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Connecting with Nature Through Art: You Don’t Have to Be an Artist!

detail sketch showing threeawn

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:

two-panel drawing by Cathy Bell, contrasting an open, parklike forest featuring even-aged trees, no regeneration, and invasive species in the understory (left) with a sloppy-looking forest featuring a variety of size and age classes, lots of woody debris, and abundant wildlife sign

Drawing for a graduate school course, Field Naturalist Practicum. On the left, an open, parklike forest that harbors invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle. All the trees are the same size, and there is no regrowth on the forest floor. On the right, a shadowy, sloppy-looking forest that is far better wildlife habitat, with abundant dead woody material and native plants in the understory.

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.

Cathy's quick sketches of a killdeer and a dark-eyed junco.

My quick sketches of a killdeer and a dark-eyed junco, both common Badlands birds.

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.

field sketches of two grasses, blue grama and side-oats grama

My field sketches of two common prairie grasses. Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), shown on the left, has seedheads that look like freshly-curled eyelashes. Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is taller than blue grama, with its raceme of spikelets drooping to one side.

field sketches of purple threeawn grass

Field sketches of purple threeawn (Aristida purpurea), showing its long, needlelike awns.

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.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Audrey Clark #

    I love them, Cathy! I am always a fan of art that has an innocent, less-trained quality, because it is fresher, more intriguing and surprising. That’s why I like to see the drawings of people who say they can’t draw–they always prove themselves wrong, though they don’t necessarily see it. Your art is spot-on and I’m very proud of you. It reminds me of Bernd Heinrich’s drawings, which also have a bit of innocence to them, even though he’s been drawing for years. I can’t wait to see more of your stuff.

    November 1, 2012
    • Thank you, Audrey, for the encouragement! I’m flattered that you bring up Bernd Heinrich’s work. Some of his birds and mammals have a childlike quality to them that I find very endearing. I never, ever, not in a million years, would dream of comparing my quick drawings with his, but I can see what you mean.

      Interestingly enough, when I first read Bernd’s books years ago, I remember thinking to myself how untutored his drawings looked, and I admired him for having the courage to publish them. Not because they were bad, but because they weren’t the highly-polished, thoroughly-rehearsed illustrations that appear in so many books. What I loved about Bernd’s sketches and paintings was that they were so clearly his. Like his writing, they were expressions of him, the person behind the book.

      November 1, 2012
  2. George #

    I can’t draw! But… well you have inspired me to give it a go for a nature section in story I am writing. I am a lot like you I think; got pretty good at drawing parts of my anatomy and bugs when in elementary school but gave it up. Had to do some for bio classes in college but nothing since. I think it is a matter of time and patience. I have always enjoyed those outdoors stories with simple illustrations by the author.

    Thanks…. I think.

    February 1, 2013
    • Mwah-ha-ha-ha-haaa! My sinister plan succeeded.

      … Seriously, you have no idea how pleased I am to hear this! I’ve been thinking that it’s about time for me to do another art post. Since writing this in October, I’ve been doing some watercolor painting. I’m having so much fun. It’s very meditative and it fascinates me on several levels to learn about how the paint behaves on the page.

      I haven’t been doing much outdoor sketching this winter, mainly because it’s, you know, winter. I love spending time outside no matter what the weather, but sitting in one place to draw is challenging when it’s cold and windy and I’m encumbered by gloves. Painting is a nice indoor alternative.

      Anyway, thanks again for the kind words … and let me know how it goes!

      February 1, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. In Badlands, a Bird of Winter: Townsend’s Solitaire | Homelandscapes
  2. From Prairies to Cornfields | Homelandscapes
  3. Book Review: The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, written and illustrated by John Muir Laws | Homelandscapes

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