Nature Journaling in the Grand Canyon! Post-Trip Share (Part 1)

I’m back from nature journaling in the Grand Canyon for 21 days. In my live “Show and Tell” video I share experiences and pages from the adventure!

You already know I have been testing nature journal supplies, clothing, sun protection, waterproof supplies, and other gear in preparation for this trip. You have heard about my training and my preparation. Now I’m back! And I have lots to share. In fact, it was so much I have to do a Part Two. My goal is to give you some answers to the following questions.

  • First, how did I prepare?
  • Next, how did I stay focused during the trip?
  • Lastly, what am I gonna do now that the trip is over?

Preparing to Nature Journal in the Grand Canyon

It can be hard to prepare for something that you have never done before. Had I ever been to the Grand Canyon before? Nope. Whitewater rafting with some of the biggest navigable rapids on the continent? Nope. Any whitewater rafting experience at all? No, but I went down a creek in an inner tube once. Any other river expedition experience? Nope. Had I ever spent 23 days camping with my girlfriend before? No…What about other multi-day expedition experience? Sort of… What about nature journaling in extreme conditions and unusual places? Yep, I got that one covered!

Nature Journaling the Grand Canyon
Photo by Brock Dolman

 

So first, I had to make sure I had the material needs covered to survive and thrive enough to enjoy the trip and have enough energy to nature journal. I didn’t want to break the bank on gear or spend forever trying to figure out what was best. Luckily, our trip leader, Cooper, and his partner Leah had a lot of the necessary gear that we could borrow. In addition, I managed to piece together a lot of the clothing necessary from my old wool hunting clothes and bought some used Patagonia layers. I love that they have a website dedicated to selling used gear that is still very useful and often like new.

Then, I focused my remaining funds on buying some key new pieces of equipment…
  1. A waterproof bag just for my nature journal kit. Watershed Largo Tote Bag(full review coming soon). Keeping my nature journal supplies easily accessible yet safe was a priority!
  2. Waterproof Notebook from Rite in the Rain. I also got two waterproof pens which ended up sucking…(review coming soon)
  3. Sun Protection was a priority for me! A wind resistant, non-floppy sun hat. Sun gloves so that I didn’t have to worry about sunscreen on my hands messing up my paper. I also got two sun shirts for sun protection on hot days.
  4. I also tried out an unusual style of sunglasses with no arms! Instead
    Photo by Brock Dolman

    of arms they have a cord attachment that makes them less likely to break and they don’t fall off even in the big rapids or while swimming, or under a 60 foot waterfall. Yes I tested them in all those settings. More review of these coming in the future.

  5. Last but definitely not least, I got an amazing camping chair. This chair was recommended by our trip leader for river trips. Luckily, I got it several months before the trip and it is one of my most useful nature journaling tools now! With this chair I was even able to sit in waterfalls and paint them.
    nature journaling in the grand canyon
    Sitting in a creek below a waterfall in my joeychair Photo by Brock Dolman
    Other Preparations for the Canyon

I knew from previous experiences that it would take me a while to get used to nature journaling in the Grand Canyon. Therefore, I tried to simulate aspects of the expedition in advance. I tested all the gear mentioned above. I tried to simulate conditions that I expected on the trip: wet, hot and sunny, cold and windy, etc. In addition to this type of training I also did research about the grand canyon and practiced layouts and techniques that I would use on my pages.

Balance and Commitment While Nature Journaling in the Canyon

Nature journaling is not always easy. Drawing moving subjects is not child’s play. Despite what people think, watercolor painting en plein air is not relaxing (especially when you only have 15 minutes, you are balanced on the edge of a sheer cliff full of cacti, the light is changing by the minute, spray from a waterfall is buffeting you, and a lifetime’s worth of potential paintings beckon to you from every direction you look in).  Choosing to nature journal while in a group of people doing other things requires balance, self-awareness, and social intelligence. Just choosing to sit with one vista or one plant when there are thousands of sights and experiences vying for your attention is a mentally taxing endeavor.

  1. Nature Journaling in the Grand Canyon
    Counting spines…Photo By Brock Dolman
Nature Journaling = Commitment

In these moments in the canyon it is easy for my mind to play tricks on me. It is easy to talk myself out of the work that I came to do. “It’s cold outside. Warm sleeping bag or sunrise landscape drawing? How can I nature journal before coffee? I should just take pictures of everything instead of trying to draw. I can draw from photos when I get back home. Maybe there is a better view around the corner. I probably need more time to capture this scene…no point in starting now. My nature journal supplies are too hard to get to. I’m too tired to try to draw this scorpion right now, besides look at all those legs! That is going to be too hard. I might mess up the look of the page if I try to sketch that scorpion. What if other people look at my drawing and its not that good?”

