In the summer of 2022 I will be nature journaling in the Galapagos Islands with John Muir Laws and a boat-full of nature journalers! The trip is already full but you can enjoy it vicariously through some of the videos, photos, and nature journal pages that I will share with you. (there might be more trips like this in the future too!)
I will also be making an illustrated publication based on my trip similar to my Tanzania Journals. This publication will be available for my Patreon supporters and through my website.
Let me know if there are things about the Galapagos that you want me to share with you.
Do you ever give yourself nature journaling homework? In this live episode of the Nature Journal Show, Marley shows us how to use birding homework to make us better nature journalers. Follow along! You will need: your nature journal, a writing utensil of your choice, a bird guide book, and your computer.
“Whether you’re in the field learning or at home learning – the nature journal is the perfect place to make your learning so much easier, your work so much better, and improve your memory so much more.”
Marley comes prepared with an agenda:
First, he sets up his page so his information stays organized.
Fourth, he listens to the birds’ songs on Dendroica and creates a sonogram of what he hears.
Why do homework this way?
Why not simply read about the birds in the guides or on a website? What purpose does it serve to write all of this down when it’s not even your own field notes? Marley has an answer for this: by writing down the information and interpreting it into your own way of thinking, you remember it better. This is not busywork – you are training your brain to remember these details so they will serve you when you are out in the field.
Marley notes that it’s important to write down your sources for this information: “Think of it as your metadata!” It is OK to copy from the book as long as you are not selling your work – but you should always credit your sources. That way, if you need to revisit or modify the information, or if someone else wants to study it too, you know where it originally came from.
A few extra tips
When you’re doing your birding homework, don’t worry about making your drawings perfect. This is practice, and getting hung up on perfection might make it harder for you to complete the exercises.
Some birds, such as sparrows, have different dialects depending on where they are from. For example, a white-crowned sparrow from your area might sound very different from a white-crowned sparrow who lives somewhere else, so try to find a song sample that’s from your region. If you can’t, try listening to multiple song samples from different areas and seeing where the similarities in them fall.
Use “it reminds me of” when you are listening to bird songs. You can liken a particular note of the song to an instrument, or even to words. Many birders hear phrases inside the songs that help them to remember their rhythm and cadence.
Listen to the song more than once. Really slow down, and use the spectrogram to help you “see” the song.
Now that you’ve done your birding homework, go out into the field and try to use what you’ve learned! You can always go back and add notes when you’ve learned something new, or do more birding homework to further improve your skills. Interspersing homework with field study might just be the way to go. Don’t forget your binoculars!
What do you like to do during the low tide? If you’re like Marley Peifer, you might enjoy going to the rocky shore, doing some nature journaling of the intertidal zone, and maybe even harvesting dinner! Join Marley as he explores the intertidal zone.
Tidepools are a dynamic place to visit, changing rapidly with the ocean and weather. Marley is quick to note the high “information density”:
“The main intellectual challenge in nature journaling at the tidepools is: there is so much information density, so many things to look at, so many potential subjects to choose from, that your main challenge is going to be focusing!”
Safety is #1.
Focusing on any one topic at the intertidal zone is one challenge; the other (arguably more important) one concerns logistics. It is vital to remain aware of your surroundings at all times when you’re this close to the ocean. The rocks are slippery and easy to fall on; the uneven terrain can catch your foot and get you stuck; and the ocean itself can catch you with its powerful waves. “Never turn your back on the ocean,” Marley is explaining – right as the ocean splashes him on the butt. He notes that it is better to come with a friend when exploring the rocky shore or intertidal zone.
So where do you start?
Despite the information density, Marley has a plan! He follows a setup that helps him get information down quickly without getting overwhelmed:
First, he situates himself so that he can observe safely and as comfortably as possible, and he secures his nature journal with binder clips so the pages won’t fly around while he’s journaling.
Second, he takes down the metadata: when and where he is, and what the weather is like.
Third, he makes a landscape rendering of the place, which really helps to set the scene.
