Sketching Nature

How to sharpen your ability to observe through drawing

Drawing or sketching is an essential skill for aspiring naturalists, or anyone interested in understanding more about Nature and the world around them. This doesn't mean you need to become Van Gogh or build your skills up to the point that you can sell caricatures at the carnival. While naturalists sketches can be beautiful, and while you should be as careful and as neat as you can, these sketches aren't necessarily about art.

Why learn to draw objects in Nature?

Sketching Nature is an observational skill. Just like there are ways to get better at listening, looking can be developed through certain exercises. One of them is sketching. When drawing an object in Nature, or a landscape, you are forced to look deeper. Your mind forces your eyes to look at the details. Not only that. With a bit of practice drawing forces you to look at the important details, or in other words, to separate the wheat from the chaff. To simplify.

Not only will sketching help you filter out the extraneous. It will also allow you to differentiate similar looking plants, animal tracks or other signs. For example, can you tell a jack-in-the-pulpit from a trillium without the flowers? Professional botanists can tell you in a heartbeat. Most people, however, cannot tell. It is as plain as day which is which. Go out sometime and draw each when it is in bloom. Then go out the next spring and try to differentiate. I bet that after drawing the leaves just once, you will be able to tell a flowerless trillium from a flowerless jack-in-the-pulpit.

A drawing of a white oak leaf.
A sketch of a White Oak leaf from my notes.

And guess what. If you can't, you will have a drawing you can go back to as a reference. Another good reason to learn to sketch. Just remember, you are drawing for your own reference, and not to show off. Don't worry if you aren't good at it. Some of my drawings are included in this post. Seeing them will make you feel more confident. I hope it helps. You can do it.

How do I do it?

Well, first, you need some materials. A notebook with or without lines will work just fine. The paper can be thick or thin, smooth or rough. I prefer paper similar to regular copier paper. It is nice and smooth so you get nice lines. It is thick enough to hold up well, but thin enough that if you need to trace something through it, you might be able to.

Your choice of a drawing implement depends on your confidence level. Some people like to draw in a soft pencil, ink over it with a technical pen then erase the pencil marks. Others draw with a ball point pen right from the start. Still others use pencil or even charcoal and leave the extraneous marks and refinements. They may or may not ink over the results depending on whether they intend to show others or not. My recommendation is to use a soft pencil and have a kneaded eraser handy in case of egregious errors. A straightedge might be handy but is not required. There are few true straight lines in Nature. Straightedges, however, make some people feel more confident and do make for a neater sketch. So, if you feel the need, use one.

So now you have paper and a writing implement. I will assume you chose a pencil. The third thing you need is a subject. I recommend something stationary. Don't pick a bird right off the bat. Your subject should also have simple lines. Maybe a single leaf or a large flower like a trillium. The real thing is best, because you can examine different angles and different light conditions. But, if it is cold, rainy, or two feet of snow keeps you indoors for now, you can draw from a photo as well. Beyond drawing from real life or a photo, you could sketch from memory or from imagination, but I recommend you wait until you have practiced observation enough that you are comfortable remembering or imagining all of the right details first.

A drawing of a spicebush leaf
A sketch showing a spicebush twig with one representative leaf.

The last thing you need to draw is your natural curiosity. Look very intently upon your subject. Really see it. Don't just glance. Don't just skim the surface. Look at the object. Look at it in relation to other objects. Try to draw the object in proper proportion. A neat naturalist trick is to use your pencil as a measuring device. Line your pencil up with your subject so that the top of the pencil is at the top of your subject. Then, take your thumb abd grab the pencil at the point where you see the bottom of your subject. Now, transfer that length to the paper. Do the same for the width. Once you get the proportions right, the rest is a matter of observing contours, shadows and key details.

For example, if your subject is a leaf, examine the edges. Note the angle between the bottom of the leaf and its stem (petiole). Follow the contour to the tip. Is it a shallow curve or a long deep curve? Are there teeth along the leaf margin? If so, are they double or single? Look closely at the pattern of venation. Feel the texture. Look for quite some time before ever setting pencil to paper.

When you do begin drawing, do not be afraid to make a mistake. You can redraw without erasing, erase, or start over at any time. The key is to observe. The more closely you observe, the better you will draw.

Where can I learn more about sketching Nature?

Clare Walker Leslie's Guide to Sketching Trees

All About Drawings

Sketching in Nature