“I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.” —Pablo Picasso, Spanish artist
For hundreds of years, scientific illustrators have visually captured the workings of the world, sketching and annotating all sorts of species. Curious medical minds have diagrammed anatomies to understand nature’s internal operations. Illustrations by naturalists such as John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, and Sarah Drake depict the curiosities of nature. Their intricately detailed works of art highlight the time and patience they dedicated to the natural world.
Like scientific illustrators, people who keep nature journals invest time observing and documenting the environment around them. Scientific illustrators, however, create a product that accurately represents reality in order to communicate detail, function, and concept. The goal of nature journaling, on the other hand, lies in the process of creating and not in the created product.
That’s important to remember if you are just venturing into the world of nature journaling so you don’t get discouraged by your internal art critic. Judging your penmanship and drawing skills can prevent you from enjoying the benefits of spending time in and observing nature. Our society has concocted a strange misconception that unlike all other practicable skills, someone is either “good at” art or they are not. Fortunately, this idea is false. No one expects the perfect tune the first time they play a guitar. Practice is necessary to build mastery and nature journaling is no different.
As an artist and naturalist, John Muir Laws has devoted his career to helping people understand the process of nature journaling. He advises to “draw for two reasons, to see and to remember. Let go of the goal of the pretty picture. If it ends up pretty that is OK. If not, that is OK. Each drawing is not an end in itself. It is a vehicle to help you focus your attention.” The point of nature journaling is to look intently and to see the world with purpose. Drawing, in particular, helps us slow down and see details we often miss. And just like with any practiced skill, our drawings will improve over time.
Pay attention to the world and record it with a nonjudgmental eye. Have you seen something new? What are you curious about? Can you remember the details? These are all successful pieces of the nature-journaling process. They are the reason we go outside and observe. This week, draw and draw often. Illustrate your outdoor world, allow yourself to wonder, and commit it to your heart and mind.
Further Research: Paper Blogging: Audio: Nature Journaling & John Muir Laws
Nature Journaling Drawing Tip
Focusing on the Process:
- Acknowledge that the goal of nature journaling is to learn more about nature—to grow curious, to discover something new, and to remember the experience. Your artwork is just part of the learning process.
- Draw a lot! Practice to improve your skills.
- Warm up each time you draw. Just as a musician practices scales or an athlete stretches their muscles, get your creative juices flowing before you begin journaling.
Prompt #31: Contour Studies
Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil
Assignment: This is a good exercise to warm up your drawing skills. The goal of contour drawing is to draw the outline of an object using one continuous line without looking at your paper. It can be challenging, but fight the urge to sneak a glance at your paper. This exercise relieves the pressure of creating “beautiful art” and helps you observe what you’re drawing more closely. Select a natural object from around your house or yard. Choose a point along the object’s outline to begin drawing. Trace the outline of the object with your eyes and move your pencil along the paper at the same speed. If you reach a dead-end, don’t lift your pencil. Backtrack until you can begin a new section of the outline. Take your time and allow your eyes and hand to move together as one. Once it’s complete, try the exercise a few more times.
Journal Prompt: Attempt a semi-blind contour drawing of the same object. This time, allow yourself a few glances at your page to check how your drawing is progressing. Which of the two drawings do you like better? Why? How can contour drawing help you capture the natural world in your nature journal?
Prompt #32: Color Concepts
Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil, coloring materials, paint chips from a hardware store or magazine clippings
Assignment: We tend to have preconceived notions of how colors look in nature. For example: leaves are supposed to be green, branches are usually brown, and water is mostly blue. These ideas often don’t reflect reality. The two exercises below will challenge our misconceptions about color in nature.
Part 1. Find a safe spot outside to observe nature (backyard, porch, or park). Closely observe an object, like a leaf, branch, or flower. Describe 5-10 different colors found in and on this object. Be very specific with your descriptions. Create a black and white drawing of the object and label where to find each color.
Part 2. Choose a color from a paint chip or magazine clipping. Paste a small section of the chip/clipping in your nature journal. Find a safe spot outside to observe nature (backyard, porch, or park). Find three objects in nature that share the same color as your selection. Sketch each item and write a detailed description.
- Around the Kampfire: Chlorophyll Paintings: Incorporating Art in Science
- Life over C’s: Preschool Paint Chip Outdoor Color Scavenger Hunt
- Building Book Love: Paint Chip Poetry Without Guilt
Journal Prompt: What colors do you associate with manmade items? When and where do you see these manmade colors in nature? What can color tell us about the health of an environment?
Prompt #33: Seeing Through the Movement
Materials Needed: Nature journal or paper, pen or pencil
Assignment: A gesture drawing is a very quick sketch used to show the shape and form of a subject. It’s useful when you’re first beginning a drawing, especially when drawing moving objects. These types of sketches are usually very light with lots of repetition in order to determine the best angles and forms. As your confidence grows, you can create stronger, darker lines to represent what you believe is the true outline of the subject. Videos in the additional resources section show examples of this drawing style. For this exercise, find a safe spot to observe nature outside (backyard, porch, or by a window). Choose a natural object to draw. Choose something immobile at first, then try drawing moving objects like animals. Quickly produce multi-gesture drawings of the object. Spend less than one minute on a drawing before beginning a new sketch. You can also practice by gesture drawing with the video, Waterfowl of the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
- Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature: [video] Robert Bateman Gesture Drawing in Nature—NatureSketch Club Video #3
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy: [video] From Lesson 4: Drawing Skills for Nature Journaling
Journal Prompt: What new details were you able to include when you focused on your subject’s movement? Did you notice anything new about this organism? What do you wonder about it?
We would love you to share your nature journal entries on CBF's Learn Outside Facebook Group!
Kathlean Davis, Educator, and Cindy Duncan, Education Operations Coordinator