3 Things Nature Artists Need to Remember About Social Media

Earlier this month, our dog Dory killed an immature desert cottontail rabbit. In the past, I’ve felt despondent over these little yard deaths. Even though I know these animals do not live long and many of them die young to feed the coyotes, foxes, and owls, I was still sad. This time, however, I did something besides leaving it in the tall grass to return to dust: I drew it. Documenting what I saw seemed like a kindness. Instead of treating this life as a throw-away, taking the time to really look at it and record it in my sketchbook honored the short life it had. I suppose it doesn’t help the rabbit any; it’s still dead. But it helped me to accept the death, and to feel that the rabbit’s life wasn’t negligible.

Desert_cottontail
Sketches of an immature desert cottontail (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

Thanks to the drawing class I took in May, my drawing came out really well, so I shared it on Facebook with a group interested in nature journaling. The responses I got really surprised me and taught me some important things to remember about social media.

1) Context is critical.

Someone thought this rabbit was a rare or endangered hare and that I had let my dog run loose in its habitat. That person lives in California. I live in Colorado. Perhaps it’s rare in California, but the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) is abundant in the neighborhood where I live. This little rabbit lives fast and dies young; few individuals live beyond two years, and they reproduce like, well, rabbits, in order to make up for it. Adult females can have up to four litters in one year and females born in the spring can have their first litter before the end of their first summer! It’s hard to imagine how a place wouldn’t be overrun with these guys.

Also, Dory caught this rabbit in our fenced-in back yard, which is the only place she goes off leash. I wouldn’t dream of taking her for a hike in a park or natural area off-leash. I am determined to keep any wildlife in the area safe from her (she thinks she’s a wolf) and her safe from the wildlife (she only weighs 13 pounds).

2) People can speak with authority and still be wrong.

I was told rather bluntly this animal was a hare, not a rabbit. I hadn’t thought about the difference, so I was grateful someone brought it up. One person insisted rabbits are domestic (raised and bred in captivity) and hares wild. Another argued that hares are from Britain, and rabbits from America. Curious as to who was right, I went through the books* in my house looking for an answer.

desert_cottontail_02_web
Desert cottontail (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

The “experts” were wrong. The animal I drew is definitely a rabbit not a hare. There are two main differences between rabbits and hares, but they are not the ones I was given. Physically, hares have longer ears and longer hind legs than rabbits. (Despite their name, jackrabbits are actually hares, which unfortunately confuses the issue.) Another way to tell them apart is based on their reproductive strategies. Rabbits bear naked, blind (altricial) young while hares have fully-furred, open-eyed (precocial) young. This difference means baby hares can move around and eat vegetation as soon as they are born, while baby rabbits are initially helpless.

blacktailed_jackrabbit_web
Black-tailed jackrabbit, which is actually a hare; check out those ears and hind legs! (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

I am glad someone challenged me on this, because it made me educate myself. But it also reminded me I can’t take someone else’s word for these things. I have to verify what they’ve said.

3) Not everyone agrees on what is acceptable to draw.

Some people were shocked and disgusted that I would draw a dead animal. I should have seen this one coming, right? But I didn’t. I thought people who were interested in spending time outdoors drawing wildlife would understand that, for an artist, a natural death is an opportunity to see details close up and record them. Historically, naturalists collected their specimens with guns and traps, then identified or described the species after the fact, when they could easily examine the animal close-up. While I would never kill anything for this reason, I have spent time drawing skulls and taxidermy in order to learn more about the animals I’m interested in.

I’m not alone. Some artists did chime in, saying that they also drew the dead birds and animals they found in their yard. But there were a few who responded with a short and clear “yuck”. In the same way, there are people who do not want to see your drawings of nude models, so it might be better to post a questionable image in the comments and include a warning in the main post out of consideration for others.

Have you ever gotten an unexpected response to a Facebook post? What did you learn from it?

