|Nature journaling. Photo by Frog Mom
Impressionists had it all figured out. Dressed in casual country chic (straw hat de rigueur even if it snowed), they walked to a nice spot in the woods, strived hard to look moody and set up their easel. Then they drunk bucket-loads of absinthe, got their palette out and painted a museum piece in large brush strokes. That was nature journaling at its finest with a good case of delirium tremens to boot. Except with children, carrying easels and drinking absinthe might not be your best ticket to a fun day out.
The G-rated version of a Manet landscape starts with a sketchbook, a travel watercolor set and pencils. Oh, and the great outdoors – it wouldn’t be called nature journaling otherwise. Here’s the recipe.
I was introduced to nature journaling by my friend Scott Vanderlip who wrote a short guide to nature journaling. In 8 pages, he answers questions a newbie can have on the topic, from what it is to how to do it, why, getting started, sample journal pages and references.
In the hills above Pinecrest on a late December day, Scott and his teenage daughter took us out for a morning of exploration with nature journaling in mind. None of us had ever done it and my girls were shy about it. My husband was even more so and I, well I’m not much of an artist. Turns out, that’s a moot point.
“There is no right or wrong way to nature journal,” writes Scott, “you can use drawing, painting, text, maps, poetry, taped in picked flowers (even bugs), leaves, leaf rubbings, or whatever mediums and ways you can think up to record your observations. The only measure of success should be that you feel you have captured and recorded the observations you wished to capture in your journal, without worrying about creating a ‘pretty picture.'”
Based on Scott’s guide, here is a list of essentials.
- A small bottle of water – to refill the water brush
- Icing on the cake: Crayola Watercolor Pencils – for kids who like to mess around with their page
Though it didn’t really matter where we sat, we looked for rocks that we use as stools. Logs would have worked too but there were none. If we were going to stay there a while, might as well make ourselves comfortable.
The kids started first, less inhibited than us adults. Initially I was standing there as an observer but when I saw my 6-year old and 8-year taken by the exercise, I felt foolish for not trying. I couldn’t think of the worst thing that could result from nature journaling except for a wasted hour and time was in ample supply that morning so I dug in.Blank page
. The blank page was intimidating but when everyone bent their heads over their journals, the artist block went away and we all got into the groove. Pulling my own journal out of my backpack, I opted to capture the landscape in front of me. My girls did the same, focusing on the shape and color of the sugar pines around us.If you’ve never seen the pinecone of a sugar pine, it’s ginormous and I asked my 1st grader to hold one in her hands so you could get an idea of the size. Ain’t that something?They’re all over the sierras so you’re bound to see one at some point but when you do, resist the urge to play with the amber-color balls of sap hanging to the cone. The sap is extremely sticky – and fragrant – and it took me a full day to get it off my skin!Back to nature journaling. First off, you fill the container of your water brush and wear the cut-off sock as a glove on the non-painting hand. Squeeze the brush lightly so water wets it. Then dip the brush in the solid water color blocks and start painting. The kids were not patient enough to draw the contours with a pencil first but if you wanted finer details, you might want to do that first.
To change colors, my girls simply expressed water from the brush until it dripped enough for the previous color to fade away, rubbed it on the sock – aha! so that’s what it was for – and dipped the brush in a different color. They didn’t have any problem doing it.
Since Scott had brought two different watercolor sets, we were able to experiment with both and between the Winsor and Newton and the Koi sets, the Koi clearly won our hearts. Better colors for outdoors experimenting, more choice (the Winsor and Newton didn’t have any black and with so many rocks around us, that was an issue), cool water brush.
The trick, particularly for the younger set, was to learn how much water was enough and how much water was too much. That’s why it’s important you pick watercolor paper as opposed to construction or regular sketch paper. Watercolor paper is designed to absorb water moisture and you won’t have paper mache right away.
The kids were done in 20 minutes, which was much longer than I expected. Usually at home when they’re drawing, a piece of paper doesn’t last more than 5 minutes unless they are in a deep drawing mood. A few tears were shed over mixed colors and page flooding but overall they were satisfied about the outcome.
“Can I do another one?” asked my 3rd grader. Of course, I said, and she went on to draw a beautiful blue flower while her young sister took a stab at painting a pumpkin – go figure. Sitting in a pine forest in the dead winter, neither blue wildflowers nor bright orange pumpkins were to be found around us. Hmm. It made me wonder.
Is it possible that they painted the landscape around us to make us happy but that what they really wanted to paint was something completely different?
Whatever it was, they completed 3 paintings each but the most detailed – and in my perspective the finest – was the first landscape of our surroundings. My girls can draw a plant on a blank page but they have a hard time situating it in a fictional landscape. It’ll remain a stand-alone plant on a blank page.
Hence the plus of nature journaling. Your model is in front of you, as intricate or simple as you want to render it, and it won’t walk away.
Back from the Sierras, I’ve ordered two pocket watercolor sets so we can add them to our hiking essentials. We’re more likely to use them if they are already in our backpack and they’ll be a fun addition to our basic sketchbook and pencil.