Drawing Trees on Frosted Mylar

Pen and ink drawings on frosted mylar (e.g. Duralene) can be scratched with a sharp tool (such as a scratchboard cutting tool) giving exciting scratchboard or woodcut-like effects. Another advantage of drawing on mylar is that is transparent so you can place the film over a preliminary sketch as a guide. Some pens smear easily on the mylar surface. I did this drawing with black fine-point and bullet-point Sharpie markers which do not smear. I do not like to use mylar in the field but it is a useful medium for studio work.

Let’s look at how this technique can be used to create a loose study of an Alder grove. Click on the first illustration to start a step-by-step annotated slideshow.

How to Draw an Oak Leaf on Stipple Paper

[stipple board textureC]areful stipple (creating shading with fine dots) is a beautiful but time intensive way to add value to pen and ink drawings. A faster approach is to use stipple paper. The surface is textured with fine bumps and divots. If you rub the paper with a black Prismacolor Premier pencil the bumps
pick up the color while the divots remain clean white (see enlarged inset). The harder you press, the narrower the white areas become. Drawings shaded with this technique reduce and reproduce well in black and white.  Study the step by step demonstration to see the illustration workflow and more tips on using stipple board. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow.

Kung Fu Naturalist

kungfu_ChineseThe original meaning of kung fu is not a martial art. It means to develop a skill through work and effort.1)Wikipedia Kung Fu-term With practice and effort you can become a kung fu guitarist, cook, or doctor. What is powerful in this idea is that it recognizes and honors the role of diligent work and practice in the development of a skill. Mastery is not a gift. It is the result of the work you put in. Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice supports this ancient observation.2)K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.Psychological Review 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406

What does this mean for you as a naturalist, artist, or journal keeper? Our work plays by the same rules. We need to embrace the practice as something valuable in itself. It is through this practice that we strengthen our minds and cultivate our skills. Even when we do not feel inspired, continuing to drill, work, and protect your art. Strive through your actions to become a kung fu observer, naturalist, or artist. It is the work itself that changes you, so embrace the process, keep at it, practice with focus and deliberation, and watch your skill grow.

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Pen and Ink on Frosted Mylar

Frosted mylar (e.g., Duralene) is an excellent surface for drawing in ink. The plastic sheets are durable and transparent. You can trace over a preliminary drawing or even a photocopy of an object. You can also scratch away highlights or details with a scratchboard cutting tool. Be careful not to get your fingerprints onto the drawing surface as the oil from your fingers may cause the ink to bead up.

Here are some examples of leaves traced from photocopies of real leaves. Notice how easy it is to follow the nuance of the variation in leaf venation. Also note how line thickness is used in these drawings. Instead of using thicker lines to indicate objects that are closer to you, I use a thick line around the outside contour of the leaf and lighter lines on the veins. This is an effective graphic style- heavy lines on the major structures, lighter lines on the details. It is often used in technical drawings and architectural diagrams producing clear and readable images. Click on the first image to start the slideshow.

Lets take a look at the process of making one of these drawings on mylar film. Click on the first image to start a step by step annotated slideshow.

A Game Changer in Science and Environmental Education

What are the best practices in outdoor and nature education? How can I construct the best environmental and outdoor experiences for my students or children? After years of research and field testing and revision, the Lawrence Hall of Science BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning & Expertise Sharing) program has released a rich set of teaching resources for field instructors, leaders, and classroom teachers. What I love about this approach is that it gives students the tools to explore, observe, question, and discover in nature on their own terms and not rely on didactic, teacher driven lessons, or simulation games. This is where we should be moving in nature education. These are the best environmental education resources I have seen in over thirty years of teaching in nature. It is a must for every outdoor educator or home school facilitator. And it’s free.

Being involved as an advisor to the BEETLES had dramatically changed the way I think about and facilitate outdoor education experiences. On the most superficial level you will find some great activities to augment your nature study program. But do not stop there. The BEETLES program helps us rethink our program priorities, and gives a framework for the flow of learning activities that is functional, effective, and versatile. There are resources for individual field instructors, program leaders and developers (to help you create staff workshops), and classroom teachers. The BEETLES website provides downloadable resources, online documentation, videos of the activities in the field with real students, and much more.

Just a few samples to wet your appetite:  Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of: Student activity pdfDiscussion Leading Tips for Field Instructors: It’s a really useful document for those interested in leading student discussions , for program leaders/professional learning sessions- Making Observations: Good example of one of the professional learning write-ups.

Visit the site, share it with other teachers, parents, and outdoor leaders.

Drawing Trees with Pen and Ink (video workshop)

Learn how to draw broadleaf and evergreen trees both from a distance and up close details (leaves, acorns, seed pods, and fruit). In addition to studying details of structure, we will explore shortcuts to help you get the form on paper and tricks to suggest dimension and volume.

Two advantages of drawing in ink are that it reproduces clearly for low-cost printing and that it does not smudge and smear in your notebook.