*References used for this article:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary. Fifth Edition, 2011.
  • Fisher, Chris, Don Pattie and Tamara Hartson. Mammals of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Publishing, 2000, p. 244.
  • Halfpenny, James C., and Elisabeth A. Biesiot. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Johnson Printing Company, 1986, p. 46.
  • Burton, Maurice and Robert Burton, editors. The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1969

Multi-Basking: Layering Interests Increases Drawing Pleasure

Last week, I went to a local natural area so I could draw the prairie dogs that live there. I’ve wanted to do this for years, but haven’t felt able to tackle the task until now. The online drawing class I took in May (Roz Stendahl’s Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public ) prepared me well. I knew what to take, I was comfortable drawing in public, and I didn’t let my moving subjects frustrate me. While the class is responsible for the success of my trip, it was multi-basking that made it such a wonderful experience.

BTprairieDog_web
Black-tailed Prairie Dog (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When I arrived at Coyote Ridge Natural Area, it was almost ten in the morning. Afraid that I was too late to see any prairie dogs, I was relieved to find that they were busy feeding and watching for danger. To my delight, there was also a pair of burrowing owls. (I love their grumpy expressions.) Burrowing owls use abandoned prairie dog burrows as nests and I’ve seen them before in really large prairie dog towns. I hadn’t realized that the local colony was big enough to support them.

I set up my folding seat on the gravel path that runs along one edge of the prairie dog town and sat down to sketch. I watched both the prairie dogs and the owls. The owls sat fairly still, making them excellent subjects to draw, but the prairie dogs were often closer and easier to see. As I sketched, meadowlarks and horned larks sang nearby. Occasionally, hikers would pass behind me. A few even stopped to ask what I was looking at and I took a moment to talk with them.

The owls spent their time between two different mounds, which I assumed were the front and back doors of their burrow. At one point, a prairie dog came quite close to one mound. The owl standing watch dove at him, wings spread and beak open. The owl kept up the attack until the prairie dog had scurried away. The interaction left me wondering why the owl was so defensive. Do prairie dogs eat owl eggs? Or was the owl aggressive due to the higher hormones that go with breeding season?

SketchCollage_web
A few of the quick sketches I drew at Coyote Ridge. (Drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

When I left an hour later, I was feeling elated. Part of my joy came from the excitement of finally getting to draw prairie dogs at Coyote Ridge. Part of it was due to the pleasant surprise of getting to draw burrowing owls as well. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that.

The reason I felt so happy and fulfilled by a simple hour of drawing was because I’d managed to smoosh so many interests* into one activity. My main goal was to draw, but I made it richer by drawing live animals outdoors in a natural setting. I combined my love of the outdoors, my love of animals, my love of learning, and my love of teaching with my love of drawing. I learned some things I didn’t know and came away with questions I’d like to answer. I talked to strangers and helped educate them a little about the animals of the prairie. And of course, I got to draw and spend time watching the animals do their thing.

It seemed like a type of multi-tasking, only more effective and more fun. I was really multi-basking — letting myself enjoy many different things all at the same time. I recommend it highly.

Do you ever multi-bask? What activities or interests do you find go together well?

*”Smooshing interests” is a strategy discussed in How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick.

DIY Coloring Book Inspirations

I use lots of different sources for the doodles in my homemade coloring books. Here are some examples of the many things you can use to make your own designs.

EarlyDoodlePage_web

1) Use your own photos. I drew my dog Cora by looking at an old photo fo her, then decorated the wall with hearts. Feel free to trace the image if you aren’t ready to draw it freehand.

sketchNphoto_web
The doodle I made of Cora, and the photo I used for inspiration.

 

2) Draw jewelry.  Sometimes I draw a ring or earring I’m wearing. Other times, I go for something more elaborate, like this brooch from the Middle Ages that I saw in an art book.

jewelryEx_web
A brooch from the Middle Ages and my doodle based on it.

3) Copy patterns from fabric. I often copy designs from fabrics around me: look at carpets, curtains, table cloths, and napkins to find ideas. If the design is too complicated, simplify it.

ClothExamples_web
The left hand pattern is based on a table cloth; the right hand is based on a place mat.

4) Draw simple symbols. Your doodles can also come from your head. Draw hearts, stars, flowers, a smiling sun. Simple designs can be made more elaborate and colored in many different ways.

SymbolEx_web
Repeat or decorate a simple shape for fun coloring.

