Join me on a nature journal adventure with my friend and fellow nature journaler JP! It was Superbowl Sunday but we decided to nature journal instead. We saw a dead whale, we saw mergansers, and we even saw a crawdad and cliff-growing succulents.
Just Start Somewhere
Nature journaling in a new element is not easy. I made a whole video about how to nature journal from a kayak and I am still not totally comfortable. You will see how I struggle even getting started when you watch the video. I paddle around looking for a better angle. What should I draw? Where should I park my kayak? Should I nature journal from the shore?
“Start before you’re ready.”
The most important thing is to just get your journal out and start getting something down on the page. Getting started can be especially hard under the following nature journal adventure circumstances:
You are not physically comfortable
The environment is distracting
There are too many options to nature journal
You are worried about your materials getting lost or damaged
The art supplies you usually use are not conducive to the adventure
The best solution to all these problems is to clarify your intentions before you go, simplify your materials, and start making marks on your page as soon as possible.
Birding and nature journaling should be an obvious match. That’s because you will be more observant, patient, and full of wonder if you do both. You could take my word for it. However, you could also hear it from the mouth of Timothy Joe. Tim has loved nature and art since a young age. In addition to birding he practices nature journaling, watercolor and gouache painting, oil painting, and pastels. In this live conversation we talk about his art, we talk about how racism has affected his experience, and we talk about how we can move forward as a nature journaling community.
I first found out about Timothy Joe from his Instagram where I saw one of his posts under the hashtag #naturejournaling. In addition to his artwork he also posts about his classes on Instagram. I saw that he was teaching a “Birds and Nature Art Journaling” class. Pretty soon, I was scrolling through a bunch of his other artwork.
Besides birds Tim also does a lot of rural landscapes, especially those that contain historic buildings. Similarly to nature journaling Tim finds joy and meaning in researching and sharing the background story of these buildings. For him, the story is as important as the visual which is demonstrated in the following quote from his artist statement.
Everyday things that usually would not get a second glance can become beautiful works of art. There is a message in every scene, whether it is a location, personal belonging, or building. There are so many beautiful subjects that should have its place on my canvas or any other painting surface. My mission is to capture these hidden treasures before time erases them completely.
Why Aren’t All Birders Nature Journaling?
With all these obvious benefits you might wonder why don’t all birders also nature journal?
First of all, many birders have never heard of nature journaling.
Second, many are in too big a hurry to stop and sketch. They just want to check off more life birds.
They are too focused on using all their energy to learn bird names and see more birds and be more hardcore birders.
Finally and significantly, birders are very emotionally attached to their subject and that makes them afraid to try to draw them. Compared to the precision of photography their early sketches of birds could feel awkward. Since they love their subject so much they want to do it justice.
Birding and Nature Journaling While Black
Timothy shared his experience and perspective as a black man in predominantly white hobbies and the outdoors. Later in the conversation we talked about positive ways to make these hobbies and the outdoors more welcoming. The first challenge for him when doing birding or going to an art event is looking around at the other participants. He is often the only black man. He has to reassure himself and the other participants that he is meant to be there. Sometimes they ask if he is lost. He often gets second glances. Just because of the color of his skin. This would be enough to make many of us give up. However, Tim has developed a protocol that he follows.
How to Nature Journal While Black
Show Off Your Supplies. Tim always makes sure he is wearing an artist’s apron, has his easel out and all his art or birding stuff very visible. This type of flagging shows off what his intentions are. Many black birders follow similar rules and try to make it extra obvious that they are birding. This is unfair and should not be necessary but many people in the USA are consciously or unconsciously prejudiced to be suspicious of black people walking around. This is no joke-innocent black people have been killed because of this. As a husband and a father Tim does worry about his safety.
Be Mindful of Your Surroundings. Birders and nature journalers and landscape painters are supposed to be observant. If you are black in the USA you have to be even more observant. Tim tries to pay attention to where he is and what is going on with the people around him.
Choose Your Locations Carefully. Unfortunately, there are locations that Tim would love to paint but feel too unsafe. Certain rural areas or locations that are too out of the way. He has to choose not to go to these places. Black birders have shared this as well.
Obviously, neither Dr Drew Lanham nor Timothy Joe should have to feel like they have to follow rules just to do what they love. Even if they do follow these rules it is possible they will be harassed or worse such as the incident with Chris Cooper in Central Park.
Birding and Nature Tours at the Joe Farm
Timothy shared about his family’s farm and all the accessible nature to be had there. They have birding events, wheelchair access, and art events. I want to go some day! Find out more at their website.
I have been bad. I have avoided this for five years. Now I need to do five years worth of journal organization in one morning! Since the cameras are live I can’t back down. In fact, I can barely stop for a snack.