A Curiosity Framework

question-artWhile visiting Sunnybrae International Baccalaureate World School, I saw a set of questioning prompts on the wall of each classroom.  These eight concepts are used throughout the International School system. I strive to be rigorous in my thinking and actively question of the world. I thought these were useful and wrote them down as they might provoke my own intentional curiosity. The last three take me in very interesting directions. I will write them in the back of my journal. How might this framework help you think more creatively? I have made a few changes to the descriptions. How might you modify this list to make it even more useful?


Form What is it like? The understanding that everything has a form with recognizable features that can be observed, identified, described and categorized.

Function How does it work? The understanding that everything has a purpose, a role or a way of behaving that can be investigated.Causation

Causation Why is it like it is? The understanding that things do not just happen, that there are causal relationships at work and that actions have consequences.

Change How is it changing? What was it like before? What will it become? The understanding that change is the process of movement from one state to another. It is universal and inevitable.

Connection How is it connected to other things? The understanding that we live in a world of interacting systems in which the actions of any individual element affect others.

Perspective What are the points of view? The understanding that knowledge is moderated by perspectives; different perspectives lead to different interpretations, understandings and findings; perspectives may be individual, group, cultural or disciplinary.

Reflection How do I know? What is my evidence for my explanation? The understanding that there are different ways of knowing and that it is important to reflect on our conclusions, to consider our methods of reasoning and the quality and the reliability of the evidence we have considered.

Responsibility What is my responsibility? The understanding that people make choices based on their understandings, and the actions they take as a result do make a difference.

How to Paint Raindrops and Dew

With rain in the forecast, it is a perfect time to explore how to draw and paint raindrops and morning dew. Avoid dropping dew drops over every rose you draw, this just turns your field journaling into kitsch. But if you go sketching early in the morning or after a rainstorm, you have earned your dewdrops!

Light bends when it passes from the air to the water so even though it is transparent, it still casts a shadow and light makes counterintuitive patterns within a raindrop. On a solid object, the lightest side is the surface that faces the light. On a raindrop it is the opposite so that the shadow is adjacent to the lightest side of the raindrop and the highlight show up as a high contrast reflection in the darker part of the raindrop (the side facing the light).

Click on the first illustration to start a step-by-step annotated slide show.

Watercolor Sets for Kids

Color swatches from the modified palette.

Color swatches from the modified palette.

Looking for low-cost, non-toxic watercolor sets for kids or for your classroom? Try the Prang Oval-Pan Watercolor 16 well set. With a few modifications you can crate serviceable palettes for less than $9.00 apiece. Prang colors are AP certified non-toxic by the Art & Creative Materials Institute (so should a student decide to eat their watercolors, no problem). You can also buy replacement colors individually should your students use up the favored colors on the palette.

Prang also makes a set of watercolors that is washable and will not stain clothes. A great feature for even younger kids.


Modified Prang palette. Click to enlarge.

Modified Prang palette. Click to enlarge.

I have no idea why a watercolor set comes with white paint but when this cake is removed and discarded, you have room to replace it with a magenta refill. The refills come in a box of 12 so if you are buying one for yourself, you may want to go in on it with friends or other parents. This is a great item to share in home school circles.

Rearrange the paint wells so that they align with designated mixing areas. This will help you remember which colors are which, keep your paint cakes clean and prevent your palette from becoming a mess. Pop the paint wells out of the plastic frame and write the name of each color on the back of the well (the set comes with a chart with the color names and Prang’s refill numbers in the original order). Now replace the wells in this order, going left to right, top to bottom: yellow 5, yellow-orange 37, orange 6,  red-orange 36, red 1, magenta 27, red-violet 41, violet 14, blue-violet 40, blue 7, turquoise blue 35, blue-green 39, yellow-green 39, green 9, brown 12, black 34.

The last step is to buy a tube of yellow watercolor paint and place a dab in the green mixing area so that students can modify their greens without dipping a dirty brush into the yellow well. Keeping the yellow well clean is your top priority to maintain your palette.

When your kids get a little older and you are less concerned about them eating their paint or licking their brushes, you may upgrade to the Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketcher’s Pocket Box.

Painting Shadows on Snow with Watercolor

Look deeply into shadows on snow. You will see beautiful blues and violets. Don’t be timid about adding these colors over snow. What a delight. Shadows on snow show the contours of snowdrifts. Pay attention to the way the angles change as the shadows move across the drifts. The shadows reveal the shape of the surface of the snow.

Tree shadows in a stream bed. Observe the way the angle of the shadows change as they move across an uneven surface. Photo by Chris Czajkowski. http://wildernessdweller.ca

Tree shadows in a stream bed. Observe the way the angle of the shadows change as they move across an uneven surface. Photo by Chris Czajkowski. http://wildernessdweller.ca

As you walk through a winter woodland, sketch those things that interest you the most. This may seem obvious but there is a tendency to take on much broader subjects than that which calls you. If you are interested in the shadows in the snow, draw the shadows in the snow, not the shadows, the trees, the distant mountains, and the clouds.

Click on the first image to start a step-by-step annotated slideshow on how to paint shadows in the snow with watercolor.