It’s apple season here in New York; the time for picking apples and drinking cider and making pies. But for sketching, I prefer to leave the perfect apples for others and seek out wild and wind fallen fruit. Like Thoreau, I find almost all wild apples handsome. They are beautiful not in spite of their misshapen and knotted appearance, but because of it.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Bethan Burton for an episode of the Journaling with Nature podcast. We talk about my approach to sketching, my love of subjects that are often overlooked, and about my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. Everyone should be interviewed by someone as sweet as Bethan. Her soft Australian accent and ability to put you at ease makes the conversation flow and leave you feeling like you’ve gained a friend.
Give a listen here: or search for Journaling With Nature wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find it on Apple, Google, and Spotify.
Fall is here, but the final blooms of zinnias and Mexican sunflowers continue in the garden, along with a tangle of scarlet runner bean and cypress vines. I’m hoping that the remaining tomatoes ripen before we get a hard frost. Perhaps there will be one more journal page to mark the end of the season. But just in case, the last of the show seems well deserving of a late season tribute.
Tips and Techniques– I could have selected only the finest remaining blooms for this sketch, but it wouldn’t have reflected the reality of the tangled mess or plants in various stages of bloom and decay that mark the October garden. So, while you may be tempted to paint a beautiful bouquet (and there’s nothing wrong with that), consider the value of marking the seasons and showing the imperfect reality that is inherent in a fall garden (and life itself).
At 5 o’clock, the sun was already low on the horizon, casting a golden light that would blaze for a short while more and then vanish. After eight hours at my desk, I quickly closed my laptop, picked up my sketchbook, and headed to a nearby preserve to immerse myself in what remained of a perfect fall day. I didn’t walk far before being surrounded by the colors of the season. Dark trunks of old sugar maples cloaked in a perfect glory of yellow, orange, green, and russet lined the old carriage road that marks the boundary of the preserve. I wish I could have taken you along to see the display, but this sketch will have to do.
Tips and Techniques—Sometimes you only have an hour (or less), a perfectly golden hour, in which to make a mark on a page. Tackling a big subject like a line of trees and fall foliage wouldn’t typically be my go-to subject for such a short time. But because it was truly THE subject of the moment, I decided to take the leap. Eliminating the more complicated branches of this scene made it more doable—though I wish I had included just a little more height. I sketched in the trees in pencil and painted the colorful leaves and ground with a waterbrush while on the path. The impression of color and light seemed like the most important element to capture in the moment. Back at home, I added the dark trunks and shadows. The thin border and text were important finishing elements, containing the sketch and anchoring it in time and place.
“I suppose wisdom is to know one’s necessities and not live without them. And this huge silence, with the woods and the ocean together, and the air full of kelp and the sound of the fish hawk and the seagulls and nothing else seems to be something I parish and parch without.” —Margaret Wise Brown, who summered on Vinalhaven from 1938-1952 and authored children’s classics including Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny
The Maine coast is, for many, about lighthouses and lobsters, quaint harbor towns and deep blue-green waters. I like those things, too, but I am drawn to Maine’s rocky coast—and to its islands in particular—for their silent and majestic spruce forests and intimate rocky tidal pools. Here, worlds beyond my own cares open, anchored in the solidity of granite and the rhythm of tides. The cry of the osprey circling overhead, the croak of a heron in the gathering dusk, the occasional rumble of lobster boats are welcome sounds in an otherwise quiet September.
We filled our days with exploration and several exhilarating quarry swims. I tried to paint boats and buildings in my sketchbook but found I could not muster enough interest to do either with satisfaction. So here is my week in sketches and in the particulars that will sustain me until I return.
It’s hard to believe that after six months of staying close to home a planned vacation to Maine is actually going to happen later this month. Yahoo! I’ll be stepping into the world of granite boulders and tide pools before you know it. In preparation for our trip, I did what I often do before leaving home and made a map to set the stage for the sketchbook pages to come. The island of Vinalhaven has a rich history of quarrying and lobster fishing, so I used a monochromatic map from 1859 as my inspiration. I look forward to filling in more of it and turning the page to record new adventures ahead.
