How to Choose a Sketchbook for Nature Journaling

How do I choose a sketchbook for nature journaling? Which paper is best? What size should I choose?

Don’t worry, don’t waste money, and don’t blindly get the same journal as someone else. In this video I show you how to pick the sketchbook that is best for you!

It’s easy to spend more time shopping for a sketchbook than actually nature journaling. And it’s also easy to end up with a sketchbook that is not right for you. In fact, it’s even possible to think you are not good at drawing or not motivated to nature journal when in fact you have a sketchbook that doesn’t fit your needs. Instead of dogmatically telling you which is the universally best sketchbook I’m going to give you the criteria that you need to understand. With an understanding of these criteria you will be able to make your own decision.

Sketchbook for Nature Journaling Criteria:

  1. Size Matters. The size of your paper has a big impact on your nature journaling. If you have too small of a journal it can cramp your style. Making small drawings is often more difficult especially for beginners. A small sketchbook can also be hard to hold while you draw. Too big might be awkward to carry, inconvenient in the field, and too heavy.
  2. Binding. The next criteria to consider is binding. Spiral bound is good for folding back your pages and giving a flat surface to draw. It is also good for durability. However, a sewn binding is preferred by many people. Sewn binding gives you the appearance of a regular book and the spine looks good. You can also write or draw on the spine. The other advantage of sewn binding is you can draw across a 2 page spread which can be really cool. Sewn binding is usually harder to lay flat and they can be hard to hold if you are drawing standing up. Sometimes they are not durable.
  3. Orientation. The two main orientations for journals are “landscape” and “portrait”. Either one comes in a variety of ratios of height to length. I really like a portrait paper with 9″X 12″. And remember even if you like landscape format drawings you can divide a portrait style page up into smaller frames of any shape you want. How to Choose a Sketchbook For Nature Journaling Image 1 showing how orientation of page does not mean you cannot do a landscape on a page with a portrait layout.
Criteria for choosing a sketchbook continued:
  1. Paper type. You could spend your whole life trying to understand different paper types. However, let’s keep it simple. Paper can be understood by it’s ingredients, it’s weight, and it’s surface. Instead of worrying about these too much I recommend just choosing a “mixed media paper” for nature journaling. A mixed media paper will allow you to do some watercolor while still being able to write notes and draw with pen or pencil. I really like the Stillman and Birn Alpha Series Paper.
  2. Cover material. Although it is not the most important criteria the type of cover does have an impact. A stiff cover is easier to hold in the field and protects you paper better. An attractive cover that does not attract dirt and is not easily stained will also help you. This cover has a big impact on the appearance of your journal. If it is too pretty you might be afraid to use it. If it is too ugly or has big logos or stickers on it you might not feel drawn to it.
  3. Paper color. Lately, some people have been using toned paper to great advantage for nature journaling. Toned paper comes in black, gray, and tans. It is good for gouache, colored pencils, and pale subjects. White paper also comes in different “shades.” For more on how to use toned paper see this post by John Muir Laws.

If you are just getting started nature journaling now you know how to choose a sketchbook. But what if you still need some pointers on how to nature journal? This video can help you get started.

Birding and Nature Journaling: Special Technique

Let’s combine birding and Nature Journaling  to see more birds, learn faster, improve our memory of field marks, and go deeper with each bird. In this video I show you how to use a secret technique to have more close encounters with birds. This approach can help you whether you are a birder or a nature journaler . You might be surprised because it is not what you think.

“The watched pot never boils”

Everyone has heard the above expression. However, not everyone knows that it applies to birding. In fact, the expression could be “the watched bird never does what you want.” Many times the watched area may not produce birds at all. Most birders and animal lovers have had this experience in nature. This experience can be especially difficult for bird photographers and artists. As soon as you see the bird it will turn away or leave. How can we solve this problem?