At such times it is good to shake all doubts from the head and invoke Steven Pressfield:

The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

Seeking Balance

While busting one’s ass nature journaling is commendable being a human requires balance. Despite my own fantasies, this trip was not focused specifically on nature journaling in the grand Canyon. This was not like my Nature Journal Safaris in East Africa with John Muir Laws. Even though I planned on “working” on the trip and making a publication of my pages for my Patreon , the trip was actually supposed to be a vacation (why do I still struggle with that word?).

This trip also meant different things to different people. And despite my personal commitment there were plenty of other considerations on this trip. I was part of a team on a potentially dangerous expedition in an extremely remote area-I had a responsibility to the group and cooking and other duties just like everyone else. I was also part of a relationship – I was on this trip with my partner and had to tend to the needs of our relationship and spend quality time together.

grand canyon nature journal share
Sharing Nature Journal Pages with My Grand Canyon Friends photo by Brock Dolman
Me and Kate 🙂 Photo By Kate Freeman

Now What?

After spending 21 days without even seeing a building or a computer it has been a little hard adjusting to being back. However, I’m motivated to share my experiences with the community and I’m compiling and improving on my nature journal pages from the voyage to create a publication for you! This publication will be similar to my Tanzania Travel journal and will be available for print on demand via my author page on Blurb. It will probably cost around $30 for the hard copy and maybe $2 for the e-book. In addition my Patreon patrons of $5 and above will all get a copy mailed to them.

nature journaling in the grand canyon

nature journaling in the grand canyon

How to Draw Rocks in Your Nature Journal

If you know how to draw rocks then you will always have a subject. The bird flew away, the deer were hiding, and you missed the wildflower bloom. However, the rocks are still there and they probably won’t go anywhere for a million years. Whether you are in a park or at home you probably have access to rocks. Kids love rocks too! So let’s dive right in.

How to Draw Rocks in 5 Steps:

  1. First, set a goal for your session. Are you trying to teach your kids about geology? Are you trying to relax with watercolor? Or maybe you want to get better at realistic rendering of 3D objects with pen and ink. Once you have a goal in mind it is easier to stay on track.
  2. Next, start SMALL! Regardless of your patience and your art skills biting off too big of a rock is going to hurt. Start practicing on little rocks. You can even bring a few home and have them on your desk to practice.
  3. Third, simplify your rock into basic shapes. Can you draw a 3D cube? If so, you can draw a rock. Start looking for the basic planes that make up the rock. If you are at home use a single strong light source on the rock. This lighting will help you see the simplified planes. Planes are the flat sides. Once you understand planes and how they relate to shadows you are ready to move on.
  4. Next, try drawing a diagram. Your last drawing was meant to be a realistic illusion of volume, however your diagram is meant to highlight information. Have you ever seen geology cross sections before? If so, you know that they look like a slice of cake. What information or story are you interested in? How can you diagram your rock using arrows and labels?
  5. Lastly, try using color swatches and texture panels to experiment. Instead of trying to show 3D, diagram info, texture, and color all in one drawing try separating these. By doing little watercolor or gouache swatches you will have better luck. If you combine everything in a single drawing it is really hard.
Next Steps

Are you tired of drawing rocks and want to do a landscape? Check out this post.

If you want to get better at rendering check out this video by Alphonso Dunn

How To Draw With Binoculars

Do you know how to draw with binoculars? Are you a birder, nature journaler, or urban sketcher? If so, you can see more, draw better, and learn faster with this technique.

For a long time I would carry binoculars on my neck but didn’t really know how to use them effectively. My binos were more ornamental then functional. They made me feel like a naturalist and they showed others that I was serious. Finally, I got a different pair of binoculars and I started using them more while nature journaling. Little by little I developed a system that helped me use them while drawing. Now, they have become an essential drawing tool for me just like a pencil or eraser.

How to Draw With Binoculars: Two Ways

Method One-The Shifting Eyes Method

  • This method is good for nature journal beginners
  • Use a chair
  • Don’t use very heavy binoculars
  • Support your drawing surface on your lap
  • Because your surface is supported you should be able to draw with one hand

how to draw using binoculars in a eye shifting method

  1. Hold your binoculars against your brow bone (above your eye).
  2. Get your subject in view and brace your bino-holding arm.
  3. Angle your head so you can also peer out the bottom of your binoculars at your drawing and get your hand ready to draw.
  4. Alternate between looking at your subject and looking at your drawing.
  5. Keep your binoculars in position.

