One of the most influential practices in my life is nature journaling. It is inherently a process-based art form based in direct observation. The focus on process and observation can not be underestimated in terms of how it influences the artist and the product. This modality is often a cure to the common syndromes of artistic block, plateaus in skill level, and other mental and technical obstacles. There is a feedback loop inherent in this system that accelerates learning and skill acquisition. Paradoxically, art produced by someone who is focusing more on the process than the product often turns out better than art produced by someone focused on making a good product. For more on this concept I highly recommend this video about how wanting to be good at something can get in the way of getting better at something.
Journaling in general is a highly effective technique for accelerating learning. It forces the externalization and visualization of thought processes and creates more feedback loops. Feedback is always productive for learning. When looking at a nature journal page you can see the thought process of the journaler. Additionally, Drawing an object or phenomenon that you are observing or writing about forces you to pay attention in a way that you would not normally. If you are drawing a seagull you will be forced to see things about it that you have never noticed in decades of “looking” at seagulls and perhaps thousands of encounters with the ubiquitous birds.
My main inspiration and mentor for Nature Journaling and all things related to Natural History is John Muir Laws, who teaches nature journaling in the San Francisco bay area. I highly recommend his website, classes, and videos.
One of the most exciting ways I am using my art recently is as a tool to experience travel in a deeper way. I have always enjoyed travel, but now that I have applied the lens of journaling to this arena I have gotten a lot more out of every trip. This engaged approach improves my experience of the epic parts of my travels, such as playing with a praying mantis or riding a canoe down an Amazonian tributary, but it also helps me cope with the exhausting parts such as getting stuck for 30 hours in an airport or being chewed by mosquitoes while trying to paint a sunset.
Traveling and journaling at the same time gives my travel more of a purpose. I am on a mission, I am writing a story, I am engaging with my surroundings in a curious way. I feel like less of a tourist, I am not just a first world foreigner with a camera.
Sometimes, it is hard work when I am journaling. There might be steep cliffs, wind, rain, or public scrutiny. I make myself vulnerable by traveling this way. I have to commit to the place and put myself in public view in a way that takes more work than simply snapping a surreptitious or thoughtless photo. It is more of a relationship than a snapshot.
Sometimes, it is far from hard work. Sometimes it is decadent. Sometimes, I indulge myself when I do my travel journal work. I order a cappuccino and I draw orchids and birds from a covered balcony. I immerse myself in caffeine and the sensory experience of a new place, preferably a tropical one crawling with biodiversity. The luxurious biodiversity of the tropics combines very well with the caffeinated brain of a curious naturalist.
Journal Means Daily…
The more I think about it the more I realize that journaling not only informs all of my art but it is at the very core of how I learn and see the world. My journal is the substrate where I work out an ever-evolving synthesis, it is the place where I externalize my thinking, it is the testing ground for ideas, and it is a robust record of what worked and what didn’t.
I’ve been lucky enough in the last two years to take a few figure drawing classes. As it turns out, drawing people is a fascinating exercise regardless of whether or not one is interested in human bodies as a subject matter.
First of all, figure drawing is a workout for the brain and the body. It uses the whole body in a way that is refreshingly different from most of the hunched-over drawing that many artists do.
The artist is often standing up, using large pieces of newsprint and drawing quickly with a piece of charcoal. It is an observation based type of drawing with a live model assuming different poses that last from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes.
This impermanence of the model’s pose forces rapid observation, prioritization, and translation onto the paper of what is seen. Such a time crunch requires a lot of energy and can be stressful yet helpful to the artists who are more wasteful with their time in the studio.
All to often you hear,”drawing people is so hard.” Why? Partly because we are all experts in looking at humans. When you draw a dragon there is not the same pressure because not everyone is an expert in looking at dragons (few have ever really seen one…) Neuroscientists have shown that more of the visual cortex is used for processing images of humans then any other visual input (human faces in particular take up the most processing power). This means that if something is a little off with your drawing of a person then everyone will notice.
While it is true that we are all experts at looking at and recognizing humans it is also true that our brain does take shortcuts. In figure drawing you eventually learn how to take advantage of some of these shortcuts by implying certain shapes and forms that collectively create the illusion of a human body, or part of a human body.
Like tracking and nature journaling, figure drawing has changed the way I see the world. After spending hours and hours painstakingly observing light and dark I will never look at a shadow the same way again.
Like many things I enjoy, figure drawing turns what most people take for granted into an object of study and fascination. It forces many processes of perception that are normally unconscious into the conscious realm where they can be understood and manipulated.
I highly recommend taking a figure drawing class even for those who are not interested in art or drawing people. It will stretch and strengthen your brain in ways that are inherently beneficial.
For a classic and comprehensive book on figure drawing: Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life
I like practice, I like training, I like ingraining the fundamentals. I like taking subjects apart and studying them from different angles.
Here are some of my color-mixing studies. I find these exercises to be good for learning but I also find the repetition of colored boxes aesthetically pleasing.
The most ambitious color mixing chart that I did started with over a thousand little squares…
I wanted to see all the possible combinations of the colors in the customized palette that I got from John Muir Laws in a strong mixture and a watered down “tint.”
When I finished the last square of this chart I felt one of the strongest feelings of achievement that I have ever felt upon completing an art piece! I literally jumped for joy.
This is a portfolio of my skull studies…
Following is my portfolio of geometry and archetypes of nature. (Click on the photos to see details.) These were originally done on large format paper so the details are hard to see unless magnified.
Here is an exploration of the Pentad, number 5, pentagon, etc.
Here is an exploration of the Hexad, number 6, hexagon, hexagram etc.
In this study I explore different aspects of the spiral in nature.
Here is a study exploring the patterns of the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio, and the Fibonacci spiral.
Here is a colored pencil interpretation of a Bengal Tiger photo from Zoonooz Calendar, January 2014. (SDZG photographers, Ken Bohn).
Here is a flyer I made for a workshop I put on. I was trying to evoke the composition of the famous “Jaws” movie poster.
These are several informational cards that I made for a primitive skills event called the Buckeye Gathering.