In a world where everyone carries a camera everywhere they go, taking the time to stop and draw the natural world can seem like an old-fashioned and even pointless pastime. Snapping a picture takes a few seconds. Drawing takes a few minutes at least, and a lot longer in some cases. Besides, a drawing is less accurate than a photo and can’t capture all the information a photo can. So why bother to draw?
1) It forces us to slow down. This supposed drawback to drawing is actually one of the benefits. When I draw, I am in one spot longer than I would be if I just took a photo and moved on. As a result, I get to see more and learn more about the animals I watch. Because I spent nearly an hour sketching at a prairie dog town, I got to see a burrowing owl chase a prairie dog that got too close to its den. Similarly, I got to see barn swallows feed their chicks while I was drawing their nest.
2) It makes us really look at what is in front of us. On a hike, I sat down to draw a wildflower so I would be better able to identify it when I got home. Shortly after I started, I realized what I thought was eight petals was really four large overlapping lobed petals. I would never have been able to identify this evening primrose if I hadn’t taken the time to draw it.
3) It increases our appreciation of the natural world. In our day-to-day observations of plants and animals, we tend to gloss things over. We see a bird, think “That’s a robin” and we’re done. In fact, birds vary from one another as much as humans do, as I discovered when I was painting the barn swallows that grew up on our porch this summer. Every time I draw the horse skull I own, I am in awe of the amount of detail and complexity in the bony part of a horse’s head. Nearly every drawing of nature I do leads me to a greater appreciation of the wonder all around me.
4) It helps us to be in the moment and to remember what we saw and heard. Flipping through my sketch books, I remember vividly where and when I made a drawing, other things that went on around me, the individual animals I drew, even the people I was with. When we draw, we can look like we are removed from our surroundings, but it makes us aware in a special way, one we can appreciate when we look at our drawings later.
5) It is a great opportunity to improve our drawing skills. I have drawn cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens for the first time in my life this year. My brain thinks it knows what these animals look like, but it is wrong. Seriously wrong. This is the essence of drawing from life: getting past our know-it-all brains, connecting our hand movements directly to what our eyes see. Taking the time to draw the world around us gives us more practice developing these skills.
There is a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) nest right outside our front door, on top of the porch light. We had swallows last year, too. I would hear their chittering song through the open window, but I didn’t really watch them. This year, I was ready to try nature journaling. I made an effort to draw them daily. As a result, I learned a lot.
July 2: Barn swallows nesting on our front porch. The parents are flying around and chittering at me and sitting on the neighbor’s roof.
The babies are pretty big before I even notice them. I see their heads poking out over the edge of nest and point them out to Kurt. He takes pictures. I stand on the porch as far from the nest as I can to draw the nest. It’s surprising how fond I am of these grumpy looking birds. Their white frowns and slanting brows give them a permanent angry scowl. I love them anyway.
July 4: The nest is like a layer cake of straw with white fecal frosting. Feeding: Mom and Dad fly in one at a time. All the babies open their mouths, but the parent already knows who will be fed. They are in and out in an instant. One of the parents came in at least three times before realizing I was here. Now they are calling and the babies have hunkered down to hide. Mom and Dad were on top of the wind chimes. Flew off when I moved.
The parents do not like it when I’m on the porch and take off whenever they see me. I’m afraid I am keeping them from feeding their family, so I keep my sketching sessions under thirty minutes and draw as fast as I can. We stop going out the front door. Keeping the birds’ stress level low is one of our priorities.
July 5: The babies are flapping! Extended periods of beating their wings while sitting on the edge of the nest. Getting ready to fly. Note: sit inside with the door cracked. Better view of the nest and the parents don’t mind.
It’s a challenge to draw the birds because they move so much, but I do my best. Looking through the cracked door or the front window is makes it easier to draw the birds, but I still keep my sessions short, because I know that they can see me. These are wild birds. I don’t want them to get used to me. Some people will be kind to them, but some won’t, and how are they supposed to tell the difference?
July 6: They look like hoodlums. Waiting for food from Mom and Dad — and snapping on their own at any insects that come close.
I read about people knocking swallow nests off their cabin porch with the helpless nestlings inside. I am horrified. There is a downside to swallows on the porch: bird poop everywhere. But it’s not really everywhere. Mostly the mess is directly under the nest and their favorite perches. We usually live with it, but it’s bad enough that I scrape and wash the porch before company comes. While I think the work is worth the joy of sharing my porch with swallows, I start thinking about ways to make this job easier in the future.
July 7: This morning at 8 AM, one of the fledglings was on our porch bench. Haven’t seen any of them out of the nest since. More wing flapping today despite the crowded nest — they will stand on a sibling to do it!
I can’t get over the fact that there are five baby birds in such a little nest. Our field guide says barn swallows lay from three to seven eggs at a time. I try to imagine seven birds crammed in that little cup and can’t do it.
July 8: The fledglings are leaving the nest. I saw them fly as far as the neighbor’s roof and then back again, but their favorite destination is our wind chimes.
July 9: The fledglings have been flying all over today, spending more time out of the nest than in. Preening, stretching, and begging.
With the birds out of the nest, I do my best to capture their shape and colors. I experiment with my new watercolor paints. I’m still learning how things work, just like the birds I am watching.
July 10: Woke to an empty nest. Are the barn swallows gone for good?
My heart breaks when I see the empty nest. The grumpy faces that have been making me smile every day are suddenly nowhere to be seen. There’s a quiet hole where feathered lives used to be. It reminds me of the hush in the house after a beloved pet dies. The empty air where I expect to see a dog wagging her tail — or a nest full of swallows — feels like a cold vacuum.
I share my dismay on Facebook. Friends assure me the swallows will be back next year, and I know they are right. Last year, the swallows managed to raise two clutches of eggs in a single summer. Secretly, I cross my fingers, hoping for more nestlings before this summer is over.
July 18: Lots of activity at the BARS* nest on the porch this morning which is unusual because the kids have been gone for a week or so. Wondering if the breeding pair have new eggs…
There are only two swallows, so I assume the parents are back to try again. Because of the height of the nest, I can’t see into it without help. I have to stand on a step stool and use a telescoping mirror to check for eggs. I take the time to find the tools I need. I must be hopeful because I also buy a plastic tarp to lay on the door step so it will be easier to clean up the mess.
July 22: There is one brown-speckled tan egg in the barn swallow nest on the porch!
When I look out, the mother swallow is usually sitting on the nest, watching me warily. On the rare occasions when she’s off foraging, I check the nest. The female lays one tiny egg a day, until she has a total of four. Now she is on the nest more often than not, so I know we will have hatchlings soon.
I can’t wait for the fun to start all over again. I wonder what else I will learn about them?
UPDATE: August 10: I finally got to peek in the nest this morning, and the eggs have hatched! I think the babies are a few days old at most — pink, gray, bald, and tiny. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them and drawing again as soon as I can see them without the mirror and stool.
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.
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.
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.
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
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’sDrawing 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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A) Basket weave: texture copied from a basket on my table
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.