Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to Draw From Nature

I haven’t been on a field trip for a long time. Field trips seem like a thing of high school or more like middle school. But today my Introduction to Geology class went on a field trip to see some cool rock formations. We trundled onto a bus at 8 o’clock sharp and rode up toward Starved Rock. I felt like it would be a good time to get in some nature sketches. I haven’t done that for a long time. My first few were pretty bad, but once I got warmed up they started to look a little more like the things we were seeing. Today I just want to give you a sample of my thumbnail sketches and tell you a little about my process. 

For this series I drew boxes onto the page in a grid. Each box is about 3 by 5 centimetres. I treated each box like a snapshot of something we were looking at: kind of like the windows on a strip of celluloid film. So I spent about a minute sketching simple descriptive lines into each box. For instance here is what that looks like. You can see that there are very few details. It is just the outlines of what I saw, in this case a fallen tree and the horizontal lines of the rock face behind it. 

I challenged myself to fill all nine of my boxes while we were down in the rock formation. It was like a deep rift in the landscape that had been hollowed out by glaciers and water. All around us were the high walls of layered sandstone. Divots and small caves dimpled the surface. The ground was either packed sand or deep mud, which we had to traverse in order to get from one formation to another.

Once I had filled my grid I put my sketchbook away. I think it is good for all documentation activities like sketching or photography to have a limit when you are sight seeing. After you have taken a few rolls of film, put the camera away. Draw the blueprints for several sketches and then put the sketchbook away and just enjoy what you are seeing and experiencing. 

When I got home I took out the sketches and used my black pen to fill them in. Some of the simple guidelines were too abstract for me to flesh out and I left them as is. But the others were helpful as I filled in shadows and forms. When doing an exercise like this the goal is not to make perfect replicas of what you have seen. A lot of people think nature drawing is getting each branch on the tree to look like the actual tree. No. That is the job of photography. The job of the nature sketch is to create the suggestion of the tree. I mean that you can make up the way that the branches bend as long as you are following the rules of perspective and the grammar of shadows and textures in order to evoke substance. The details of the drawings I have here are largely filled in with my imagination, but they still evoke the place, because I have stayed true to the basic forms of the place. 

If you are daunted by the prospect of nature sketching, then you are probably putting too much pressure on yourself to “be accurate”. Remember that that is not the goal. The goal is to help you experience your surroundings more fully. The goal is to celebrate nature. So if that means that all you do if go out and make colour swatches of the stuff you see, great! If that means that you go around collecting snippets of the plants you come across, pressing them into your sketchbook and then drawing them later, wonderful! Do something fun, not something gruelling. Enjoy the beauty.