Connecting with Nature Through Art: You Don’t Have to Be an Artist!
How I’ve Begun the Very Gradual Process of Getting Over My Fear of Drawing
Art and I have an uneasy relationship. I enjoy looking at art. I admire people who create original works. I often wish I could draw, or paint, or sculpt; I long for the artistic ability to capture the beauty I see in wild animals and plants. Every now and then I take a stab at sketching in my nature notebook … but I always fall back on words to describe what I see. Writing is far easier, for me. It comes more naturally. Drawing is mildly scary. Painting or using pastels, or introducing color in any way? Terrifying!
How did I get to be this way? As a kid, I loved drawing, and I loved using color. I drew things from my imagination, and I drew things I saw in real life. It brought me great joy. But then, at some point, I just stopped. By the time I was a teenager, I felt embarrassed by my drawings, because they didn’t look quite the way I wanted them to look. So I took the easy way out and said, “Oh, I can’t draw.” After saying that for long enough, it became true.
Over the past couple of years, though, I have increasingly felt that art is a wondrous channel through which we can connect with the natural world. While a Field Naturalist graduate student, I met a few wildly talented artists who integrated drawings into their field notebooks in a way that enlivened the pages and awakened the memory of an experience. I recognized that I could learn all the OCPs—official course plants—for field botany class a lot more quickly if I sketched the plants onto homemade flash cards. I started edging towards art again, but remained uneasy about it; near the end of my first semester, I spent hours on this comparative drawing, and felt disproportionately proud of it:
At the beginning of this month, I went out to area schools with two different Badlands National Park Artists in Residence—photographer Jason Jilg and painter Roxanne Everett. Both are talented artists who shared their chosen media with elementary school students, while I tagged along as an assistant. One day, I helped shepherd kids around as they used Jason’s cameras to take portraits of each other. Later in the week, with Roxanne, I flashed bird images up onto the classroom Smartboard as the fourth-graders executed speed sketches of the different species. An oval for the body, a circle for the head; triangles for bill and tail; straight lines for the legs. In fifteen seconds or less, these nine-year-olds were able to get down the essence of the birds they saw. Given a little more time, they executed beautiful watercolors of a black-capped chickadee clinging to a twig.
If they could do it, so could I! Inspired by Roxanne’s work with the students, I came home from work that day and tried drawing a couple of common Badlands birds. I tried to remind myself of what she had emphasized with the kids: be quick. Don’t get caught up in minutiae. Look for the big shapes. Think about the posture of the bird, the angles at which its component shapes are held.
My bird drawings may not be professional grade, but they are good enough: I showed them to a couple of friends, covering over where I had written in the names with my hands, and they were able to identify the species I had drawn.
Feeling motivated by Roxanne, the fourth-graders, and my own modest success, I went out the next evening and tried my hand with some of the prairie grasses that grow a stone’s throw from my back door. Plants are, in many ways, easier for me to draw than birds. They stay put, for one thing! You can look at them from whatever angle you like, for as long as you like. You’re much more in control than you are with animals.
In posting these images, I’m reminded of when I first started showing my writing to other people. It was very uncomfortable, and I was fearful of being judged. It was as if my value as a person depended on the quality of my writing. Eventually, though, I got over that. Feedback from others was helpful. More importantly, I learned that some people would love what I wrote, while others remained completely indifferent to it—and that was okay. Putting these sketches out into the world feels very similar. I would love to have some encouragement, some hint that what I’ve drawn isn’t completely laughable, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what other people think. I am enjoying the process of experimenting with art as a means for observing nature, and getting better at it along the way, I hope.
And so, one of my goals for the next year is to devote more time to drawing in nature. In trying to capture the essence of a living thing on paper, I learn to observe it more fully.
Do you enjoy drawing plants, animals, or landscapes? I would love to hear about your experiences in using art as a means to appreciate or observe nature more closely.