“Maybe this was a bad idea” I think to myself after 3 hours of non-stop talking and organizing. All I have eaten is half a brownie. Not that many people are even watching the live broadcast. “What is the point of organizing all my journals anyways!”
Why Journal Organization Matters
First of all, there is the pleasure. If you are the kind of person that likes journaling you probably also get a weird pleasure from organization-even when it hurts. You know who you are. There is that warm tingly feeling when you look at a tidy shelf full of chronologically stacked journals. Everything in its place. It’s worth it. Despite the fact that you cried and bit your nails in the process. You might even be the kind of person that organizes as you go. Regardless it is a victory against the forces of chaos.
Next, there is the practicality. My journals used to look fine on the shelf but I could never find anything when I needed it. Now that they are organized I can easily reference them and put them back. Writing a series of numbers on the front cover made a much easier system.
Last of all, think about your legacy. I am only half joking. Someday, someone (besides you) is going to have to deal with all of your journals. If you are a serious journaler that could be a herculean task. This poor future individual deserves some pity, no matter how fascinating your journals are. Therefore, you should get your journals into some kind of organizational system.
If you read this far about journal organization then you probably would be interested in systems for indexing your journal! If you actually watched me organizing my journals live for 5 hours then you might enjoy watching me index one of my journals here.
Mariia Ermilova Terada shows us how to nature journal biocultural diversity. Not only does she nature journal in three languages but she also incorporates the human-nature connection into her pages. In contrast, most nature journalers today omit this relationship. For example, I often choose nature subjects where I cannot see the human interaction. I frequently exclude hikers, benches, telephone poles from my landscape paintings. Another example is that I rarely nature journal my garden, my salad, or the other aspects of nature my life is directly dependent on.
In addition, we talk about Mariia’s studies, her love of frogs, fabric arts, and the role nature journaling can play in making the world a better place. Don’t miss the lightning round!
How to Nature Journal Your Breakfast
Did you nature journal the plants and animals that you ate for breakfast today? What about the plants or animals that made your clothes? Have you ever included the indigenous names for plants or animals on your page? If nature journaling is supposed to connect us more to nature why do we often avoid the subjects we are most closely connected to?
In the above example we can see how Mariia applies nature journaling to an everyday scene. Her neighbor caught a fish and is cooking it. This nature journal page captures that subsistence relationship. In addition she gives the name of the fish in three languages and points out how it is an invasive species. The combination of comic, recipe, and species profile give this page a biocultural significance. In contrast, Mariia could have just nature journaled a random butterfly. “What’s wrong with nature journaling a random butterfly?” In fact, there is nothing wrong with choosing a subject just because of an aesthetic interest. But let’s be self aware. Why don’t we nature journal what we eat?
How to Nature Journal Biocultural Diversity
First, be curious about local traditional knowledge about nature in the area where you are. What culture has been living there? What was their relationship to the plants and animals and landscapes you are drawing? Is there a way you can recognize and incorporate some of that into your journal? However, be aware of the issue of cultural appropriation.
Second, be curious about cultural context. Even the magnolia in your garden, the chicken in your soup, or your house cat have a cultural context. Even a quick search on google could find some cool background. What if you included a map, names in other languages, or historic references next to that sketch of your feline or flower?
Finally, what are some biocultural connections from your own life? You can also try to nature journal some of the aspects of your own life that are connected to nature. What plants, animals, fungi, minerals etc do you relate to on a daily basis?
Drawing old trees is one of my favorites! I’m gonna show you how to nature journal old trees; in this case a charismatic old oak tree. I’ll use ink, watercolor, and graphite pencil to draw a portrait of the tree, sketch the basic scene, illustrate lea, and depict some of the moss. I will also talk about other nature journaling techniques and watercolor tips.
It was a cold January day in the mountains of Northern California. The weather forecast predicted snow later that day. Despite the cold and my low energy I knew this was my only chance. Because if it snowed I would be stuck up here and unable to get home to edit this video for you.
It’s at times like these where you need a system.
How to Nature Journal Old Trees in 5 Steps
Firstly, start with metadata. Always start with metadata: location, date, time, weather, etc
Next, simplify the complex. Old trees fascinate us partly because of their complexity. You need to simplify or you will be overwhelmed. Starting with thumbnails and using a viewfinder will help enormously.
Next, zoom in on details. What are some details you can add? Try drawing the leaves, the flowers, the seeds.
Lastly, don’t settle with just a portrait. It is very fun to paint the portrait of a tree. However, that is not really nature journaling. Try to incorporate some notes, some measurements, some contextual information or diagrams. Did any birds visit? What does the bark look like closeup? Adding these perspectives will enrich your page and your experience.
Do you know how to nature journal from your window? This nature journaling technique is useful on cold, snowy, or rainy days. It is also useful during global pandemics or if you can not get outside for other reasons.
