Pen to Page: Field Sketching in the Nature Journal

A field journal is not just a place for words. The journal pages can also be filled with sketches of the natural objects, creatures, and phenomena encountered while exploring the outdoors. However, drawing in the field is packaged with its own unique set of challenges. A bird doesn’t strike a pose and wait for you to finish your sketch before tossing its head, turning around, or flitting away. The secrets of a seashell aren’t easy to translate in line and color. A magnificent landscape can be both awe-inspiring and intimidating once you place your pen to page. In this post, I describe simple field sketching techniques that help even “but-I-can’t-draw” folks fill the pages of their field journals with meaningful sketches.

A Path to Drawing is one of the five paths to creative nature journaling that I previously described here. When I teach a nature journaling workshop with kids or adults, we always begin with practicing field sketching techniques before we venture out to woods or stream. Kindergarteners can quickly master these sketching techniques, as can reluctant adults who insist they can’t draw a stick figure. Even more, these techniques are fun! They always elicit smiles and laughs as workshop participants are challenged to a 5 second gesture sketch or when they reveal the outcome of their blind contour sketches.

Contour Sketches

To draw, you first have to truly see an object. A great way to practice tuning your eye is contour sketching. Take an object (a leaf, twig, shell, seed, etc.) and hold it at arm’s length. Focus on the outside shape of the object, the lines where it intersects with the space around it. Now, moving your pen at the same speed as your eye, slowly draw the outside shape of the object–without lifting your pen from the page. You will end up with one continuous line that forms the shape of your object. To further challenge yourself, try a blind contour sketch where you intensely examine the object while drawing its outside shape–without peeking at the page or lifting your pen. Does a contour or blind contour sketch accurately capture the object? Rarely. But it is an excellent warm-up exercise that forces your eye and hand toward slow, deliberate, watchfulness.

Gesture Sketches

You spot a bird on a branch. How long before that bird moves? How can you possible capture it on paper before it changes position or flies away? Gesture sketches are quick, loose sketches that capture the essence of an object. They aren’t detailed nor exact. A gesture sketch captures the most important information in a very short time period: the overall shape, an unusual feature, or a strange pattern. Once you’ve made your gesture sketch and the bird has flown away, you can develop your sketch from memory, adding color, notes, or approximate measurements that will help you to later identify it in your field guide or describe it to someone else. Begin by placing a natural object on the table in front of you. Set a timer for 15 seconds. Now, draw! Start with the shape of the object, adding more detail as time allows. That may have felt fast, but 15 seconds is a long time for any creature (except sleeping ones) to stay still. Try a 10 second gesture sketch. Now, the ultimate challenge: 5 seconds.

Field sketching at the bird feeder.

Zoom Sketches

There is beauty in the details of a feather’s barbs, a leaf’s veins, a pine cone’s seeds. Imagine you are looking at the object through a magnifying glass and then a microscope. What do you see that wasn’t at first revealed? A zoom sketch encourages you to zoom in to capture the details of an object, like shifting the lenses on a microscope: 5x, 10x, 20x. Start by drawing a circle on your page, about the size of a drink coaster. Now, look, truly look at the fine details of your object. Zoom in to one particular portion of the object. Now, fill the circle with a zoomed-in sketch of just that portion of your object. Try drawing several circles and zooming in a little more each time.

Landscape Drawings

A landscape drawing is an attempt to sketch the view from a particular vantage point. What do the woods behind my house look like through my bedroom window? What does the river valley look like from this section of hiking trail? People who are comfortable with their drawing skills are able to pick out a particular section of a view and translate it on the page. A variety of line forms can be used to capture the shapes of trees and greenery, jagged cliffs, and winding river bends. Other people may be intimidated by such a vast view, wondering where to start. If you are the latter, then read on for a simple technique to make a landscape a bit more bite-sized.

Landscape drawing through a window.

Landscape Mini-Masterpieces

Draw a rectangle on the page, about the size of a cell phone. This will be the canvas for your landscape mini-masterpiece. Next, join the pointer finger of one hand with the thumb of the other hand, and vice versa, creating a rectangle-shape. Use this finger-rectangle as your viewfinder to help you scan the vast landscape in search of something that strikes you. By peering at the landscape through your viewfinder, it helps you to zero in on what you want to draw, and to let everything else in the landscape disappear. Next, sketch the landscape that falls just within your viewfinder, filling the small rectangle on your page. For fun, decorate the border of the rectangle to look like a fancy picture frame.

What other field sketching techniques do you use?


One Response to “Pen to Page: Field Sketching in the Nature Journal”
  1. Yes! Finally someone writes about sketching techniques.