How to Draw Trees in Winter

Just in time for spring, a lesson on how to draw trees in winter!

Without leaves, deciduous trees reveal their distinct architecture. Each species has a characteristic form  primarily described by crown shape and branch angles. No step-by-step can replace the value of real observation but armed with a few tricks, you will be better able to draw what you see. Adapt these ideas to the real tree shapes before you.

My Top Tips

  • Start with deep observation. Describe the shape of the tree before you out loud. What makes it different from the other trees around it? Attend to the size and locations of the major branch units or clumps of the tree.
  • Begin drawing from the top down, connecting smaller branches to larger ones. Observe the angles at which the smaller branches connect to each other and to the major trunk. Make sure to enlarge the trunk as you descend.
  • Look for the major branch units of the tree and show this structure by drawing a light arch above each unit and drawing down from there. This gives you the shape of the crown, a critical detail to represent individual species.
  • How do you draw all those fine little branches? I don’t! Instead try using an area of light tone in the areas of the densest small twigs. This can be created with light watercolor or a paper smudging tool on graphite.

Click in the first image in the series to begin a step-by-step tutorial.

Journal More, Journal Better

sketch butterfly valleyHave you made several starts at keeping a journal but found it hard to keep at it? Are you in a journaling rut and need to get unstuck? Here is a simple plan to help you set realistic goals, get you sketching and journaling, and to help you keep at it. You can do this, and it will change your life.

It does not help to tell yourself that you “should” be journaling more. To make it happen, set clear goals for yourself. At first the push to start journaling more regularly will feel unnatural or forced. That’s because it is. It’s not yet your habit or routine. Do not be put off if it feels a little like work at the start.  You are training yourself to make a new habit. Once it becomes a part of your routine, it will feel natural and you will do it all the time on your own accord. Use the S.M.A.R.T. formula to set better goals. 

Specific: Instead of saying “I want to keep a nature journal” be as detailed and specific as you can. Answer the questions: What are you going to do? Why do you want to do it? Where are you going to journal? When are you going to do it? I am really interested in natural history so my goal might look like this: I want to keep a journal of natural observations, and places I explore. I want to do this to help me observe the events of my life and the world around me more deeply and to help me remember these experiences. I will journal on my travels and on walks around my home. I will journal on my birding walks, nature hikes, and other expeditions in addition to around my home when I find something interesting. 

Everyone will have different goals. An equally exciting goal would be to capture the people, places, and events of your live, sketching in cafes, over a bowl of soup or a good taco, at concerts or other venues. The question is what are you excited about? What do you want to do?

Measurable: A number of pages per week is a measurable goal. You will be able to hold yourself accountable and measure your progress. Remember, it is a numbers game. The best way to get better is to fill more pages.

Attainable: If you decide to fill 100 pages a week, you will probably fall short of your goal (at least I would). Choose a number that you can do but will push you a little outside of your comfort zone.

Realistic: You will get better, give it time. Do not judge yourself on how pretty a picture is, but attend to what you discovered, or how much richer your memories of the moment have become.

Timely: When and how often are you going to open your journal? Think about the fabric of your day. Every moment is already filled so how can you fit in something new? Journal entries need not take hours. Let yourself get out your journal to catch fifteen minutes here and ten minutes there. Try connecting routines that you already have with the practice of journaling. If you have a cup of tea every morning, open your journal at the window at the same time. If you go birding or hiking, start to journal on these expeditions.

Now what do I do?

So there you are, journal in hand, out in nature, what do you do? The infinite range possibilities are overwhelming. Here are a few tricks to jump-start you and help you begin. Rather than trying to do everything, pick a little piece and do that well. The constraint will help you to focus.

One way to do this is the alphabet trick: Pick a letter of the alphabet (lets say B). Think of things that start with the letter B that could become the focus of a little investigation (birds, beetles, berries, things that are blue, etc.). Choose one of these and use it as a lens through which to see the world. You will be amazed at what you notice when you start looking for blue everywhere… Oh, and if you choose berries, be sure to add a smear of the juice on your page next to each sketch. The next time you go out, pick a different letter. There is always something to explore.

The most important thing is that you believe that you can do this. Throw yourself into it and you will find the skills growing within you.

An Introduction to Nature Journaling (video workshop)

Have you wanted to keep a nature journal but had difficulty getting started or keeping going? You are not alone. This workshop will help you see the possibilities of what a journal can be and how to move from new years resolutions to a life changing habit. Discover the practices that makes journaling a lifelong habit (and what does not work) and learn how to make you own nature journaling kit.

How to Draw Aspen and Steal Inspiration

In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon urges his readers to get comfortable with the idea of taking inspiration from other’s work, stealing the best ideas and making something new with them. Look at the work of other artists and naturalists as a smorgasbord of ideas and techniques. Don’t just sit there and say “wow, that is soooooo good” but mine art your respect for ideas and techniques that are portable. See what you can take and use in your own work. I do this all the time. A close look at my work will reveal echos of Clare Walker Leslie (the author of my first and most influential book on nature drawing), Hannah Hinchman, Cathy Johnson, and other wonderful teachers. Find work that you like, figure out why you are drawn to it, then try those new ideas yourself.

This step-by-step tutorial of how to draw aspen in winter is a good example of how I take other’s ideas and make them my own. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow that takes you through the process of drawing the trees with watercolor and gouache.

