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.

Photo Caption: Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve is one of our favorite afternoon destinations. (Although even in the winter my supplies got covered in fire ants!)

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!

Photo Caption: My daughter, boyfriend, and I each brought our own journal and a variety of art supplies. Shown here are 3 journals, nature books, graphite pencils, pens, watercolor pencils, oil pastels, chalk pastels, compact watercolor paints, and conté crayons. In the upper right corner are our microwavable heating pads -- useful on a cold day when you plan to be sitting still.

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:

One tool I recommend (for the winter) isn’t for drawing: microwavable heating pads like this or this will make sitting still and drawing in the cold a lot more appealing!

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.

Photo Caption: The light began to wane so I didn't photograph our drawings until later.

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.

Photo Caption: As the sun went down it turned the meadow golden. Greenville's Paris Mountain is visible in the distance.

I didn’t get our journals photographed until today. You can click on any photos (on my entire blog) to see a larger image:

Photo Caption: We drew a lot of the same objects with different mediums and styles. On the far right, my boyfriend's journal mixes graphite pencils, pens, and watercolor pencils.

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.

Photo Caption: I drew primarily with watercolor pencils and listed the species that I didn't have time to illustrate in the blank areas of the page.

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.

Photo Caption: My daughter and I both drew the sweetgum ball, stick, and shelf mushrooms. She used oil pastels and I used watercolor pencils.

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.

Photo Caption: I drew these quick seed-eating sparrow sketches this morning. The top left uses a smudged oil pastel, the top right uses a graphite stick, and the rest use a sharp graphite pencil.

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.

Photo Caption: This is one of the sparrows that was flitting on and off our porch this morning. I had a hard time capturing it in a photograph, much less drawing it.

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.

Photo Caption: This photo of our garden sundial was taken around 10:30am. We haven't seen so much snow here since 1988 and it's still coming down strong!

Amateur naturalism is important! You could discover a rare bird or even a supernova. But remember, every time you find something new to you, you’ve made a discovery.

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.)

Eliza Lord

I'm a Greenville, SC native (the Appalachian foothills) who wears the hats of Greenville Master Gardener & Upstate Master Naturalist. I love to write about food and sustainability.

43 thoughts on “How to Start a Nature Journal”

  1. Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens - January 10, 2011 7:11 pm

    This hasn’t come up before, but I have homeschooled all three of my sons. Two are in college and one is 13. They have all gone to a homeschooling resource center with professional staff called Open Connections and had tutors, but I organized it all. We have a lot in common. I have organized many nature related outings over the years for groups of homeschoolers.
    .-= Carolyn @ Carolyn’s Shade Gardens´s last blog ..I Dream in Latin =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:31 am

      Awesome! Yeah, I didn’t know you were a fellow homeschooler. That tutorial program you mentioned sounds excellent, I don’t think we have something like that here. We do take advantage of some of the public school programs, though.
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  2. Curbstone Valley Farm - January 10, 2011 7:29 pm

    I used to love keeping a nature journal when I was younger. I wasn’t a very good artist, but it was fun to try with a few colored pencils, and the drawings meant something to me. Now, as a more detailed oriented adult, I rely heavily on my camera to more accurately capture images, but I still scribble notes. At this time of year, my favorite notepad, is one of those Rite in the Rain notebook. I love that the paper doesn’t get soggy, even when I’m out mushroom hunting!
    .-= Curbstone Valley Farm´s last blog ..Fungus Fair Fun =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:43 am

      We were given Rite in the Rain notebooks when I did the Master Naturalist program and I was completely enchanted by waterproof paper. I just wanted it to rain at every outing after that or to deliberately drop my book in the creek.

      Your mushroom festival post has turned all of me green… not just my thumb. :)

  3. Janet - January 10, 2011 8:23 pm

    Great ideas Eliza. I like the list of reference material. I use my camera to document what I see and try to get specifics for plant material from many angles. Bringing a notebook along with me happens sometimes…… love looking back at my notes and drawings of what I have seen.
    .-= Janet´s last blog ..A Snowy Day in South Carolina =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:47 am

      I’ll bet you have an impressive collection of plant photos! I love blogs and photo albums because it requires us to edit and gives us a place to see our pictures. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like I go through the photos stored on my computer very often.