5) Get close. When there aren’t any obvious patterns nearby, I start looking at the texture of things, like the fabric of my shirt or running shoes, or the stitching on a jacket or jeans. These form patterns that can be drawn large and colored.

closeUpEx_web
The stitches on the hem of my t-shirt (top) gave me a pattern to draw in my coloring book (bottom).

6) Draw architectural details. Something as simple as a doorknob or electrical outlet can be turned into a doodle for your coloring book. More complex details from old buildings are fun to draw and color, too. One of my favorite sources for architectural ornaments is the book The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones.

gramOfOrnament_web
Get this book in the large format if you can find it. It’s worth it!

The world is full of patterns you can play with. Traditional quilt blocks, tile floors (whether in your bathroom or the state capitol), brick walls and walkways, and fencing can all inspire doodles for you to color. Keep your eyes open and be brave. It doesn’t matter if your drawing doesn’t look like what you saw. You’ll still have something interesting to color when you’re done.

What cool patterns have you found to doodle?

Make Your Own Coloring Book

Adult coloring books are all the rage, and I understand the appeal. Back in 2011, I was in pain for months before surgery fixed my problem. Exhausted and hurting, I spent hours coloring to distract myself. It was absorbing without being difficult, and very relaxing. But I didn’t use published coloring books. I made my own.

BroochPage_web
A sample of a coloring page from my homemade book (9″ x 12″)

I’ve always been interested in drawing, but at that time I believed I couldn’t really draw. I felt so awful that everything seemed hard. Doodling gave me permission to play with markers without making Art. The funny thing is, the more I practiced, the more beautiful my pages got. With time, I included sketches that actually looked like things I saw around me. Eventually, I got up the courage to take online art courses.

If you want to take your coloring to the next level, then it’s time to make your own coloring book. You don’t have to be an artist to doodle (and you can doodle even if you are an artist!).

You can make your coloring pages on loose sheets of paper or in a sketch book. I like using wire-bound sketchbooks because they lay flat and keep my doodles in chronological order. I mostly use larger formats (11″ x 14″) because I like room to spread out. I do take smaller sketchbooks (5″ x 8″) with me when I travel. Not all my pages turn out great, but it’s nice being able to look back at them.

To help you get started, here is how I do it:

1) Draw frames. I do everything freehand because I like the hand-drawn look of my imperfect rectangles, but you can use a ruler or a stencil to draw your frames. Also, they don’t have to be square. I’ve made pages with triangular frames, curvy frames, even frames that make a picture of a flower.

DoodlePage1_web
Draw frames to fill the page

2) Fill each frame with a different pattern or image. There are lots of sources out there that can teach you different patterns to doodle (Zentangle is probably the most famous). But you can easily come up with your own. All you have to do is look around and copy what you see.

Here are the patterns I used for my sample doodle page:

LabeledDoodle2_web
Draw a pattern in each frame (designs described in post text).

A) Basket weave: texture copied from a basket on my table

BasketPattern_web
The basket I looked at and the pattern I drew from it.

B) Simple grid: super easy to draw with lots of coloring options; I drew mine on an angle relative to its frame because I like how it looks

C) Stylized zipper: this is a simplified drawing of one half of a zipper with the teeth turned into rectangles. You can use any pattern you see around you. If it’s too hard to draw, simplify the elements and draw that.

D) X box: this is a pattern inspired by a quilt block I really like. Like the grid (B), it’s easy to draw and has lots of interesting coloring options

E) Bubbles: lots of circles drawn different sizes. You can do this with any shape you want. And you can make them overlap (like I did) or just fill the space with them. Whether or not you draw them so that they disappear behind the frame is also up to you.

F) Sawtooth borders: draw a series of lines (straight or curvy) and then fill them in with triangles. You can fill each strip with any design you like, simple or complex, and make the borders in one frame all the same, alternating, or all different.

G) Scales: A simple C shape drawn to pack the space. You can add as many echo lines in each scale as you like (the sample shows one echo line).

H) Tiles: draw a single shape over and over, packing them together but leaving a set amount of space between the adjacent tiles. I used triangles here, but this works with all sorts of shapes, even really strange ones.