Method Two-The Visual Memory Method

  • This method is more difficult but is good practice for developing your visual memory as an artist.
  • You can use a chair or stand up. (See “How to Draw Standing Up“)
  • Don’t use heavy binoculars
  • Support your drawing surface in your arm or however you want.
  • This method works for a scope as well
  1.  Look at your subject through binoculars.
  2. While you are looking at subject try to remember details (watch the video for one good trick)
  3. Look at your drawing and add to it using your visual memory.

How to draw with binoculars using the visual memory technique

Drawing with binoculars method 2

If you need basic ideas for how to do a nature journaling session check out this video: How to Nature Journal in 10 Steps

Click here for more fun how-to nature journaling videos

How To Draw Standing Up

Learning how to draw standing up can make you a better artist in addition to multiplying your drawing opportunities! Here, I describe several mistakes you are probably making right now and how to avoid them. I also provide several keys to this essential drawing skill.

Everyone knows how to draw sitting down at a desk! Unfortunately, the most interesting things to draw are out in the world! If you want to draw these things you have to go out, stand up, and draw them in the field. Sometimes, it is possible to find a bench in just the right place or bring a chair with you. Otherwise you are out of luck. Unless, that is, you know how to draw standing up. If you are interested in field sketching, urban sketching, or nature journaling then drawing standing up is especially important.

Draw Standing Up: Three Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Get rid of your backpack! For the best results you need to get a shoulder bag aka messenger bag. This will make drawing standing up easier, faster, and more comfortable. You can see some examples and reviews of such bags in these videos.
  2. Don’t use a soft cover sketchbook! One essential aspect of drawing standing up is having a god way to brace your sketching surface. If you use a hardback sketchbook of the right size it is easy to hold your journal in the corner of your arm. Check out this review of my favorite sketchbook.
  3. Don’t use regular watercolor brushes! If you use regular watercolor brushes you will need to have an open container of water. This is really hard and inconvenient when standing up. Instead you should use Pentel Aquash Waterbrushes or other similar brushes. These brushes hold water in a small reservoir built into the brush. Check them out here.

 

Check out more fun how-to nature journal videos here.

Tree Drawing In Your Nature Journal

Tree drawing is a cornerstone of nature art in general and nature journaling in particular. When you learn how to draw trees better your sketchbook or nature journal will improve greatly.

So if drawing trees is so important why do so many people do it wrong? People learn bad tree drawing habits at an early age and we also tend to focus on the wrong things when we look at them. Despite all these problems there are a few tips that can help you draw trees better.

Five Tree Drawing Tips

  1. First, take a different perspective. Most tree drawings, even technically skilled ones, show the tree from the same boring perspective. Especially,since we are nature journaling and our goal is to learn it is important to look at things from new vantage points.
  2. Next, look for cylinders. If you want to draw realistic tree shapes you need to understand cylinders. Tree trunks and branches are made of cylinders. You need to be able to accurately observe and sketch cylinders from different angles. (Be sure to watch the video for a special trick for learning this). Not only will this technique help your drawings of trees but it will also help your figure drawing and animal drawing.
  3. Third, separate volume from texture. If you just spent thirty minutes or three hours accurately drawing a tree and its shape you don’t want to ruin it. One potential way to ruin it is by trying to add in all the complicated texture of the bark. Instead, try showing the bark in a separate drawing. And if you do decide to draw trees with bark texture, keep it limited and suggestive. Otherwise you risk messing up your whole drawing!
  4. Next, look for major value blocks. Value is the difference between light and dark. Most people focus on the idea that a tree should be green, however capturing the values is most important.
  5. Last but not least, keep it simple. If you can keep your tree sketch simple you are more likely to succeed and/or try again.

If you want to see another tree drawing video with great tips check out this one from John Muir Laws teaching at the nature journal club.

Tree Drawing nature journal
Tree Drawing fun with the North Bay Nature Journal Club

Nature Comics to Show Action in Your Nature Journal

Have you ever witnessed an exciting event in nature? An action even that you could not represent in your nature journal? If so, then nature comics might be the perfect strategy for you to practice.

This video did not turn out the way I was planning…However, nature is like that. And if we practice some of the techniques of comics and graphic novels we will be ready for the unexpected.

