Pencil Miles

black oakHave you ever seen a drawing demonstration and thought “wow, she sure does great stuff with that pen- if I had a pen like that…” Here is the truth. No tool is a shortcut. It is not the pen. It is not the paint set. It’s not the journal. It is not the pencil. It’s the pencil miles. It is time in the field, observing, wondering, and drawing.

You probably don’t need to buy more supplies to round out a kit for your journaling. You may have enough materials for a lifetime of journaling in the drawers of your desk right now. Put together a kit of your favorite things. Make it portable. Over time you will add or remove a few items from your kit but what those materials are is less important than what you do with them.

To honor this idea, I am shutting down my online store this weekend from Black Friday through Cyber Monday. I urge you not to go shopping or buy more stuff this weekend. Instead, go outside with your journal, encounter nature, and live your life.

Five Tips for Better Drawing (video workshop)

Here are my top five tips to improve your drawing technique. One of the greatest challenges is overcoming the fear of putting pencil to paper. Often adults do not want to try things that they are not already good at. This is something you can learn, even if you are starting later in life. Let go and dive in. You can do it.

How to draw a Bewick’s Wren Step-by-Step

In this tutorial on how to draw a wren, pay particular attention to how the feathers, especially on the wing, are suggested, instead of carefully delineated. On many birds, you do not see each feather clearly articulated. Suggest the masses of the feather groups with a hint of feather texture. This illustration was based on a photograph by Ashok Khosla and was drawn with a ball point pen, watercolor, and a bit of white gouache.

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

Simplifying Bird Plumage

I used to think that the trick to drawing bird feathers was to draw the feathers. How hard can that be? I spent hours studying feather tracts and the way that feathers overlap. I would then try to show everything I had learned, feather by feather. I often found myself frustrated by photographs and even study skins or taxidermy birds in which I could not discern the way the feathers overlapped. In spite of rigorous research, my birds felt stiff, diagrammatic, and didn’t look like the birds I saw in the field. I was missing one critical step. Yes, studying the plumage, feather tracts, and wings is important. Once you understand this structure, the trick is to suggest that detail and complexity instead of drawing every feather. Put another way, understand more than you see, and draw less than you know.

If you can’t see it, don’t draw it. Should you find yourself frustrated that you can’t see some aspect of the feather detail, just leave it out. If you can’t see it, adding these details to your drawing will turn your sketch into a wing anatomy diagram rather than a drawing of the bird. This seems obvious to me now but it has taken me years to learn this lesson. The best drawings are the ones that give you a suggestion of detail and the underlying structure without noodleing in every feature.

Compare these two drawings of House Wrens. Which do you like better? Why? Click image to enlarge.

You can suggest the wing in many ways. Choose a level of detail that is right to the level of detail you really see. On a distant bird you might show less. On a close cooperative bird (and a more detailed drawing overall) you might show more. Here are some examples of how you might simplify a wing. These are not a step-by-step tutorial leading to a detailed drawing but different possibilities of how you might simplify a wing. Click the first image to enlarge and start the slide show.

So here is your homework. Learn the wing and primary feather groups. Practice drawing them feather by feather as an exercise. Then give up what you know and simplify your understanding to key lines. Be playful with it. What is the most you can show with the least amount of fuss.


Theaomai; from thaomai (n.f.), to wonder. To behold, view attentively; to contemplate. It is regard for something marked by a sense of wonderment; a contemplative and ponderous gaze which carefully and deliberately observes an object in order to perceive it correctly and in detail. Theaomai involves more than merely seeing, it is noticing, recognizing, and taking note of something with reflection and acute interest.

—from the Key Word Study Bible.

Buckeye seedsThe greater the attention we bring to the world, the more beautiful it becomes, the more we stand in awe. When I walk into the field with my journal in my hand, my goal is to peel back the layers, and let a new aspect of the world reveal itself. I want to stand in wonder and learn something new from what I see. When I behold in this way I am constantly surprised and delighted by the beauty, resilience, ingenuity, and variety of the world.This kind of seeing takes focus, concentration, and practice but the fruits of this effort are deeply rewarding.

Let’s bring back the word theaomai (pronunciation) to describe this form of fierce, reverent inquiry. Better yet, let’s go outside and fall more deeply in love with the world through deep attention.