Using shapes to construct a drawing (how to draw a heron with gouache)

The body of a resting heron is confusing to understand anatomically. Instead of a head, neck, shoulder, wings, and chest, see the body parts as abstract shapes to copy and assemble. Focus on the unique shape of each of the parts.

Observe the posture, proportions, and angles of the head and body mass. Draw light lines to block in the relative size of the head and body. Once your guide lines are in place, fill in the body by breaking it down into interlocking geometric shapes. Your accuracy in observing the proportions and angles of each of these shapes will determine the accuracy of the drawing. If you just say “the neck bulges in the front,” your brain will take the easy path and you will draw a bulge below the head without really looking. However if you observe and describe the detail, you will say “from a point just under the base of the bill the neck angles out slightly, then drops straight down, then sharply in to a point, curving up to just above the shoulder, then turns up to the base of the beak,” and thereby capture the nuances of the shape. Assembling a drawing, one piece at a time, is my go to approach whenever I am confused by the anatomy of structure of what I am seeing.

This approach is even more powerful when combined  with an anatomical understanding of the subject. If you know where the neck bends and connects, you will be better able to pick out and place the important angles that define the underlying structure.

Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow.

Fiscal Shrike: drawing with shapes and gouache

In most drawings, you will use both a structural understanding of your subject and simplifying three-dimensional forms to flat shapes to help you draw what you see. In this gouache illustration, I switch back and forth between these ways of seeing as the drawing progresses.

This step-by-step demonstration explores both how to get your subject on to paper and how to use gouache on toned paper. As you draw, let your mind flicker between positive shapes, negative shapes, and structural visualizations. In one moment, think of the bird anatomically, as a profile head, chest, and foreshortened wings and tail. In the next, see the bird as an assemblage of angular geometric shapes. Each of these ways of thinking informs the other. Some people thrive emphasizing the shapes. Others love the understanding that comes with the structural approach. Though you may prefer one approach more than the other, learn to use both. Find the balance that feels right for you.

Click on the first image to start an annotated side-show.

How to Make Your Own Palette

You can make your own palette from a mint tin and household items. With a little customization you can create a deluxe do-it-yourself travel palette. Use these kits for watercolor or gouache.

The Basic Version

mid size altoids paletteThis is an easy and low cost solution. All you need is a tin of mints (Altoids, Mintz or whatever you prefer), a handful of bottle caps or an eight well plastic chewing gum wrapper, .glue, and the white lid to a container of cottage cheese or yogurt.

  1. Clean and dry the metal box that the mints came in.
  2. Glue the gum wrapper (fits a mid sized tin with a little trim) or plastic bottle caps to the bottom of the tin to create wells for your paints. Use a heavy duty glue such as E6000 Permanent Craft Adhesive or Beacon Glass, Metal & More™ Premium Permanent Glue. Eat a mint.
  3. Use the bottom of the tin as a template to cut the lid of the cottage cheese container into a rectangle that will fit into the tin.
  4. Glue the plastic rectangle that you just cut out into the top of the tin to create a white surface on which you can mix your paints. Eat another mint.
  5. Fill the wells with your favorite colors and let them dry.

The deluxe version

large altoids paletteWith a few modifications, the basic palette can be upgraded to an amazing little portable palette. For this you will need a few more items: 15 watercolor half pans (available at some art supply stores), a roll of .5 inch magnetic tape (available at office supply stores), and a small can of Rust-oleum high gloss protective enamel paint (available at a hardware store).

  1. Use a sharp knife to scratch the bottoms of the half pans. This will help the paint stick inside the pans.
  2. Cut pieces of magnetic tape to fit the bottoms of the half pans and attach the tape to the pans. Eat a mint.
  3. Paint the inside of the lid with white high gloss enamel. Set the lid open and flat to dry. Do not touch the enamel while it is drying or you will create an uneven surface.
  4. Fill the half pans with your favorite colors. Eat another mint.
  5. When the paint is dry, insert the magnetized pans into the palette in an order that makes sense to you.

My paint recomendations

Travel Watercolor Palette: When I limit my palette to fourteen choices, I use Daniel Smith: Neutral Tint, Shadow Violet, Bloodstone Genuine, Burnt Sienna, Buff Titanium, Perylene Green, Serpentine Genuine, Phthalo Blue, Indatherone Blue, Dioxazine Violet, Quinacridone Pink, Pyroll Red, Permanent Orange, Hansa Yellow Light.

The Light gouache palette: My gouache palette has fourteen light value colors. This is not a full palette for gouache painting but a supplement for my watercolor kit. I create my darks with transparent watercolor and only use the gouache for the lights. My kit includes: Hansa Yellow (M.Graham), Jaune Brilliant No. 1 (Holbein), Gamboge (M. Graham), Primary Magenta (Holbein), Pyrrole Red (M. Graham), Aqua blue (Holbein), a light purple made by mixing Titanium White and Quinacridone Violet (M. Graham), Helio Green Yellowish (Schmincke), Cadmium Green Pale (Holbein), Yellow Ochre (M. Graham), Titanium Gold Ochre (Schmincke), Grey No. 1 (Holbein), Grey No. 2 (Holbein), Titanium White (M. Graham).

Shape vs. Structure: Integrating two ways of drawing

Here is a video of one of the nature journal club workshops where we explore two ways of drawing: understanding the form and structure of your subject vs. looking at it as a collection of interlocking shapes. I use both of these approaches in any drawing.