So what do you actually do with a nature journal? When you’re new to this technique, it can be helpful to look at examples and styles that other sketchbook artists use. Here are different methods that you can use in your nature journal.
Generally, nature journals focus on nature observations. You work with different elements to record what you see. Usually you will use images and text to translate what you observe in the field onto your paper.
Making a visual analysis of your object can help you to understand it better. Sometimes a sketch will work better for this, sometimes written notes. You can also use the sketchbook to study underlying principles of flowers or animals. I like to ask questions and note them – what is unfamiliar or unexpected? What have you never noticed before about your subject? Does it remind you of something?
Here are a few examples from my sketchbook:
Taking one aspect and looking at it from a few different angles
You can study the behavior of a bird by sketching it in different poses. You’ll have to practice to make these quick drawings, but once you know how it’ll get easier
And then you can follow an animal and observe its behaviour.
On this page I studied the anatomy of birds. I created these drawings at home with a reference book. This helps me to draw birds better and quicker when I’m outside an include the necessary information. And the same is true for flowers, and trees, and all other elements in nature. By observing and understanding nature, it will become more familiar. You will also appreciate it more.
You can also make small collections with things you bring home. Arrange them on the page and draw them. This is particularly useful in the cold season. I painted the collection of berries on the left side for my Skillshare class on the subject.
You can visually record the scale of an object, or quantify it, like counting the petals of a flower. Try to see something from different perspectives: look at the whole landscape first, then zoom in on a detail and take notes about that. I made a quick landscape sketch here, and then took a closer look at the moths that I saw on the ground. When I returned home, I learn and noted the names of the different elements of the moth.
You can see here that a page in your nature sketchbook doesn’t have to be a pretty finished painting. It’s supposed to visualize your thoughts and help you to memorize things you noticed. It’s a practical tool and it can help you learn new things. Usually, when you have a sketch, and you add text elements around it, or color swatches, it will look much nicer. Compare the bird sketches on the left with the learning page about clouds and weather on the right. Which one do you find more interesting?
Some additional ideas:
- Begin to ask questions, and add them in text to your drawing. What do you notice about the object, what connections to other things you think of, what it makes you wonder. What’s strange about it? How does it change over time? These are questions that you can ask yourself again and again, whenever you are outside or are looking at the natural world.
- You can compare different elements to each other. Observe the size, the color, the habitat or the smell. What does it feel like? Where did you find it?
- Add some metadata to your page, like the date, or the weather, or the moon shape. If you like you can do this in a little landscape sketch (like I do on the first page of my sketchbook). This is also great to get started.
- You can include poems or personal memories to your sketchbook. A nature observation may lead to a stream of consciousness. It is a personal journal after all.
- Hands-on experience and observing what is there counts more than book knowledge. E.O. Wilson put it like this: „Better to spend stretches of time just searching and dreaming.“ Observing and recording is at the center of a nature journal.
- You might want to try keeping a perpetual journal. You add another page for every week of the year, and fill the page a little bit more each year. This is of course a very long-time project. It can tell you a lot about what’s changing and about the seasons.
- Even without the perpetual journal, you can go back to your old entries and revisit your thoughts and feelings. It can be interesting to look at them again with fresh eyes and new experiences. You can also see how your life, or how nature has changed since the time you made the entry.
- You don’t have to go far to see nature, it is everywhere. Your own backyard can be the center of your interest.
- Take your nature journal with you when you travel to a new place and explore it.
- Making collections and studying them in detail is a great technique when you can’t work outdoors (like in winter). Arrange and draw these collected items in your sketchbook.
- Another great technique for the colder months is to draw what you can see from your window, or through a windshield.
- Nature journaling is also a great activity to do with children. They can keep a journal of drawings and notes about what they did and saw. Encourage them to observe nature.
A nature journal is a great way to document your time in nature and connect more with the things you see by noticing details. You don’t have to be great at drawing or painting to start one, but I guarantee you will get better at drawing the longer you keep a sketchbook. This is the key – to get better at drawing you have to be drawing. And keeping a nature journal will help you to build that habit.