Approachable Art: The Nature Journal

Friends by Fiona.

Friends by Fiona.

I first discovered the concept of a serious, nature journal after reading through Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. The beautiful thing about keeping a nature journal is that your subject of study is both model and still life at the same time. A model is an organic shape which has an individual nature that you can readily identify and that may offer similarities of structure to other models. For example, a tree limb is unique and will be like no other tree limb in existence while still providing a possible similarity in design to the human arm. In this way if you practice drawing an organic form like a tree limb, you are simultaneously building skills to later draw a human limb because it’s also organic and some of the same foundational principles will apply. For example, the human limb is also prone to irregularities and is unique to all individuals.

At the same time the journal provides the student with organic models, it is providing a still life. The value of having a still life is that it’s still. It’s not going anywhere. Unlike a squirrel, or a human being, it doesn’t get cranky or fussy with you for taking your time. But again, like the squirrel or human being it is organic so the principles are close enough for transferring skills to a new study of life models. Another perk of the still life is that it looks good when you’re finished. Most of us think of art and we think immediately of the framed still life as the primary example. During the sixteenth century the primary form of artistic expression was the still life. That bowl of fruit on a table or a pitcher next to some flowers in the corner of a room is still with us today. So this puts the nature journalist in good company.

Nature Journal

Nature Journal page.

The subject matter will not move so that the artist can return to the same subject matter under different conditions. Immediate considerations would be that the artist could return under different lighting conditions. But what about documenting a tree through an entire year? That tree not only looks different throughout the seasons, but slowly it too will change its form. It may lose a branch after a storm. It may lose its leaves in early October but gain buds in May. You can nature journal close to home as well. A study of one’s own balcony or patio would count as a nature journal entry. Nature journals can also capture life model studies as well. Perhaps you capture a squirrel in gesture work or your child is sitting on a rock at the beach and you find the time to get it down in ink. This suddenly makes art less remote; suddenly art is personal. Even familial.

Because the format is a journal, there’s room for writing as well. The date is marked, the climate, the moon phase, the temperature. Even a short or long entry on your overall mood or circumstances during the time of the drawing can be included.

But what about skill? When my husband first returned to art school after a period away, he took up a basic still life class and found wisdom in the teacher’s opening lecture. She said that, ‘Anyone can draw. If you just make a mark on the page with a pencil you’ve technically drawn something. What I hope to teach you is how to see.’

I would add that a nature journal continues the spirit of these words. Whether or not you feel your line art is adequate is not the true incentive to capture nature in a journal; it is the ability to spend several minutes or hours learning how to see something for the very first time. A journal will help you break the habit of thinking you know what you see and you will discover what you really do see for the first time. As in this quote from Frederick Franck, from The Zen of Seeing:

“In this 20th century, to stop rushing around, to sit quietly on the grass, to switch off the world and come back to the earth, to allow the eye to see a willow, a bush, a cloud, a leaf . . . I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen.”


Koi Pond by Fiona

Koi Pond by Fiona.