Fourth, he zooms in on a subject. In this case, it’s one that isn’t moving, which allows for a longer time to observe the subject directly.
Fifth, he keeps his awareness of his surroundings and of any exciting fast-moving natural developments he might want to observe.
Later, he uses his close focus binoculars to try to observe a turnstone – mostly because the bird is far away and he wants to observe it before it flies off, but also because it is safer to observe from a distance, out of the ocean’s reach. Unfortunately the bird flies away very quickly, but Marley uses the information he has to make a memory drawing. By recording as many details as he can recall, Marley is cementing those details in his mind. He is also making it easier for himself to try to research the bird when he gets home.
How to nature journal a landscapito of the intertidal zone:
Marley has some tips for capturing a landscapito of this special location. For more landscapito tips, check out Marley’s earlier post here.
Punch in your dark values first, being mindful to reserve your whites. To capture the dark shapes in his landscapito, Marley uses a Pilot Futayaku Brush pen.
Put more details in the foreground; this is where the eye is drawn.
Put in only the suggestion of water at first.
When you begin using the watercolors, put in your lightest values first. In this case, that would be both the sky and the ocean, which Marley puts in at the same time. He uses John Muir Laws’s watercolor palette, which you can find here, and a Pentel large waterbrush.
Add the darker values in the foreground.
Now give this first layer of watercolor time to dry; the humidity near the ocean will make your page dry slower than you might be used to.
Adjust any values and saturations after the first layer has dried.
If needed, add back in your whites.
When it comes to adding white back into the landscapito, don’t be hard on yourself. Reserving whites is challenging and takes practice! You can add the whites back in using an opaque media, like the Presto Jumbo Correction Pen Marley uses. Always test the opaque media off to the side first before using it on your main piece, and be sure to stop before you actually feel ready. Otherwise playing with the correction pen might get too fun, and you might overdo it.
Marley’s practice and pencil miles pay off: he is able to get pages of rich information about his intertidal adventure AND harvest dinner! ¡Buen provecho!
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.
Did you know that you can improve a drawing 75% before you even start drawing? Knowing how to use a viewfinder for drawing landscapes is the first step. Whether you are a nature journaler or a plein air painter this video and blog post will help you.
Why Your Eyes Betray You
Your visual system is not setup for making great art. Your visual system is setup for keeping your butt alive. What does that even mean? Our eyes and the visual centers of our brain are good at paying attention to our surroundings. We are good at scanning large areas and paying attention to the big picture. However, there is a lot more information coming through your eyes than what you can fit on your paper or your canvas. This is especially dangerous for drawing landscapes. A lot of times we are attracted to the expansiveness in a landscape. If we aren’t careful we bite off too much. We try too big of a drawing. We get frustrated, we get lost in the details, and we lose touch with the basic artistic priorities.
Your most important job as an artist is to make intentional decisions about what visual information to include and what to ignore.
If you don’t know how to make good decisions or even worse if you don’t realize you have to make decisions then your drawing will suffer. Using a viewfinder helps you be more intentional and disciplined. Your field of view with both eyes is between 200 and 220 degrees! That is far more than you can fit on paper.
How to make a viewfinder
Save the plastic container that salad mix comes in or get a sheet of cardstock or other heavy paper.
Decide what shape you are going to make your viewfinder. Put some thought into how this shape will fit on your pages. For more about composition and layout of journal pages see this video.
Trace your shape and carefully cut it with an X-acto knife or scissors.
You can add grid lines to help you with proportions.
Go out and use it right away!
Pro tip: Make multiple viewfinders of different shapes and sizes for your kit.
I really started using a viewfinder before my second trip to Tanzania and it really made my nature journal pages much better.
Once you know how to use a viewfinder for drawing landscapes you will thank me!
If you want a step-by-step guide to landscape drawing in your nature journal check out this post.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Criteria for choosing a sketchbook continued:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Do you want to learn how to nature journal? Do you want to avoid the most common beginner mistakes? Right now, I show you 10 steps to getting started with nature journaling.