Secret Technique for Birding and Nature Journaling

  1. First, we are going to pretend like we are not looking for birds.
  2. Next choose a location that is comfortable and of varied habitat.
  3. Bring a comfy chair, binoculars and nature journaling supplies.
  4. Start drawing a tree or painting a landscapito.
  5. After about 20 minutes I find that the birds start to come to you. Be sure that you have your binoculars ready.
  6. Create a sidebar or reserve a blank area next to your tree drawing or landscape painting for recording your bird observations.
What if I’m new to nature journaling?
  • Nature Journaling is not focused on drawing pretty pictures. If you focus too much on pretty pictures or you have unconscious expectations about prettiness you will struggle more.
  • Focus on what you notice.
  • Turn your drawing into a diagram. This takes pressure off the art.
  • Trace shadows. If you are afraid to draw a tree, try sitting under one and tracing cast shadows on your page.
  • Trace leaves. This is another low risk method you can try.
  • Remember that nature journaling uses 3 languages: words, images, and numbers. Try to use them all.
  • Experiment with your own ways to combine birding and nature journaling.
What if I’m new to birding?
  • It is ok if you cannot identify birds at first. Sometimes you can notice more about things when you do not know their names. Just write down or sketch the features you notice about them.
  • Try looking up birds when you get home.
  • Try going with friends who are more experienced birders. Maybe introduce them to nature journaling.
  • Experiment with other ways to combine nature journaling and birding.

birding and nature journaling combined can help you learn more about common birds and enjoy drawing them. This is an example of a nature journal page where I focused on a common "trash bird" in Costa Rica that most birders would have not paid much attention to.

For more fun how to nature journaling videos.
For an in-depth guide to drawing birds check out this video from John Muir Laws.
See how nature journaling can make you a better birder.

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.

Nature Observation: How to See More With Your Nature Journal

Nature observation used to be essential for your survival. You would not be here today if your ancestors were not observant. This was the case for most of human history. If you didn’t pay attention to plants you could get poisoned. And if you didn’t notice patterns in the tall grass you might get eaten. So how does this apply today?

Your survival is no longer as dependent on your observation skills in nature. However, your quality of life and the richness of your experience can still be improved by developing this skill. In fact, many modern humans walk through the world like zombies. We don’t notice the world around us.

“You see, but you do not observe. (…)The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

Sherlock Holmes

Holmes would have made a great nature journaler and I wish he were still here to teach us. But since he isn’t here are 12 observation tips I came up with on a recent nature journaling outing.

12 Nature Observation Tips

1. Have a focus. Start with a focus in mind and you will be able to observe more deeply and not get distracted. A taxon target or other is a good way to do this. Choose a taxa such as plants (kingdom), or birds (class), or bees (family.) You can also focus on a location, a type of interaction etc.

2. Use binoculars. Sherlock always had a magnifying glass because it allowed him to zoom in. If you use close-focus binoculars like I do you can look at close details and further away objects.

3. Sit still for a bit. While sitting still is a lost art in the modern world it is essential for better nature observations. By staying in one spot for a while you will see more animals as they get used to your presence.

4. Draw a diagram. I’m surprised Sherlock didn’t use this tool more. Today we know that drawing is one of the most powerful learning tools. You will notice way more just by trying.

5.Zoom in and Zoom Out. Most people see the world from the same magnification all the time. Practice zooming in and out intentionally to notice more.

6. Don’t Let What You Think You Know Get in the Way of Learning New Things. We have a lot of baggage when we go into nature and we are the most over-informed generation of humans. This information can be wrong and it can prevent us from noticing real things.

7. Don’t Be Too Focused. Don’t focus so much that you are not aware of new and perhaps extraordinary things that happen around you.

8. Quantify Your Observations. Use specific numbers and measurements instead of vague words such as: many, a few, or a lot.

9. Go Deeper With One Subject. Take the time to drop in deeper with one subject. In this way you are bound to find something of interest even if the subject isn’t your favorite at first.

10. Verbalize What You See. Do not worry about what other people think. It is ok to talk to yourself. In fact, by verbalizing what you see you will improve your recall and enhance your visual memory.

11. Compare Observations of Similar Things. The human brain notices more when it compares two things than when it looks at things in isolation. This is called a joint comparison.

12: Look Closer. A lot of the most interesting and important things in the world are small. By looking closer you will learn a lot more.

Nature Observation Skills Will Help You See More in Nature

If you follow all of these nature observation tips you will be a Nature Sherlock in no time!

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

How to Nature Journal in 10 Steps

Do you want to learn how to nature journal?  Do you want to avoid the most common  beginner mistakes? In this video I show you 10 steps to getting started with nature journaling.

