“What I have not drawn, I have never really seen,&" writes Fredereic Franck in his book The Zen of Seeing (Random House, 1973). Franck's statement is in many ways the basis of the practice of nature journaling. From ancient people who drew carefully observed animals on the walls of caves, to the 19th-century amateur naturalists who avidly drew their collections of insects and plants, drawing has long been a primary way to learn about and record the natural world.
Interestingly, photography has never really replaced drawing as a way of knowing or as a way of accurately representing nature. Certainly nature has been extensively photographed, and the resulting images have been used in many ways. But photography is too fast to replace the process of drawing; the same kind of slow, intimate, developmental seeing does not take place. It's still true that if you want to learn about the buds on your night-blooming cereus plant, drawing is one of the best ways to do so. A drawing records them with greater clarity because it lets you omit background clutter while emphasizing details such as the little spurs that barely show against the side of the bud stem. Drawings are still often used for identification manuals because of their clarity and ability to isolate certain elements while eliminating the extraneous.
Keeping a nature journal will enhance your enjoyment of nature, and you don't have to be an artist to keep one. Hannah Hinchman, a long-time nature journaler and the author of A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place (1997, W. W. Norton & Co.), believes that drawing should be taught to every child alongside reading and writing and given equal emphasis. In Betty Edward's groundbreaking book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1999, JP Tarcher), Edwards says that in our culture we act as though visual skills were rare and mysterious and only available to a few highly gifted “artists.&" In reality, Edwards, Hinchman, and others maintain everyone can and should learn to draw; and everyone would do so if they were given good materials (instead of markers, blunt crayons, and cheap paper), and were asked simple questions that would help them see and draw what they see.
Questions to ask yourself
I know from my own experience of teaching drawing for many years that everyone can learn to draw. The tools that most help me teach students to draw are, actually, a few questions. It helps to have a teacher, buy you can simply ask them of yourself as you set out to draw that night-blooming cereus bud before it does its one-night-stand-blooming performance and disappears forever. Here are the questions:
1. What, actually, do I see? (What is its general shape? What does this shape remind me of? How much of it do I want to draw?)
2. How wide is it compared to its height?
3. How big is this part compared to that part?
4. Is this part a true vertical or horizontal, and if not, how far off the vertical or horizontal is it?
5. If I dropped a plumb line (a string with a weight tied to the end) from this point, what would it hit lower down? If I ran a straight horizontal across from this point, where would it intersect this part?
To answer these questions, which you will ask over and over again, whenever something looks wrong or even slightly off, and especially when you start a new drawing, you'll need a pencil or other straight stick at least 6 inches (15.2 cm) long. To make comparative measures, you will hold the stick in one hand with your elbow straight. (This is important, as you need to keep the relative distance between the object, you eye, and the stick the same throughout measuring.) Close one eye. Place the tip of the stick so that it appears to touch one edge of the object, then place your thumbnail at the apparent other edge of the object. Holding this unit of measurement â€“ and keeping your elbow straight â€“ see how many of these units fit across the expanse you're measuring. For example, I might determine the size of the width of a stem, and then see how many stem-widths (the unit) long the bud is.
To determine how far off a vertical or horizontal something is, hold the stick horizontally beneath or vertically alongside the object, close one eye, and estimate how far off the vertical or horizontal the object (or part of the object) is.
To use a plumb line or horizontal straight lines, use the stick in either a vertical or horizontal orientation.
With practice you'll get better and better at estimating measures and will soon no longer need to actually measure so often. Bur even after years of practice you'll, from time to time, look at a drawing in progress and say, “It looks funny. Something's off.&" That's when you need to measure, and you'll easily discover what you need to do to fix things.
See two sample pages.
Of course there is more that you can learn about drawing, but these few tools will get you started. The key to learning is practice. If you find that you really like to draw and you want to learn more refinements, I highly recommend Hannah Hinchman's and Betty Edwards's books.
Excerpted from The Decorated Page: Journals, Scrapbooks & Albums Made Simply Beautiful, by Gwen Diehn (Sterling Publications, Oct 2002).