First, and most importantly, don’t give up if what you are observing in nature doesn’t turn out according to your plan. I thought that I was going to make a nature comic about my snake eating. However, my snake was shedding and was not interested in eating. Unfortunately, I had already laid out my page assuming it would be about the snake eating! At this point I almost gave up but instead I stuck with it. A comic can tell any story so don’t worry if it is not the story you were planning on.

Nature Comics Tips

  1. First, Be aware of anthropomorphizing. It is easy to project human feelings and thoughts and communication onto non human beings. This can be useful in some ways and can make your subject relatable. However, it is important to be aware of this. It is therefore important to be aware of the fact that we can not truly know what other animals are feeling or thinking.
  2. Next, be intentional about choosing your frames. Unlike a video, in nature comics you have an extreme limit on the perspectives you can show. As such, it is important to choose your frames with care. What is the most useful for telling the story you want to tell? For more about this check out the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
  3. Last but not least, look for subject matters around you in your house. Maybe there is a pet or something that you have never paid attention to. Perhaps the way that your cat eats its food or plays with a toy could be the source of a nature comic that will help you hone your skills.

Flower Drawing in Your Nature Journal

Do you like flowers? Do you like drawing? If so then this video about flower drawing in your nature journal is for you!

First, it is important to understand some basic botany to help you draw flowers accurately. In addition to making your drawing better this will also help you understand plant families. However, we will keep the technical terms to a minimum.

Drawing Flowers: These three Botany terms help.

  1. Inflorescence. This is a grouping or cluster of flowers. Many “flowers” that we think of such as a sunflower are actually an inflorescence.
  2. Corolla. This is not the car by Toyota. The corolla refers to all the petals combined, whether they are fused together or not.
  3. Calyx. Similarly to the corolla this term refers to the next parts down. Underneath the petals on many flowers there are sepals. We can use the term calyx to refer to all the sepals whether they are fused or not.

flower drawing diagram showing inflorescence, calyx, and corolla

Now that we know some basic terms let’s start drawing flowers! We are going to do three plant families today and draw flowers representing each one.

Drawing Flower Families

First, let’s look at the amazingly diverse Malvaceae. This is the cotton family and currently contains around 4,225 known species! When drawing these flowers pay attention to the 5 petals, and the 5 to numerous male parts often forming a tube. For more check out the wikipedia page about this plant family.

Next, is the Solanaceae. This notorious family contains many edible plants such as tomatoes and poisonous ones. When drawing this flower family look for 5 part symmetry such as five petals, five sepals, and five male parts. The female part is usually solitary. Sometimes, the petals (corolla) form into a tube. For more check out the wikipedia page about this plant family.

Lastly, is the Boraginaceae. This family contains around 2,000 known species including borage, Pride of Madera, and Forget-Me-Nots. When drawing these flowers look for a scorpioid inflorescence. Also look for 5 lobed calyx and corolla. For more about the Boraginaceae check out the wikipedia page on this plant family.

For more flower drawing ideas check out this post: Botany Basics For Nature Journaling

Drawing Prompts For Nature Journaling at Home

In this video you will learn ten drawing prompts that are fun, helpful, and engaging.

Have you ever experienced creative block? Have you ever felt a lack of ideas or motivation to draw, make art, or nature journal? You are not alone. It is for that reason that I have created this list of prompts.

Before we get into the list I want to say something about using the internet for inspiration. Basically, using the computer and the internet to inspire art is a double edged sword. On the one hand you have access to millions of images and ideas (Historical artists would have cut off their ears for that.) On the other hand you have the greatest source of distraction ever. Therefore I have separated my prompts into 5 without the computer and 5 with the computer.

Drawing Prompts (Analog Style)

  1. Trace shadows. In order to get warmed up we will start with an easy one. First, we will find a spot with cast shadows. I like to find tree branches or other vegetation. Next, we will position our sketchbook to catch the shadows. Finally we will trace them and color them in if we want.
  2. Paint a scene through your window. Now that we are warmed up we will find a window in our house that has a nice view. Because the window provides a frame we can skip some of the steps I talk about in my landscape painting video.
  3. Draw from a book. This is a lost art. When was the last time you looked for a reference image in a book instead of online? Drawing from books has many benefits.
  4. Draw your food. Do you want motivation? Don’t let yourself eat unless you draw the food first. Hunger will motivate you. Just kidding. But seriously, try drawing your food.
  5. Nature Journal in your Fridge. Similarly to the last one this nature journal prompt is about looking for novelty in all the boring places. I’m gonna make a whole video about this one next week.