Do you ever not feel motivated to nature journal? Do you ever feel down in the winter? I feel those things too despite what you might think from my video persona. Luckily, nature journaling makes me feel better regardless of how low energy or depressed I’m feeling. I didn’t want to make this live episode. I had a lot of self doubt about whether I had the right “energy” to nature journal. That’s why I started and ended with a gratitude exercise. Because your mindset is the foundation of your nature journaling and your life.
How to Nature Journal From Your Window in 3 Steps
Set the Stage: You want to do this more than once. Therefore you need to find a good location.
First, it should be convenient. A gorgeous view is nice but if you are teetering at the top of a stairwell it is not worth it. Also consider your family movements. Where will you be disturbed the least? The less energy to initiate a session the better. If you have to move a ton of furniture each time forget it.
Second, it should be consistent. This way you get into a habit more easily.
Last, consider the view. Is there a variety of stuff to see?
Set Your Expectations: Ok, maybe this should have been first. Create realistic expectations and clarify your goals around nature journaling from the window. I strongly recommend input based goals not output based goals. For example, “I will nature journal from my window for 15 minutes every day.” In contrast “I will paint a pretty sunset in watercolor every day.”Which of these goals is more achievable?
Vitor Velez has a nature journal style that is instantly recognizable. When you see his Instagram you might be awed. In fact, you might even be intimidated. “How can I ever develop a style like that?” “He is talented.” “I could never do that.” “His style must have come to him like a lightning bolt of inspiration.” Watch this interview and you will see how he deconstructs his process.
I remember when I first saw Vitor’s artwork on his Instagram. The way he uses lettering and line immediately fascinated me. “This guy is doing unique work and I would love to introduce him to the Nature Journaling Community” I thought to myself. I told him about the nature journal club Facebook page and he shared some of his work there. Later, I decided I should interview him for the Nature Journal Show.
What is the Difference Between Writing and Drawing?
I was really excited to talk about this with Vitor. How can text be used as a visual element just like drawings? What is the actual difference between the two? How can artists and nature journalers combine the two in beautiful and functional ways?
Vitor believes that one of the main differences between words and images is how we interpret them. We interpret drawings and images automatically. In contrast we have to slow down and concentrate to interpret words. In addition, words or notes on the page allow the viewer to see into the mind of the artist. For example, we talked about the difference between Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and his sketchbooks. When I was a kid I couldn’t believe they were made by the same artist!
You have to watch the interview if you want to learn more about combining text and images!
Where Does Nature Journal Style Come From?
The most empowering or most depressing thing about this interview is how Vitor deconstructs his style. Depending on your perspective you will either be encouraged or you will realize you no longer have any excuses. The recipe is fairly simple.
Take equal parts enjoyment of the process and fascination with subject, mix in a diversity of visual references and inspirations, then add hundreds of hours of practice.
A unique nature journal style does not come from nowhere. Vitor was not born with his style. You will not be given one from heaven. Look at other artists. Get inspiration from many sources. Mix ideas around in your head. Try different techniques. Practice drawing a lot. Then practice drawing some more. Don’t get precious about your drawings.
Want some nature journal homeschool ideas? Want to learn about how a growth mindset can help your kids? Check out this interview with homeschool mom, podcaster, and art educator Dallas Nachtigall!
Bestowing the Brush is a podcast about passing on drawing skills to the next generation. Principles and practices of Charlotte Mason. Always exploring The Art of Seeing.
In this conversation I talk about how instilling a growth mindset can help kids and adults learn better, work harder, and build sustainable self confidence. In addition to growth mindset we share other key nature journal homeschool ideas that can help your family.
Obviously this all sounds great! If you are ready to dive in then you might be interested in the Nature Journal Family for February.
Earlier in the year I got to interview Dallas on the Nature Journal Show. It’s called Homeschool Nature Study with Dallas Nachtigall. She shares some of the benefits that nature study has brought to her family and shares some practical tips!
How I got Started with Nature Journaling
Have you ever wondered about my nature journaling origin story? Did I always love nature? Did I start nature journaling as a kid? Those of you who don’t know my back story will appreciate the questions that Dallas asked me at the beginning of the show. To summarize briefly:
First of all, I have only been nature journaling for 6 or 7 years! Are you surprised?
You won’t be surprised that I loved nature since I was a kid.
I was introduced to nature journaling for the first time in college. However, it did not really “click”! Can you believe it?
Full Time Nature Journal Educator
After sharing my nature journaling origin story Dallas asked me about my work. Since October of 2020 I have been a full time nature journal educator. I quit my other part time job and now am focused on what I know is my “life’s work.” Currently, work is focused on the following activities.
Creating educational videos on my YouTube channel. I make how to videos, nature journal adventure videos, and interviews of other artists and naturalists. These resources are all free but I am supported by fans through my Patreon.
