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.

Low-cost Nature Journaling Supplies for Teachers

Need a source of low-cost journals or other nature journaling supplies for your classroom? Here are a few resources I have found. Please add your own suggestions in the comment section.


Bear Books. These little hard-bound journals are sturdy  The standard Bear Book has 28 pages (14 sheets). The Bear Book Plus has 60 pages (30 sheets).

Sketch For Schools Journals. Spiral bound customizable journals. I recommend  the intermediate weight textured paper. You can add your school logo or other custom page to the front (though this does add cost). This might be a good place to print the naturalist tools sheet (ruler, protractor, and other tools).

Other Nature Journaling Materials

Large Drawstring Backpacks. Buy these in bulk for price discounts. Every student can customize and carry their own journal kit. The brightly colored drawstring bags run when wet so go for the white-beige bags. Sold by the dozen. Two versions: low-cost ($1.75 each), more durable ($2.25 each).

Non-photo Blue Prismacolor® Col-Erase® Pencils. Box Of 12 ($9.49)

Magnifying Glass (be sure to tie a string through the end so students can hang them around their necks.)


Having trouble raising the funds for supplies for your classroom? Try to get money and build community support for your projects. Here are some tips: Raise Money With Crowdfunding: Top 9 Tips for SchoolsRaise Money for Your School Using Crowdfunding (PDF), and Crowdfunding Tips for Students and Schools.

Composition (video workshop)

most some a littleA strong composition is the backbone of a successful drawing. In addition, creative composition will open alternative ways of seeing a subject and give you new and exciting avenues to explore in your art. Composition is not hard to master and with a few basic principles under your belt you will see a dramatic improvement in your landscapes, page layouts, and photography. In this workshop you will learn ways of visualizing and analyzing your artwork that help you create strong compositions in a single drawing or on the fly as you combine elements on a page. Also learn how to do post-hoc composition to fix the layout of a page or a single sketch.

How to Draw Lupine Step-by-Step

How do you draw lupine? So many little parts. Tackling a complex subject requires a game plan. Break a big task down into little steps. Start in the middle at the bottom and work your way up. A methodical system will help you keep focused and oriented.

Drawing Plants 2.062-001A lupine inflorescence is challenging because you have to draw the same flowers again and again at all angles. With a little strategy, you can save a lot of time and your drawing will look better for it. Begin by understanding the flower itself. Draw one blossom from the front, 3/4 view, and from the side. Study how the shapes of the flowers change as you go up the stem (the flowers age from oldest to youngest as you go up).

Frame in the shape of the inflorescence with your non-photo blue pencil. Then, starting in the middle of the lowest row, draw the central flower. With a little less detail draw the next two flowers on either side. With an even lighter touch, suggest the shape of the flowers in the background. Now move up to the next level and continue to the top. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow.

How to draw an Iris: part 2

Iris flowers have a complex shape and curving petals, making them difficult to begin to draw. Build your sketch from simple shapes to detail. Here w learn to draw an iris from basic forms and place the petals using negative shapes.

Drawing Plants 2.037-001Start with the central axis and proportions. Imagine a center line through the flower. This helps you see the symmetry and helps you draw a tilted flower. There are many ways you can draw your initial shape. I use simple shapes such as circles to rough out the form. Do not make this part of the drawing too complex. The goal of these first lines is to locate the major elements of the flower so that you can check the proportions. Double check your proportions before you continue. It is easy to change now. It will be difficult later.

Drawing Plants 2.038-001Find the circles. Look carefully at the flower to find any circles in its structure that you can use as guides. Here I use three, the tips of the large (petal like) sepals at the bottom, the tips of the (petal like) pistil in the middle, and the tips of the erect petals. Note that from this view you are looking down on the first two circles and up at the last.  The circles become more elliptical the closer they are to the level of your eyes.

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

How to Draw an Iris: part 1

I am overwhelmed when looking at a wildly curling Iris petal. But I have learned to calm those worries with a systematic approach to constructing the petal. Close one eye and look at each plane, top or bottom as an angular flat shape. Imagine each as a separate shape like pieces of odd-sized glass. To see each shape accurately, try contour drawings of these shapes until you get the feel for it. The individual pieces will not look like petals. When put together they become something extraordinary, your stained glass window.

With practice it become lots of fun to find and describe the twisting forms of nature with your pencil. The key is to give up your notions of what a petal should look like and accept the real shape before you.Drawing Plants 2.034-003

Shape vs. Structure

There are two ways of visualizing what you want to sketch, seeing shape and structure. Block in your sketch using shapes then refine your drawing by double checking that the structure is accurately observed.

curling ribbon shapeA curling ribbon is a good model to begin thinking about surface shapes. Train your eye to catch the shapes formed by the green and blue sides. Each section has distinct angles and curves that are more easily seen and drawn in isolation from the rest of the ribbon.

curling ribbon structureOnce you have blocked in the drawing with shapes, back up and observe the structure. The near and the far edges are continuous lines. The purple and blue edges do not have to be the same shape. You also see the surface of the ribbon between the edges at every turn (green lines).

If you are drawing a leaf, start by visualizing the top and bottom surfaces. See the top and the bottom surfaces as individual shapes. Join them to create a leaf. Then draw the close edge with a heavier line to connect the parts of the leaf and to emphasize distance and space.

leaf shape

Now think about the structure. To make sure your mid-vein and the far side of the leaf emerge at the right spot, imagine you can see through the leaf and follow the curves of the lines that are blocked from your sight. These should make smooth curves (or in some cases loops).

leaf structure

How to Draw Wildflowers 2 (video workshop)

This is the second of a two part series on drawing wildflowers. Watch part 1.

Enjoy the beauty of spring wildflowers. Drawing them will help you get to know them better and will help you see aspects of your favorite wildflowers that you have never noticed before. This workshop will teach you:
  • How to draw tight clusters of white flowers (yarrow etc).
  • How to draw curling and twisted petals and leaves (Iris, orchids etc.).
  • How to draw bilaterally symmetrical and tube-shaped flowers (Monkey Flowers).
  • How to draw flowers with many complex repeating parts (Lupine).

How to Foreshorten Leaves: Advanced

The way to foreshorten leaves that are oriented toward you or at a right angle to your line of sight is fairly straightforward. The proportions of the leaf will change but the leaf will remain symmetrical. However, when a leaf (or petal) is foreshortened and the axis is oriented at a 45 degree angle to your line of sight, it becomes asymmetrical. The more that one side of the leaf tip points toward the observer (while the other does not) the greater the asymmetry will be. Once you start looking for this asymmetry you will see it in petals and leaves everywhere.

To help you intuitively understand these changes, download and print the leaf model and follow along as you study this post, comparing what you see in the model with the demonstrations. To get this effect to work with the leaf model, hold the model at eye level, close one eye, rock the leaf back to a steeply foreshortened angle and then (keeping the angle) point the leaf tip over one of your shoulders.

Click on the first image to start a slide-show tutorial.