 

Drawing Prompts (Digital Style)

  1. Draw from slow motion videos. Pick your favorite nature documentary on youtube and put it in slow motion. Try sketching. This is a great practice for improving your speed and confidence in the field. I used this technique before my trip to Tanzania.
  2. Do a species profile from Wikipedia. If Youtube is too distracting for you then try this nature journaling prompt. It is the same as a regular species profile but you get all the info from wikipedia instead of from looking at the real organism. Don’t know what a species profile is? Check this video out.
  3. Draw a landscape painting from a photo. Even though it might not be as fun there are many benefits to landscape painting from a photo. It is best to work from your own photos and you probably have a bunch on your computer. I did a whole post about this.
  4. Nature journal conference call. You still can’t get motivated to draw? Try getting on a video conference call with a handful of friends. Instead of talking a bunch just keep each other company while you draw. It’s like study hall! You will feel more accountable and less distracted.
  5. Draw from a webcam. Last but not least, this is a drawing prompt that I am really excited about. There are many examples of live cams or webcams at different zoos and aquariums around the world. You can watch many of these on youtube. Because it is live and the animals are moving it gives your drawing or nature journaling more urgency. Therefore this is good practice for the field.

drawing prompt number one is to trace shadows. This is an example of that prompt for drawing. Cast Shadow Tracing

Best Brush Pens: Follow Up Review

Have you experimented with brush pens? Do you have time to sort through all the different types as well as their confusing names? In this video I review several types of brush pen that I have been using for nature sketches and nature journaling.

When I first started nature journaling I had a limited number of drawing tools that I used. However, I went through a stage where I experimented with a lot of different art supplies. Have you ever gone through stages like that? It can be fun to experiment with different media and it can help us grow as artists. Experimenting with different art materials can also be an excuse to buy a lot of stuff and get the pleasure release from shopping instead of the pleasure of actually making art.

After several years of experimentation I have narrowed down my “quiver” of brush pens. Having a limited number of tools is empowering for me, it builds confidence, familiarity and skill. It also makes it easier for me in the field when I reach for an art tool and I don’t have to think twice.

Here are the ones that I have found most useful…(this is not an exhaustive list but if you are just starting out or just need a good pen it covers the bases)

Best Brush Pens For Nature Sketching

Pens With Actual Brush Bristles:

    1. Pentel Color Brush Pen Black: while the name is a little confusing this pen is just like a brush that you would use for calligraphy but it has a cartridge full of black ink. It comes in fine point and medium point and the ink is supposed to be waterproof. Even though it is more waterproof than the one mentioned below, I would not do watercolor on top of it and sometimes it smudges on your hand or the opposite page in a journal. Pentel Brush PenDespite being a fun art tool I rarely carry this in my field kit but use it in the studio for gestural drawings, titles, dramatic silhouettes and the like. It puts down a rich heavy black. “Pigment based ink” is keyword for it is more water proof.
    2. Pentel Fude Brush Pen: this one looks just like the one above but the ink Pentel Fude Brush Penis less water soluble. If you want to experiment with washes or wet on wet techniques in ink this could be fun. Otherwise, I see no benefit to this one and once I tried it I have never gotten it again. I do not recommend this one for nature journaling or watercolor.
    3. Pentel Color Brush Pen Gray: this is a newer version of one that I have used in the past. I like gray ink for a lot of purposes however it seems like the Pentel gray inks are usually less waterproof. Gray ink can be really useful for under-drawings.

      Brush Pens with Felt Tip Type Points:

      1. Tombow Dual Brush Pens: I have used these pens a lot in my journal Tombow Dual Brush Penfor creating frames, borders, titles, and under-drawings. They come in a wide variety of colors including some very pale ones which I really like. However, they are not waterproof and I have had whole pages ruined when I was exposed to a little mist in the field. For nature journaling this is unacceptable. I rarely use these tombow pens anymore.
      2. Zebra Brush Pens: These come in 3 tip widths and a gray ink version. zebra brushpens come in 3 size tipsThey are waterproof and John Muir Laws has been recommending them and selling them for several years on his website. I have tried them and they are pretty good. You can get a lot of line variation and once they dry they are pretty resistant to watercolor washes on top.
      3. Last but not least, the Pilot Futayaku Brush Pen: this pen is currently my favorite drawing tool, especially the one that has a gray tip and a black tip on the same pen! The ink is waterproof but the gray might fade a little bit. You can also get a lot of line variation. I love the gray ink. If you want to see how I use this pen in my landscape painting process check out this post here.Pilot Brush Pen with a Heart on it