How to Start a Nature Journal
I lead a homeschool hiking group that meets in nearby state parks and natural areas at least once a month. We’re working on nature journals this year and I decided to turn the student tutorial I was writing for next Friday’s hike into a blog post.
When beginning a nature journal, you don’t need much. Prior to setting out, we scavenged our home for the art supplies we’ve bought with ambitious intentions (and then left in a dusty cabinet for several years). If you don’t have art tools squirreled away, simply start with a regular #2 pencil and some stapled-together typing paper. Anything fancier is unnecessary!
If you do decide to bring elaborate artist supplies, look for ones that have sturdy, compact containers. My favorite standby is a small tin of watercolor pencils. You can use them like regular pencils for most applications. The fun part is when you have an image that needs a body of water or a swath of grass– just use a drop from your water bottle (or lick your finger) and gently turn bits of your drawing into paint.
My daughter favors oil pastels for the same reason. She can make quick drawings (useful when you’re out in the field) and then strategically smudge parts of them with her finger. Blend colors together, scratch them for texture, or stretch them out to create a transparent look. If you’d like to combine both of our favorite techniques, try some water soluble oil pastels.
I’ve gathered a list of art supplies you might like. Any of these products would be easy to stick in a backpack and “different sizes” means the size of the art set, not the tool. The smallest sets are cheaper and best for field study:
- Basic Drawing Set
- Conté Crayon Set
- Graphite Sketching Set
- Graphite Drawing Set
- Derwent Sketching Set (3 Sizes)
- Woodless Pencil Set
- Charcoal Sketching Set
- Tinted Charcoal Pencil Set
- Prismacolor Pencils Set (different sizes)
- Fibralo Color Markers (3 Sizes)
- Pastel & Pencil Collection
- Media Collection Tins in 3 Sizes
- Woodless Watercolor Pencils Set
- Water Media Set
- Watercolor Pencils & Paints Set
- Watercolor Set
- Watercolor Travel Set
- Sennelier Watercolor Travel Set
- Watercolor Travel Book
- Cretacolor Hard Pastels Set (different sizes, grayscale or color)
- Cretacolor Art Pastel Pencil Sets (4 sizes)
- Oil-Based Color Pencil Sets (5 sizes)
- Derwent Colorsoft Pencils (different sizes)
- Artist Crayons (different sizes)
- Aquacolor Crayon Set (3 sizes)
- Oil Pastel Set (different sizes)
- Soft (Chalk) Pastel Set (different sizes)
You can purchase these products from stores in your city instead of buying them online. Try to support the small guys — I like the art section at a locally-owned store called Suburban Paint. If you only have big box stores in your area it’s good to take advantage of online coupons. Most craft stores offer printable coupons for 50% off any item in the store. For example, type your zipcode in the store locator for A.C. Moore and then click on “coupon” from the selection of links.
The only art tool I do not think you need is an eraser. Most of us have a hard time fighting the urge to draw “right.” It’s important to remember there is no such thing! Drawing well means getting rid of hesitation and understanding that all practice is good, no matter what it looks like. Try to teach yourself that errant lines and blots are part of the process and that a nature journal with no mistakes is incomplete.
We love Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve in Travelers Rest, SC, especially when we get a late start. Its trails are level and around 2 miles long, so we’re sure to get back to the parking area before sunset.
If you want to succeed at keeping a nature journal, keep it simple. Locate convenient wild areas where you scarcely have to get out of the car. Even better, take a walk in your own neighborhood or sit in the backyard garden.
Eventually, you’ll get to go on that all-day hike with a lunchtime picnic art break… but that’s a rare treat. Nature study succeeds when it fits your everyday schedule.
I didn’t get our journals photographed until today. You can click on any photos (on my entire blog) to see a larger image:
These were photographed today on our porch (to use the natural lighting) because everywhere else is drenched in snow. We took our time drawing objects we found. Sometimes this will be possible, and sometimes you’ll be drawing quickly because you’re pressed for time or your subject moves.
If you hate drawing, don’t! How about writing a text-only list of the species you saw or a diary entry describing the day’s events. Or, you can use a camera and create a labeled photo album. This style of journal at Art, Letter, & Life could be made using actual photographs. Or, Mama Craft uses scrapbook photo methods for her nature study.
I enjoy art and attempt to draw at least one thing from every outing. The watercolor pencils allowed me to smooth the barbs of the blue jay feather and blend the shadow around the hickory nut. Most of the lines were left dry for a crisp and defined look.
Empty sections of the page are perfect for listing observations that I don’t feel like illustrating.
When you’re new or rusty, it’s good to start with inanimate objects — they don’t run, blow, or fly away!
If you need to draw more quickly, experiment with fat drawing tools like crayons, conté crayons, oil pastels, chunks of stick graphite, or soft pastels. The blunt edges encourage you to draw without worrying about small details.
Many times you just want to capture the general impression of something you see. Gesture drawings (my daughter calls them “scribble drawings) are defined by “rapid execution” and may not have eyes, feathers, fur, feet, or claws… it may even look like a blob of mud! Fortunately, once you write “running deer” or “flying turkey vulture” underneath it, everyone will know what it is supposed to be (including you).
Even simpler — a geometric shape or blob of color may be all you need to help identify something later. If you saw an indigo bunting flit by in a field you could write “small songbird” and scribble a bright blue dot next to it as a reminder of what to search for in your home field guides.
Taking a camera hiking gives you the opportunity to do a detailed drawing once you get home. Drawing an animal’s posture, markings, and texture is much easier when it’s frozen in time! Or perhaps your schedule won’t allow you to stay and do that waterfall justice. It’s okay to flesh out the sights of your trip from the comfort of your house.
All in all, the goal is to keep a record of the nature you see. Write dates, places, and circumstantial observations like weather and time of day.
Nature Study Resources:
(I’ve listed three books on nature study, the Audubon online field guide, links to the full Audubon and Peterson field guide catalogs, and some regional books that I use where I live.)
- Keeping a Nature Journal by Leslie & Roth
- Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
- Mixed-Media Nature Journals by L.K. Ludwig
- Online Audubon Field Guides (free)
- Audubon Field Guides (all subjects)
- Peterson Field Guides (all subjects)
- Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont by Timothy Spira
- A Guide to Wildflowers of South Carolina by Porcher & Rayner
- Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia by Martof, Palmer, Bailey, & Harrison
- Forest Plants of the Southeast and their Wildlife Uses by Miller, Miller, & Bodner
- Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner
- The Butterflies of West Virginia and their Caterpillars by Thomas Allen
- Attracting Butterflies and Hummingbirds to Your Yard by Sally Roth
- Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard by John Himmelman
- The Moth Book: A Guide to the Moths of North America by W.J. Holland
- Spiders of the Carolinas by L.L. Gaddy
- Birds of the Carolinas by Stan Tekiela