  4. Daricia
    Twitter: aCLTgarden
    - January 10, 2011 8:27 pm

    eliza, i love this post. i will be making a field journal for a class i just signed up for! i havent done any drawing since science labs years ago, but im looking forward to it. i really enjoyed looking at the journals you and your daughter made. what a nice thing to do together.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:50 am

      Thanks! Have fun making your field journal, that class sounds like a good time!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  5. One - January 10, 2011 8:33 pm

    Both your daughter and yourself are great artists. I bet you have lots of masterpieces.
    .-= One´s last blog ..Nature Park =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:51 am

      Thanks… although not really — we both like to give anything we make away. I guess it’s good we’re keeping these journals since we’re more likely to keep them. :)

  6. makarimi - January 10, 2011 8:36 pm

    Very useful tips. Your are so smart doing this thing, I just captured pictures and keep it in my PC for further reference. Great post!
    .-= makarimi´s last blog ..9 Jan 2010- Taiping Orchid Show Update =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:55 am

      Thanks! I hope you get to start your own. :)

  7. luvarugula - January 10, 2011 9:45 pm

    Feasted on your ideas! Glad you blogged about this. I have forgotten my past and you have reminded me of what I loved to do: hike, draw pictures, key plants, make observations.
    .-= luvarugula´s last blog ..Weeds- slugs and all- we are ready for spring =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 10:58 am

      Sounds like a pastime worthy of a resurrection!

  8. PlantPostings
    Twitter: plantpostings
    - January 10, 2011 10:30 pm

    What a great thing to do with your daughter! I’m sure she’s learning loads from you — some of the best lessons are real-world ones. I didn’t home-school my kids, but I worked at home when they were young and we had many hikes and nature lessons and discussions. Very nice post!
    .-= PlantPostings´s last blog ..Fertile fronds =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:04 am

      That counts as homeschooling to me! Lessons learned at home are important even if kids go to additional schools. Those fern fronds on your latest post would be a cool drawing!

  9. Carolflowerhill
    Twitter: flora
    - January 10, 2011 11:19 pm

    Dear Eliza, I so enjoy this post! I wish I would make time to keep a nature journal again. I think they are wonderful and a way to preserve those special moments in nature. Photography and blogging have taken the place of my journals and it simply is not the same! Very inspiring!
    .-= Carolflowerhill´s last blog ..Birds in Review Part V Nesting in Boxes Harmony and Tragedy =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:05 am

      I understand the time constraints! It’s hard in today’s world to keep up with a nature journal, especially if we also have blogs. :)

  10. Elaine - January 11, 2011 1:04 am

    I always take a camera along when we go hiking, but I love the idea of the nature journal. I just might give this a try the next time we go out. Lovely post!
    .-= Elaine´s last blog ..Sacramento Antique Faire =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:15 am

      At this point I think I’m inclined to do both. Love the antiques you photographed!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  11. Diana - January 11, 2011 1:14 am

    Oh what a fun project Eliza.
    .-= Diana´s last blog ..Hasil sayur kebun kami minggu lepas =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:17 am


  12. Ali - January 11, 2011 5:16 am

    I love the idea of having a go at drawing from nature, I failed art in grade 8, but that doesn’t matter now, does it?

    I think this sounds like a lovely project, and the microwave pads gave me a giggle. If it got too cold to go outside here, I’d just stay in. Often winter days are a balmy 27 degrees here!
    .-= Ali´s last blog ..Thank Goodness Its Just on TV =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:21 am

      Oh no, I’m horrified by a school failing an 8th grader in art. As long as students are making an effort they shouldn’t be discouraged from creating things with bad grades! Sorry to hear that. I hope you give it another try, heating pad or not. :)

  13. Anna - January 11, 2011 8:21 am

    I love this post because that’s exactly how I learned about our local plants and animals. From ninth through 12th grades, I drew a page in my sketchbook nearly every day, often just sitting in my backyard. Drawing is really a good way to make field marks stick in your head.