3) Color your designs. I’ll talk more about coloring tips in my next post, but here are the basics. You can use anything you have or like (markers, colored pencils, ballpoint pens, gel pens, crayons, etc.). I used markers because I loved the strong color and the way the ink flows on to the page.

DoodleInProgress_web

I bought a set of Prismacolor Premier artists markers so I would have lots of colors to work with. You can use smaller, cheaper sets (which is how I started), but I like having lots of color options.

DoodlePage3_web
My doodle page, after coloring (approximately 5″ x 5″)

Even a limited set of markers can make for a great looking page. Here’s a monochrome page I colored using the black and gray markers from one of my cheaper sets.

MonochromePage_web
Colored with grey and black pens (5.5″ x 8.5)

Of course, you can still make your own coloring pages even if you have only one pen or pencil. Just shade in part of the designs to add light and dark.

BlueDoodle_web
“Coloring” page made with a single pen (5.5″ x 8.5″)

 

My favorite thing about making my own coloring book pages is that the results are so personal. When I look at a doodle, I remember the thing that inspired the pattern. For the more unusual patterns, I remember where I was (visiting a friend, sitting on an airplane, hanging out in a hotel room) and what I was looking at (a piece of pottery, the fabric on the seat in front of me, the pattern on the bedspread). Like any kind of drawing, even doodling can open your eyes to the world around you.

Next week: Tips on coloring your homemade pages.

What I Learned By Losing My Art Journal

In an effort to draw more, I carry a sketchbook with me whenever I can. Since I am especially interested in drawing animals, I took it to the Estes Park Wool Market & Fiber Festival in early June. I knew there would be lots of animals to sketch there, but losing my sketchbook was not part of my plan.

I sketched the goats and sheep in the barns. My first mistake was not putting my sketchbook back in my backpack when we returned to the vendors hall. It was still in my hand when I was looking at the luscious yarns and fibers at the Fiber Optic Yarns booth, which is how I wound up leaving it behind. I set it down for a moment to pick something else up and, dazzled by the rich colors, forgot all about it.

Fortunately, I had my name and number in the front of my journal. Even more fortunately, the person who found it wanted to get it back to me.

My phone rang as we were driving out of Estes Park. I didn’t recognize the out-of-state number, so I didn’t pick it up. If I had, we could have gone back and gotten my journal right then, saving everyone a lot of time and trouble, worry and waiting. But I didn’t. I didn’t listen to the message until we were already home, and by then it was too late.

When I called her back that evening, Kimber Baldwin (owner of Fiber Optic Yarns) told me that my journal was already packed up with their booth. She would mail it to me after they got back to Ohio and unpacked. It would be a while before that happened, however, because they were heading to the Black Hills of South Dakota next.

Once I got past my dismay, I was amused. My journal was going traveling without me.

We were away on vacation in California when my journal finally made it home. I took other sketchbooks with me for the trip, but I was constantly missing the book I’d lost. I kept thinking of information I needed that I had recorded in that particular journal.

Thinking about it so much gave me an idea. When my journal and I were together again, I would draw a map in it to show where we both had been while we were separated. I was surprised at just how far we had both gone.

RTmap_web

I feel incredibly lucky that I got my journal back and I learned some strong lessons in the process:

1) Answer the phone. The person calling could be trying to help you.
2) If you aren’t drawing in it, put your journal back in your bag.
3) Make sure at least your first name and cell phone number are written in the front of your journal. Forgetful moments happen.
4) Despite the media’s current representation of America and Americans, there are kind people out there. People like Kimber, who will make the effort to get your art journal back to you.

One Way I Shut My Monkey

I’ve been listening to Danny Gregory’s “Shut Your Monkey” podcasts. The monkey is Gregory’s name for the voice in his head that is always protesting or warning him not to do something, the voice I think of as my inner critic.

You may have heard this voice yourself. It’s the voice that tells you you’re too old to start piano lessons, don’t have enough time to take a painting class, should never sing because you’re tone deaf, and have more important things to do than write a short story.

