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.
My friend and jouranling teacher Laurie Wigham suggested to start by finding what it is you love, and then finding the medium or way to express it. A wonderful approach. It turns out she got the idea from journaling master Andie Thrams. I wonder where she got the idea? I was drawn to calligraphy of patterns of aspen bark and the contrast of white bark against a darkening winter woodland.
I painted the bark with pale ochre-green and added a second light coat of grey. I left the edges of the trees white to suggest backlighting. I got the idea of the little frames around a study like this from looking at sketches by Cathy Johnson.
In her book A Trail Through Leaves, Hannah Hinchman includes a sketch of aspen against a dark background. This is one of my favorite sketches in the book. Though I was not aware of it at the time, I am sure that it was in the back of my head as I painted the contrasting background of Indatherone Blue watercolor.
A little diluted Permanent White gouache suggests distant trees. I lifted out the bases of the trees with a damp brush to make them blend into the watercolor. The little branch was drawn in with a white gel pen. My last step was to add a little texture to one of the background trees- not too much or it would have popped into the foreground.
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.
Start with a light loose graphite pencil line to block in the posture and proportions of the heron. Then look at the shape of the head. Don’t think of it as a head, but an angular abstract shape.
See the neck as a dragon tooth, or comma. Attach it to the head shape.
See the shoulder as a semi-circle with a little tooth on the bottom. As you assemble the bird, piece, by piece, visualize each chunk as a flattened 2D shape.
The pieces begin to interlock with each other. Some edges of the new shapes will already be formed by edges of previous shapes.
Don’t think wing, see the angular shape.
As you add more shapes, the light gesture sketch keeps the proportions in check.
Shape, next to a shape, next to a shape. The drawing emerges.
Add value and detail and you have a heron.
Lay in the middle tones with transparent watercolor. Leave the highlights. This shadow was Daniel Smith Shadow Violet.
Add dark values with transparent watercolor. You can push rich darks with good watercolor.
Pop the light values with opaque gouache. This includes sunlit areas and lightly pigmented feathers,
Paint the background with opaque gouache, adding more white as you go down the page. You can match the background to what you see or invent one to add contrast. If the subject is light, add a dark background. If the subject is dark, add a light background. A few highlights add accent. Too many looses the impact.
Video workshop on how to use gouache with the Nature Journal Club. Filmed at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon center in Cupertino on February 11, 2015. Videography by Ashok Khosla.
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.
Why should you keep a nature journal? This video was filmed at the first California Naturalist Conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds on October 18, 2014.
Watch the presentation now.
Study the shapes of snake facial scales to help you identify and draw what you see.
Snake bodies are covered with overlapping scales (see previous post for tricks on drawing body scales). The scales of the head of many snakes are larger and important clues to identification. Study the shapes of these scales to help you draw them in the field.
Lets learn the major facial scales. The specific shapes and numbers of these scales will vary between species.
Labial scales: Large scales over the lips (upper labials and lower labials) These scales vary in number between species. and are often counted to help in identification.
Parietal scales: Two large shields behind the eyes.
Ocular scales: A ring of scales over the eye. The scale directly over the eye (supraocular) is enlarged.
Frontal scale(s): A large scale (or scales) between the supraocular scales. Prefrontal scales: A line of scales in front of the eyes.
Nasal and internasal scales: Small scales around and between the nostrils.
Chart the patterns of scales on a snake’s face. If you do not know what species you are looking at, these scale shapes can be used to later identify the species. Note: only try this if you are confidant in identifying all of the venomous species in your area.
Look carefully at the patterns, colors, and structure of reptile and amphibian eyes. You will be surprised by the beauty and variability. Snakes have no eyelids so the eye is round round. Amphibians and most lizards (exceptions geckos and night lizards) have eyelids and so may have round eyes or an ellipse from squinting.
Note the pupil shape. Some are round but you will also see horizontal and vertical pupils. Geckos have wild pupils.
The highlight and reflected light make the eye look wet or glossy. I often put the highlight at the border between the iris and the pupil to help show that it is reflecting off the surface above both the iris and the pupil.
The eyes from top left to bottom right: crocodile, viper, western toad, gecko, garter snake, newt, spadefoot toad, snake in process of shedding.