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.


How to Draw Snakes

Study the shapes of snake facial scales to help you identify and draw what you see.

Thamnophis elegans terrestris

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.

Facial diagram

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.

Gopher Snake sketch

How to draw scales

Learn the geometry of snake scales to help you sketch in the field.

Don’t drive yourself nuts trying to copy every scale exactly. You can suggest scales with the X technique (demonstrated below), add a few details and you are good.

Scales 1bDraw an x pattern over the back of the snake. Each of the scales will fit into one of the spaces between the lines. The body scales of the Ring-necked Snake below are simply an X hatch overpainted with watercolor and little  highlights added on each scale with a white colored pencil. The effect is convincing and fast.


X hatch lines are often at an oblique angle forming small diamonds instead of squares.

scale symmetry

scale rows b

Flattened section of snake skin showing rows of shingle-like back scales and long belly scales (scutes).

X hatch scales turn to interlocking S curves when they foreshorten and wrap around a cylinder. However, many snakes are more triangular than round in cross-section and the scutes or belly scales interrupt the S pattern on the bottom of the body. Still, you often see a subtle deflection of the hatch lines as they approach the back. You can also just stop the X pattern just short of the edge as the foreshortened scales are more difficult to see.

Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis

Having realistic expectations of what you can get in the field will help you work more efficiently and be happier with what you do. The snake heads on this page are scientific illustrations. They were drawn over several days with extensive reference material and a comfortable chair. In contrast, the studies below, showing the body colors and patterns from the dorsal line to the scutes, took only minutes to complete and convey lots of information about patterns on the snakes. This is a great approach for field sketching.

snake pattern sketches

My favorite website for reference material is California Herps. I am grateful to Gary  Nafis for letting me use some of his photographs for reference and step-by-step tutorials.

Drawing Reptile and Amphibian Eyes

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.

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The eyes from top left to bottom right: crocodile, viper, western toad, gecko, garter snake, newt, spadefoot toad, snake in process of shedding.