How to Nature Journal
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.
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
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.
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.
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”
Next 5 Steps
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pets and nature journaling are a match made in heaven. If you have a pet and you have not nature journaled them yet then you are missing out! In this fun conversation you can learn: four benefits of nature journaling your pet and ten tips to do it better.
Recently, I interviewed Gargi Chugh and Akshay Mahajan about their nature journal pet named Mithuni. Akshay and Gargi shared their excitement, inspiration, and a lot of practical ideas. Even though they have an exotic pet their encouraging ideas apply to cats and dogs as well. First, lets look at some of the benefits.
3 Benefits of Nature Journaling Your Pets
The first benefit is availability. Because many people have busy schedules they might not have time to go to a park frequently. They might get home after dark. However, if you have a pet, you can connect with nature at home. Your pet is an ambassador of nature and a fascinating subject. In short, your pet is more available then the wild animals outside.This also allows you to try more nature journaling techniques.
Next benefit is a fast feedback loop. In the interview Gargi shared how a fast feedback look can accelerate learning. Because you can see your house cat every day it takes less time for you to recognize patterns and make connections. On the other hand you might only see a bobcat in the wild once a year(if you are lucky). Therefore it is much harder to make observations and learn about the bobcat in your nature journal.
Third, by nature journaling your pet you can deepen your connection with the animal. Due to the amount of attention you are directing towards your animal your bond with the animal can grow. Akshay and Gargi found that they have become quite connected with their pet mantis over the weeks that they have observed it so closely.
10 Tips for Nature Journaling Your Pet
Measurements are one of the best tools to use with your pet. Therefore it is useful to start nature journaling as soon as you get a new pet so you can track its growth. There are also other ways to use this tool.
Try creating a journal just for journaling and sketching your pets.
Don’t decide in advance what information is important to record. If you try to create categories in advance you will limit your ability to learn about your animal. You might not foresee what is most important.
Since you don’t know what categories of data about your pet will be most interesting or relevant try using dates as categories. In this way you can just record whatever observations from that day and categorize them later when patterns emerge.
Next, instead of focusing on pretty pet portraits try using diagrams. Diagrams are much easier and fun to do and more rewarding. You will also learn a lot more than if you tried to paint a Mona Lisa of your cat. For more about diagrams check out this awesome class.
Start nature journaling your pet as soon as you get it. Documenting the growth of a pet is very rewarding!
Try setting up experiments to answer your own questions. What fun experiments can you set up with your pet?
Try to answer your own questions before you look it up on google.
Have you ever sprouted an avocado seed? What if you journaled an avocado seed’s germination for 100 days? In this video, I interview Kate Rutter who did just that! She shares some amazing journal pages, sketching pro tips, and some wisdom that applies to all kinds of journaling and art.
We eat so much avocado that we take it for granted. However, there is a whole world of learning inside that little seed. That’s one of the things that Kate Rutter learned in her 100 day challenge. Following are some of the things she learned.
Lessons from an Avocado Seed Project
1. First, find a small focus. Most nature journalers and nature lovers want to go to wild, exotic places and study “fancy” things in nature. However, focusing on something small and committing to it proves very rewarding. Because when you pay that much attention to anything in nature you open up whole worlds of fascination.
2. Next, establish creative constraints. While “constraint” does not sound like the sexiest word in the art vocabulary it is actually essential to good art and science. Kate created clear limits on materials, subject matter, and format. This helped her make it a routine. It also helped make for a more clear comparison of the avocado pit progress.
3. But how do you keep from getting bored? Try looking deeper and more carefully. You can also do research about the bigger context. Kate did pages where she brought in outside research about avocado trees, the etymology of the word avocado, and science behind the germination of avocado seeds.
4. Last but not least try going public. During her project Kate has been posting on her twitter, a dedicated Tumblr page, and on the nature journal club facebook page in addition to her own website. Because of this she has received lots of feedback, questions, and suggestions. In addition the public nature of the project has helped her stay accountable to maintain her 100 day goal.