Tips and Techniques– I love looking at old maps and thinking about how to use various elements, but I have never made one like this. If it appeals to you, I recommend trying it—it was surprisingly easy and fun. After making an outline of the coast in ink, I gave the entire page (except the buoy) a graded wash of raw umber and burnt umber. With the paint still wet, I placed plastic wrap onto the paper, which created subtle texture. Once the page was dry, I added another graded wash, this time yellow ochre, and again added the plastic wrap. Next, I painted the thick shadow along the coastline with a size 6 brush and then the thin contour lines using a size 2 brush. The text style is drawn from the historic map. After printing the letters with a Micron pen, I added a bit of white gouache to mimic the look of letterpress printing. The lower left is intentionally light so that I can write in it as the trip progresses.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of Art, nature, and exploration, the intersection of the three is exactly where I like to be. The exploration doesn’t have to be dramatic—and in my case it rarely is—but I love going out and seeing what’s happening outside and trying to capture it in my sketchbook with watercolor and a few words. I’m not looking for grand vistas as much as simple, everyday subjects that mark the changing seasons and comings and goings of creatures that exist in a world of their own. These small things not only ground me, but also make the world larger and more grand. This page illustrates some of my favorite tools of the trade at the intersection of Art and nature.
Tips and Techniques– Painting art supplies or common household objects is valuable practice for capturing different types of textures. This painting presented the challenge of painting plastic, metal, and wood, as well as the texture of the nest and markings on the eggs. In this case, I found that a few simple strokes worked better than lot of fussing. Paying attention to the edges of your subjects is also important. A clean edge is key to the object taking shape.
Back in May, I wrote a post about Gardens Wild and Planted, where I wondered whether the home gardener could create anything as lovely as a spring meadow. Here I am again at the end of summer wondering the same once more. I visited this field (and started this journal page) back in July and revisited it last week to see it again (and finish the sketch). My own garden is a fine mix of annuals and perennials, and it has provided plenty of good subject matter for sketching. But it cannot compare with the wilder open fields where an annual mowing is all that is needed to create an entire season of beauty.
Tips and Techniques– This sketch is a composite of various flowers and grasses in the field. Rather than standing in one place where all of this was in view, I moved from flower to flower to fill the page. I often use this technique when outside because it allows me the freedom to roam freely, discovering and drawing as I go. I sketch directly with a black Micron 02 pen and I may or may not add watercolor on the spot. A small travel watercolor set and water brush work well, though I frequently add more layers of watercolor at home. The text and border come last. Hope you are enjoying some late summer wandering and sketching!
Despite the pandemic—and because of it—I’ve had a few recent opportunities to teach workshops. Whether masked and in person or via Zoom, I’m grateful to be able to spend quality time with people near and far who are eager to learn and grow. When I’m working with artists at all skill levels, I like to begin with some basic exercises and warm up sketches that get creative juices flowing and jump start a flow of pen on paper. We do blind contour drawing and very quick gestures and practice different ways to add watercolor to define spaces and make forms take shape. I love seeing what participants create with a few loose lines and a wash, and I love going back to basics myself. It’s a great reminder of the various elements that make for successful paintings, whether between the pages of a sketchbook or in a prestigious museum collection.
Weeks of hot, humid weather followed by a rainstorm or two means it’s time to watch for mushrooms. We had a terrific explosion of fungi in our yard in August two years ago, then none appeared last year; so I’ve been hoping this year would yield another bonanza. I am not disappointed. In the last few days, hundreds of mushrooms have pushed up from the soil under a small grove of oaks and walnuts.
Among the benefits of keeping a nature journal is having a record over time of everything from mushrooms to bird nests to wildflowers. I had a moment of complacency about sketching these, thinking that I’d painted them all before. But as soon as I started and began looking closely, I kept finding more and different varieties. Then, when I looked back on my journal from two years ago, I was surprised to discover how little overlap there was. Even the most modest subjects lead to fascinating discoveries.
Tips and Techniques- I sketched these with a water soluble HB pencil with watercolor, using a 3/8″ (10mm) flat brush. The pencil lines soften and merge with the watercolor, but you can see them clearly where I didn’t touch them at all. My hope was that the flat brush would force me to work with less fuss, and I think it worked. I used a size 2 round for a few details in the soil and details on the caps.
While we are at home day in and day out, I travel the same roads over and over. I add variations now and then, but mostly it’s the same loop past fields of soybeans and corn, past woodlots and overgrown meadows, past neatly trimmed front yards.
But as poet and farmer Wendell Berry writes, “Even in a country you know by heart, it’s hard to go the same way twice. The life of the going changes. The chances change and make a new way. Any tree or stone or bird can be the bud of a new direction.”
An old friend recently reminded me that traveling at home presents opportunities to turn the small and modest into the infinite and boundless. If only we are open to the journey.
Here are two takes on my recent travels at home. Tips and Techniques– If you like making maps when you travel, why not create one to commemorate the places you travel every day? Add other elements from your daily experience to round out the page: a landscape view and a closeup or two are good ways to complement a map. You could also add a compass rose, title, or legend.
The Day in the Life page is a specific assignment I do about once a year. The idea is to do a sketch every hour of the day, but no sketch should take more than five minutes. Not only is this good practice for working quickly but it is also a nice way to record the ordinary things and moments that fill your days.