulpit Rock in the Blue Mountains

All images provided by Liz Steel

If you enjoyed reading about Liz's career, here's a link for more interviews I've done from people who love their work

And special thanks to Sasha Douglas for introducing me to her old schoolfriend.