See also: Paying Attention and Falling in Love with Nature.


Video Workshop: Drawing Birds-Suggesting Detail without getting lost in the feathers…

Learn how to draw birds by simplifying plumage details, increasing drawing speed, accuracy, and making your sketches more lifelike. In this workshop you will learn the basics of bird feather anatomy and how to suggest the complexity with a minimum of fuss and hassle. The principles of simplification also apply to drawing many other subjects and can be broadly applied.


The trick is to understand more than you can see and to draw less than you know.

Crosshatching Landscape Step-by-Step- Yosemite Valley

Crosshatching is an effective way to create values with lifework. Here is an example of using this technique to suggest depth in a sketch of Yosemite Valley with a Bic ball-point  pen. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slide show.

Hatching and Crosshatching Technique

Hatching is a great way to create value with both pen and unblended pencil. Here are a few variations of fast and effective hatching technique.

Scribble Hatching

Make sets if tiny overlapping circles or squiggles. This creates a rough, loose organic texture. To darken, and more squiggles over the squiggles. Blur your eyes to find areas of uneven value and fill these with additional marks.


You can use parallel lines to fill an area with tone. By varying the spacing and width (pressure) of the lines you can make areas darker or lighter. Use your non-photo blue pencil to add a few parallel lines before you start to help prevent your lines from drifting to a new angle across the hatched area.

If it will take multiple strokes to make a longer line, try leaving little irregular spaced gaps between one line and the next instead of overlapping the strokes. Overlap strokes often make irregular blotches while irregular spaced gaps add a little sparkle to your technique.

If your lines show through in your final drawing, their direction can help to show changes in the planes of the object you are drawing. See Showing Planes with Line Angle. Alternatively, you can keep the line direction consistent across planes, reducing detail in the shaded area and allowing it to recede into the background.

People see bold and widely spaced lines as “lines”. If you make the lines lighter and closer together, you can achieve the same value and people will ignore the “lines” and read them as an area of tone.

Patch Hatching

Can’t draw a straight line? Patch hatching is for you. This technique is very vast and creates a dynamic and interesting texture. Create small sets of interlocking lines, varying the angle of each set.

Cross Hatching

Cross hatching is a fundamental technique to deepen values. There are a few subtleties with this technique that are often overlooked. The most important is to watch the angles of the cross lines, avoiding right, and sharply acute angles.

Contour Hatching

IPencil Technique.075-001nstead of keeping the lines parallel, you can wrap them around a curved surface. As you draw, imagine the lines wrapping around the curved surface. The lines can fan out from a pinched shape to fill a larger area. As they do, the lines may become so spaced from one another that they no longer read as an area of tone but individual lines. Resolve this by making a second set of lines from the outside of the broad edge toward the narrow point. You can also cross hath these contour lines.

Post-Hawk Composition

Often I am so busy sketching that I completely lose track of page composition. I lose myself in observations and then look down at the page and think “hmm, what can I do with this?” By adding, titles, boxes of written notes, areas of tone or color, and expanding some sketches with habitat or as part of a landscape, you can pull a collection of sketches into an interesting composition.

compositon rectanglesAs you sketch, if you have a little bandwidth left to consider composition, vary the size and spacing of your drawings. Some big, some little, some close together or overlapping, some farther apart, and some blocks of blank space. With that, you will have the raw materials to create your page composition after the bird has flown.

Remember that the purpose of taking field notes is not to make a pretty page. If page composition feels like just one more thing that you need to keep in mind, ignore it until you are ready for the challenge. It should feel fun and playful. When looked at this way, it adds to your experience of keeping a journal and gives you another source of positive reinforcement.

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


Journal Page Composition

Just as you can create an interesting and dynamic composition within a single drawing, the entire page, with it’s mix of sketches and written notes, can also have a dynamic composition. Some people plan this out in advance. The calligrapher and nature journaler J. Panter draws page layout ideas into the back of her journal.

J. Panter draws these composition ideas and prompts into the back of her journal to inspire possible page layouts.

J. Panter draws these composition ideas and prompts into the back of her journal to inspire possible page layouts.

Each of these designs can provide inspiration and ideas for a page template. With a framework like this in the background (perhaps sketched in with non-photo blue pencil) you have a little structure that can also help you get over the fear of the blank page. Click the first image to enlarge.