As a landscape artist and a lover of nature, I have a deep reverence and appreciation for Earth Day. This special day was first celebrated in 1970 largely in response to the environmental crises of the preceding decade. It was a time when we Americans came to realize our responsibilities in caring for our planet.
If you browse around a bit today, you’ll find lots of print-outs such as these woodpeckers from The Paper and Packaging Industry website. You’ll also find many ideas for Earth Day activities, including ones you can share with young children or grandchildren. Wide Open School has many good suggestions.
Among the activities listed is a Nature Walk Notebook. Even though this is designed for elementary grade students, I plan to be doing this myself! We’re never too old to learn, especially when Mother Earth is our teacher.
I have actually already started a nature journal, something I’ve long wanted to do, but something which I thought was impossible. How to do a journal? What to put in it? What if I can’t draw what I see?
I had a lot of questions, and then John Muir Laws helped me find the answers. He was one of the presenters during the Sketchbook Revival event that recently wrapped up, and if you care anything about nature, wildlife, flora, and fauna, please visit his website:
So how do you keep a nature journal? Well, the simple answer, of course, is you just do it. Grab a sketchbook or a drawing pad. Make your own journal, if you want. To start nature journaling all you really need is paper and pencil — and an inquiring mind. Of course you can work with different media. Charcoal. Pastels. Colored Pencils. Watercolor. I’m using my gansai and loving it!
Here is the first entry in my new 2021 Earth Day Nature Journal. This is a blue-throated warbler, and no, I didn’t see this fellow hopping about in my garden. He is from a reference photo used in the Sketchbook Revival workshop.
If you look closely, you’ll see a few words written around this bird. Blue. Dark Blue. Gray.
These words came from Laws himself — as part of a very clever trick to make the journal process much easier.
Many of us have a little fear when it comes to blank pages, especially in a sketchbook. It’s often easier, Laws explains, to start with words instead of images. So use your journal page to make notes — about what you see, about the time of day, about the temperature. About anything.
And then start sketching. Just put in a few shapes. If you’re outside and a bird you’re sketching starts moving around, just start another sketch somewhere on the page. Quickly capture the idea of what you see.
Observation is the starting point. While you’re out on a nature walk, certain things will catch your eye. Maybe it’s a blue-throated warbler, or maybe it’s an interesting weed, a twig on the ground, a delicate wildflower. Whatever it is, stop and observe it.
As you observe, let your curiosity lead you. Ask questions. What caught your attention? How is this different from others? Why is it colored the way it is? Make notes as you sketch. Your journal sketch can — and should — include words, pictures, and numbers.
Numbers? Sure. It’s part of the observation process, really, as well as part of being curious. How many petals on that flower? How many leaves on that stem? How many birds are flocking together? What is the temperature today? How many squirrels are climbing in that tree?
All the while, keep three thoughts in mind:
- I notice…
- I wonder…
- This reminds me of…
Again, what do you notice about the plant or creature you’re investigating? Be sure to capture those ideas in words, pictures, or numbers. What would you like to know? Ask those questions as you sketch and include them in your journal. Then bring in things that you’re reminded of. Maybe it’s a similar creature, or maybe it’s a memory of picking wildflowers as a child. All of these things add to the overall experience of nature journaling.
It’s been too cold for me to get out to our nearby hiking trails, but I’ve added to my journal by sketching houseplants — not in a botanically correct way, but as a way of playing with colors. Here’s an example of plantus imaginarius — which grows only in my imagination.
The fact that this plant isn’t real doesn’t keep me from enjoying it. And yes, I’m messy with my nature journaling.
I like drawing shapes quickly with ink and then splashing and dabbing gansai on my sketch.
The Wide Open School activity includes a “Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt” with a list of things to look for while out exploring. If you’re doing this activity with children, they suggest cutting out the list and pasting it on the inside cover of your nature sketchbook. And be sure to decorate the cover too.
I’ve made my own “Earth Day 2021” Natural Journal, and while I might not fill it all in one day, it will be the beginning of a beautiful experience. I look forward to adding many sketches, lots of notes, and pages of bright colors. I’ve already taken my “warbler” and my “plantus imaginarius” and added them. I like doing my sketching on separate sheets of paper which I can then cut and paste into my journal. I feel comfortable that way.
I invite you and your family to join me today to celebrate Earth Day and to honor this beautiful planet.