    Beautiful drawings from all of you! I’m very impressed!
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Anna- Testing the temperature on top of the wood stove =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:25 am


      That’s an amazing tale of consistency! I can only imagine the knowledge that would come from such a long term project of observation.

  14. Donna - January 11, 2011 8:32 am

    This is a wonderful idea. Our Master gardener group has a yearly nature trail tour for all the local schools and this would be a great addition for the three day event. Loved that you included the list too.
    .-= Donna´s last blog ..The Cave =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:26 am

      Thanks! I think it sounds like a great MG interpretive project.
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  15. Judith - January 11, 2011 10:32 am

    What fun Eliza-I love looking at other people’s sketches. Anna (above) is right about keeping a journal being the best way to find out what lives in your locality. I use mine in conjunction with a digital camera so I can carry on when the creature or scene has passed by.
    .-= Judith´s last blog year blue skies =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 11, 2011 11:32 am

      I feel like everyone should pull out these old journals and do some photograph them for some fun blog posts. I wish I could look through yours!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  16. Ginny - January 11, 2011 12:36 pm

    This is such an inspiring post – I wish I could start my journal right now. Along with the inspiration you’ve provided lots of practical ideas and resources.
    Long ago in my childhood I considered being an artist but decided I didn’t have the talent. Now would be a good time to try my hand at some sketches and rekindle something I used to love.
    .-= Ginny´s last blog ..Anything but chilly =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 12, 2011 9:15 am

      Great! I bet you’ll surprise yourself if you try to draw as an adult. Make sure to keep at it for a chunk of time since it isn’t like riding a bicycle — practice is key! I’m always rusty when I haven’t drawn anything for a while and it usually frustrates me.

  17. Ramona - January 11, 2011 2:28 pm

    Ginny, this brings me back to my childhood when drawing was such a pleasure! Thanks for the post.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 12, 2011 9:21 am

      You’re welcome for the post!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  18. Jennifer - January 11, 2011 8:20 pm

    I regularly take photographs, but rarely write down any observations. I really like the ideas you have presented in this post and might just have to try my hand at creating a nature journal.
    .-= Jennifer´s last blog ..Bondage But not the kinky kind! =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 12, 2011 9:24 am

      Your photos are so wonderful that I’m sure you can get away with it! :)

  19. fer
    Twitter: mygardeninjapan
    - January 12, 2011 8:33 am

    Great post! I would love to try doing one for my little garden. I am not to much of a drawing artist tho. but I love the drawings on that journal
    .-= fer´s last blog ..The banana peels fertilizer works very well =-.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 12, 2011 9:31 am

      Thanks! I bet a drawing of that banana-fertilized flower planter would be really pretty!
      .-= Sustainahillbilly´s last blog ..How to Start a Nature Journal =-.

  20. Mark Willis
    Twitter: marksvegplot
    - January 12, 2011 11:55 am

    When our kids were young we encouraged them to make “scrapbook” whenever we went away on holiday, recording through the media of drawings, postcards, tickets from attractions we visited, and latterly photographs, the things which they had seen and learned about. Your blogpost reminded me of this. One of my daughters went on to become a VERY good photogrspher, and I think there may be a connection.

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 13, 2011 12:47 pm

      How cool! It’s great that your family scrapbooking helped promote your daughter’s talent. I’m personally hoping that regular nature drawing will assist my daughter’s artistic goals.

  21. Donna Earnhardt
    Twitter: Donna_Earnhardt
    - January 12, 2011 1:58 pm

    I’m always looking for more hiking trails. And I happen to know where Traveler’s REst is and I also happen to think it is a beautiful area!

    Thank you for such an in depth and informative post on Nature Journaling. I’ve tried…and failed…then tried…and failed again with my homeschoolers. You’ve set it out in a way that I CAN do. I think I was trying to be too fancy. I am constantly taking photos on our hikes (as is my hubby), but I might start letting THEM take some pics and then draw them later.

    Again – great post!

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - January 13, 2011 1:03 pm

      Fantastic! I’m glad I could be of help — you’re going to love Bunched Arrowhead Preserve, too!

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