SYM

Gregory’s book and podcast are both about recognizing and overcoming this voice. In December of 2014, I first came across the online drawing classes offered by Sketchbook Skool. Danny Gregory is one of the founders, so it’s both surprising and fitting that, when I wasn’t sure if I should sign up for a class, I used writing to deal with the monkey’s paralyzing voice.

I’ve been interested in drawing since I was a kid, but I rarely let myself draw. My monkey is always there, pointing out that my drawing is never as good as someone else’s. When I think I just need more practice, the monkey argues that I will never be good enough and that all the time I spend sketching is wasted.

This voice was so loud as I agonized over whether or not to take the SBS Klass “Beginnings,” that I got out an art journal and gave both my inner artist and my monkey space to have their say.

SBSyesORno_web

By the time I had finished, I knew the truth: my monkey was afraid — afraid of everything and anything, but really, that was all that was holding me back. Fear.

Fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, fear of getting laughed at, fear of not being good enough. Underneath all the warnings and predictions, my monkey was saying, “I’m afraid.”

My inner artist’s voice was about wanting something I’ve wanted for a long time. It said, “I want” with deep, heartfelt longing. And my frightened monkey yelled back, “Too bad! You can’t have it!”

In the past, the thought that I might be wasting time or money was enough to hold me back. Understanding that these arguments were based on fear changed everything for me.

I don’t want to live a life built on fear. It’s a cold, limited, drab life. Better to take the risk, so I did. I signed up for SBS and took my first Klass in January 2015.

Looking at everything the voices in my head were saying helped me to shut my monkey. I listened to my monkey rant until he ran out of things to say, then I took the class anyway.

Do you have a monkey/inner critic? Have you found ways to get past its warnings and distractions so you can do the creative work you dream of? Please share your monkey stories here.

Drawing: One Way To Stay in the Moment

When I tell my friends I need to relax more, they often suggest that I should meditate. I’ve tried off an on for years to meditate, with mixed success. Trying to sit and think of nothing doesn’t work for me. Mantras and counting are a little better, but I confess I don’t meditate regularly because it’s just too hard. Then I came across Danny Gregory, an artist who says that drawing is a form of meditation because it keeps us in the moment. I recently put his idea to the test when my husband was having mysterious belly pains on a Sunday.

As soon as I knew we were on our way to urgent care, I began debating with myself. I knew we would have to wait, possibly for hours. Should I take my Kindle or my sketchbook along? I chose the sketchbook, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to read. I’m Anxiety Girl. The minute anything looks off, or there’s a hint of trouble, I’m leaping to horrific conclusions far beyond the facts of the moment. A racing mind has a hard time following even the best story. So I took the sketchbook, which turned out to be the perfect companion for our long day.

anxietyGirl

We spent nine hours getting medical help, and for more than half of it, we didn’t actually know what was wrong. Nurses asked questions. Doctors asked more questions. They poked and prodded Kurt. He described his last 24 hours, where it hurt, how it hurt, again and again. They drew blood, and we waited for results.

When my thoughts started to race — what if he needs surgery? what if they put him in the hospital? what if it’s something hidden and big, like cancer no one knew was there? — I would pick up my sketchbook and draw. Making notes of the progress we were making, even that we were just waiting, brought me back to where I was and helped me to avoid being afraid about the unknown.

mandalaJan16_web
I started just doodling, guessing I would get interrupted and we would be relocated fairly often.
ERwaitingJan16_web
I started drawing Kurt’s hand. They took him away before I could finish.

When we got the blood tests back, the doctor was clearly puzzled. Except for a slightly elevated white blood count, everything was normal. He was a good doctor, not giving anything away, but I sensed he wasn’t sure what was going on, and that was scary. He said the next step was a CT scan, so they did the scan, and we waited for those results.

MoreWaitingJan16_web
I drew this while waiting for the CT scan results, then added the diagnosis when we got it.

At last, we had a diagnosis — appendicitis — and a plan of action — surgery, right away.

Everything went smoothly, and we were back home that night, looking at one another in amazement at the way our day had gone. I was especially proud of how calm I was, even when we were waiting for test results with no idea what was wrong. I learned that Danny Gregory was right. My drawing and doodling kept me in the moment and kept Anxiety Girl from busting out all over the place and freaking everyone out.