How to Nature Journal

  1. First, choose your location wisely. Choose a location that is close, convenient, and comfortable. This is a common mistake that beginners and experienced nature journalers both make. You don’t need the most exciting wilderness location to nature journal.
  2. Next, get your supplies ready. One mistake that many of us make is to get more art supplies than we really need. All you really need is a good bag, a sketchbook, a pencil, and whatever you need to be comfortable in nature. For a review of what I use see Journaling Kit Review
  3. Capture the context quickly. Whip your nature journal out and start using it as soon as possible. A common mistake is to wander around for too long waiting for inspiration. There is no perfect subject and the muse will not come to you if you don’t  get some pencil miles first. Start by putting metadata, sketching a map, or getting other contextual information on the page.
  4. Warm up your brain with “I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of.” Before you get caught up in trying to paint a portrait of a bird or flower start with this simple observation exercise. In this way you will warm up your observation skills and you will breach the barrier of the blank page.
  5. Now, draw a landscapito or paint a scene. Drawing a small landscape or scene will convey the feeling and ecology of a place. These will help you remember your trip and they look great on the page combined with your other notes and drawings. However, there are also side benefits of sitting still this long. Birds and animals often come close! For more on drawing landscapitos see these videos

“The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes”
–Marcel Proust

Next 5  Steps

  1. Draw a Diagram. The next step is to draw a diagram of something that you are curious about. By making it a diagram you take the pressure off of it being a pretty picture. Use arrows, words, and numbers to add information that you can not convey with the image itself.
  2. Ask more questions. This is one of the most powerful tools of nature journaling. By practicing asking questions we sharpen our ability to learn new things.
  3. Stop before you are done. While you might be tempted to push yourself at first it is actually best to stop while you are still having fun. Start by giving yourself short outings that leave you wanting more. Like the small servings at a fancy restaurant.
  4. Get yourself an Ice Cream. Now that you have completed a session of nature journaling get yourself a reward. You deserve it and by rewarding yourself you will help ingrain this new habit.
  5. Review your work and share it: When you get home you can accelerate your learning by reviewing it, researching further, and getting feedback from others. What do you notice about your pages? What could be better? Can you think of more questions? Are there parts you would like to add color to now that you are home? Are there things you want to research further? Now is also a time that you could draw more detailed drawings based on photos you took on the outing, especially of fast moving birds or insects that you could not capture in the field. Sharing online and getting feedback from other nature journalers will also help you a lot.

how to nature journal

Nature Hobbies in Your Journal

Do you have nature hobbies or art hobbies beside nature journaling? Have you ever wanted to bring your nature journal along to your other hobby? In this video, I try to do just that! Then, I share 5 tips for nature journaling your outdoor hobby and my personal experience trying to nature journal on a fishing trip.

Do you like camping, gardening, hiking, birding, botanizing, sailing, kayaking, or horseback riding? Have you ever wanted to go deeper into your hobbies? You’re in luck because journaling can help.

If you are already nature journaling then you have a head start but if you are a total newbie that is fine. A nature journaling perspective can be combined with almost any hobby. Not only that but this perspective will help you maintain a useful record of your nature adventures.

Nature Hobbies and Journaling Tips to Remember:

  1. First, you will need to address some of the mental obstacles listed below.
    • Number one, a limited definition of what journaling is used for will get in your way.
    • The second mental obstacle is your own inner critic. For more on how to deal with this see Nature Journal Class: Unlock Your Potential!
    • Third, fear of Judgement.
    • Last, creating new routines and escaping ruts.
  2. Once you overcome the mental obstacles you will need to simplify your kit. Since you are combining two hobbies you are likely to have a lot of gear.
  3. Next you will need to focus on the essential aspects of your nature hobby. What is the most important part to capture in your journal? Since you have limited time you must focus.
  4. After you find the essentials you will need to decide what nature journaling techniques will work best. Luckily there are a lot of great techniques to choose from. For example if you are mountain biking cross section map of the terrain would be great! If you are gardening, change over time would be good.
  5. Lastly, if you are really struggling finding the balance try switching roles for a bit. Maybe on one of your trips you can focus on journaling the action while your friend does all the fishing or plants the flower bed.
Nature Hobby Fishing and Nature Journaling
It is possible to nature journal and enjoy an outdoor hobby such as fishing at the same time.
Click here for more how-to nature journal videos.

 

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