Leading field trips and teaching groups of adults (on hold due to Covid).
Teaching nature journaling to kids and families (This is currently limited to my online class for families. I’m also doing a few Covid-safe outdoors sessions with individual kids.)
What Does a Nature Journal Session With Me Look Like?
Dallas was curious about my one-on-one sessions with kids. She asked me “When you go on these excursions (…) what does that look like and what do you typically do and how do you structure that time together?”
I answered with the following important reminder.
The thing that is super empowering for teachers and parents and mentors of any kind is to remember that nature is the best teacher and kids are the best learners. You basically just need to put those things together and know how to not get in the way.
After saying that, I explain how under every rock and around every turn in the trail there are lessons. There are physics lessons, biology lessons, or anything else you want to learn about.
The next key point is to balance structure with flexibility. When I teach in the field I usually keep the lesson plan as open as possible. I’m prepared to adapt to the needs of the kid and the materials that nature offers that day. Sometimes I do more focused skill-building activities or experiments. For example bringing an interesting fruit and dissecting it while drawing cross sections. Another example is a recent cratering experiment I did with kids and we nature journaled the whole thing. Check out the experiment directions from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
If you want more nature journal homeschool ideas you should listen to the podcast!
This nature journal homeschool family will inspire you! Crystal and Amaya share their perspective of nature journaling in a family with four kids. Because of their experience I ask them to give me some ideas for my upcoming nature journal family class.
Crystal told me a story that sums up why nature journaling is important. Their whole family went on a nature journaling field trip to watch bats with John Muir Laws. Amaya was the main one nature journaling during the trip but the enthusiasm was contagious. The rest of the kids wanted to learn everything about bats later when they got home. This motivation allowed the family to go on a sustained learning adventure together. They looked up books. They watched videos. And finally they went to a zoo that had fruit bats. This is where the benefits of nature journaling stood out. While they were watching the bats in amazement another kid walked by. He took one glance at the bats and said “Eww, gross!” Crystal’s son Gabe looked at the boy with disbelief. His facial expression said it all…
“How could someone not appreciate how fascinating these animals are?”
To summarize, the nature journaling mindset had preserved a sense of wonder and curiosity in her kids. The other kid, in contrast, had developed the jaded perspective that plagues most adults. Not only can the jaded perspective make it harder to learn it can also take the joy and gratitude out of life.
Nature Journal Homeschool Tips
First, start with small expectations. Be realistic to start with so that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Get personal supplies for each kid. Personal nature journaling supplies make the kids feel proud and responsible. Similarly, letting the kids pick their own supplies contributes to their motivation. See my interview with homeschooler Dallas Nachtigall for more about this.
Make it into a family event. Planning family outings around nature journaling brings the family together in nature without explicit pressure. For example, one kid like Amaya, might be nature journaling the whole time, but the whole family is there to learn and support each other.
Don’t pressure younger kids into nature journaling. If the younger kids see their parent, sibling, or family friend nature journaling this will inspire them. In contrast, their mom forcing them might backfire.
Reassess yearly. How’d it go? What did you learn? What’s next?
Want the perspective of two more homeschool moms?
Check out this live interview with two moms who homeschool and are also educators.
Rosalie Haizlett is a conservation-focused illustrator. She has built a career around painting maps, botanical art, and detailed nature scenes in watercolor and ink. In addition to her art sales and commissions she teaches classes. Another key point we talk about in this interview is the therapeutic role nature can play. Rosalie is driven because she believes that nature-based art can have a deeper purpose.
How Nature Journaling Can Improve Quality of Life
Rosalie is a firm believer that drawing in nature can improve the quality of people’s lives. However, for many of us today this is not the default state.
“A lot of people are walking right past so many incredible wonders in nature and not taking time to notice them.”
She then goes on to point out that this is a learnable practice.
“Over time I began to notice more in the outdoors (…) My life was enriched by spending more quiet time in nature and using art to document what I was seeing.”
That’s wonderful if nature journaling and art can enrich our experience. But that is not all. She goes on to explain the healing effect these practices can have.
Rosalie shared her personal experience struggling with chronic migraines. Spending quiet time observing nature turned out to be a very effective therapy. This lead to her current practice around spending more time in nature.
How Her Art Can Help the Environment
I was interested in asking Rosalie about the role that she sees her art playing. A quote on her website said that she is creating “(…) visuals to help people see and appreciate the natural world in a deeper way.” I wanted to know more about how she is trying to implement this vision.
First, she creates art for conservation-minded companies and organizations. Some examples include: Patagonia, The Smithsonian, The National Parks, and the Audobon Society.
Second, she teaches regular people how to connect to nature through art and observation.
Lastly, she is sharing her experiences in nature helps invite others to explore more deeply.