Have you ever wondered where to start when nature sketching?
Firstly, how does one even begin to define it? From sweeping landscapes to the local park, animals to trees, birds to moss, the natural world provides limitless inspiration for our sketchbooks.
Without realising it, nature creeps into our daily interpretations of the world. Whether a bird sitting on your inner city garden fence, your succulent bathing in the sunshine on a window sill, or portobello mushrooms tumbling out of a brown paper bag ready for chopping, I have often dwelt on the fact that the reason I love to draw so much is that I am drawn to the very simplest of life’s pleasures. Pleasures that are rooted in the natural world.
As important as its counterpart, (urban sketching), nature sketching or rural sketching, elicits a sense of adventure akin to being on holiday, a sense of taking a break and expanding one’s horizon outwards. Perhaps we become more aware of our sense of place within the wider world as we start to capture it all on paper. I believe this is where some of the magic of drawing lies.
I think there are a variety of different techniques to employ when considering nature sketching and it starts by creating the categories you would class as “nature” based.
I have 3 main categories I use in my sketchbook that fit the nature sketching theme. They include landscapes, flora and fauna, and the birds and bees (to include the wider animal kingdom.) As you become more of a proficient artist you too many be able to hone in on the types of drawings you would categorise as nature sketching.
Ideas on Nature Sketching
Are you Inside or Out?
Before we launch into these categories, however, there is one important factor that changes the approach you take to the sketch you want to get down on paper.
Are you inside or outside whilst you are drawing? Is the “real thing”in front of you or are you working from an image?
Apart from the fact that you may be carrying or using different equipment, sketching “en plain air” means that your sketch doesn’t need to be overwrought with too much detail. Sketching what you see, however, is no mean feat. You often have to be satisfied with plenty of mistakes because time, spectators, the weather or other factors will be contributors to the confidence with which you draw and may often be against you.
Composition becomes challenging too. You don’t have the enclosed image of a photograph to provide a frame of reference but rather a landscape around you. How do you even begin to get this down on paper?
Your sketching may become scrappy at best, as opposed to neatly laid out, a series of scrawls that you will need to learn to take pride in and use to build your confidence. But persevering with it means you fill a sketchbook consistent to your own personal outdoor sketching style.
Nature sketching outdoors will help you develop a new type of approach to your drawing that sharpens your perception skills as well as unique technique. It will be more elemental, and not as prescriptive as simply drawing in a sketchbook at home. You will be supercharged to get on with it and make the most of filling pages and over time your strokes on paper will become more efficient and true to form. The more you practice sketching outdoors the better your drawing technique will become. Your creative style will emerge too!
Sketching the natural landscape in situ, (in addition to the points mentioned above,) is also determined by the size of sketchbook you’re using.
An A5 landscape or portrait sketchbook is usually the maximum size I would stretch to if I was out and about. In my personal case, I like using hard backed square sketchbooks that can open out to accommodate a landscape view or smaller vignettes of natural sketches in and around the sketch itself. I’ve put together a sketch kit that is suited to this purpose.
A pencil, ink or micron pen as well as a small tin of watercolours to create a blush of minimal colour is really all you need.
So picture the scene.
You’re sitting and gazing at a beautiful landscape. What are the steps you need to take when getting started nature sketching?
- Start by assessing your page. Try in your mind’s eye to capture the view you want to convey. Don’t start with one element and work out from it. You’ll run out of space or fall off the page or only capture a small part of the scene. Start from the entirety of the sketch. Gauge the view in front of you. Which two points do you want to include in your sketch? What do you want to capture from left to right, top to bottom?
- In order to arrange your page, try splitting your page into thirds both vertically and horizontally. Two horizontal and vertical lines spaced equally apart to create a 9 boxed grid. Try not to evenly space your page but rather work within the framework of rectangular boxes. (You can see how I’ve marked my page in the main image of this article.)
- It’s also tempting to want to sketch in straight lines when it comes to landscapes but when you look at the view in front of you and mark it out in your 9 box grid you will find that there is nothing “straight” about it.
- Use a quick watercolour wash or scribble of colouring pencil to connote the colours and shade. Remember this is a sketch, not a full blown painting. There is a charm in keeping things minimal. You’ll get away with only focusing on one aspect of your sketch. (Like I have done with my vegetation, sketched in ink and then boldly blocked in a deep blue colour as a background.) Let your creative style peep through in your sketch.
- Finally. I tend to break up my page into boxes so that I can format my page to include a mix of images. The great outdoors is overwhelming and this technique can support you get going and force you to focus on filling your boxes with images as opposed to getting stuck and wondering what to draw. The more mini vignettes you can build into your practice the better. It also makes for an appealing, scenic sketchbook.
Flora and Fauna
I recently completed the biography of Beatrix Potter (A Life in Nature by Linda Lear.) Although famous for her children’s stories, her illustrious career got going amidst the bracken and fungi breeds of the United Kingdom. If ever there was an expert who carved her niche sketching nature, here she is. She drew prolifically daily, and her attentiveness to the detail of the natural world gained her accolades not only from the botanical world but from the scientific too.
What I learned from her when it comes to this subject area is the need to use an analytical eye as well as become good at spotting patterns. Nature sketching is all about pattern. Breaking down what seems to be complex images are really about conveying regular pattern into a series of shapes. Try a page of simple sketches of hedgerow plants for example.
If there is one thing to learn about the life of the prestigious Beatrix Potter is that her love of nature was a daily touchstone that provided the inspiration for her artistic direction and career.
“Now of all the hopeless things to draw, Beatrix wrote one late October evening in 1892, “I should think the very worst is a fine fat fungus.” p76. She was surrounded in her earlier years by naturalists and botanists, a reflection of the Victorian era where classification of all things in the natural world was the norm, especially for women. A long way from the loveable rabbit, Peter.
Putting aside our paleontological tendencies for a while, as well as the need to categorise all we draw, I’ve spent hours leafing through books of perfectly drawn foliage and plants. I spend equally as long focusing on hours of drawing within this genre as I do producing a quick sketch in my sketchbook.
I pay attention to the fauna around me, snapping pictures of odd looking grasses as well as collecting leaves that sit in hopeful piles on my art studio table.
Nothing is too odd or trivial to include as a sketch.
My preference is to quick sketch. There is never enough time to capture all I’d like in a sketchbook.
I also believe that all you need is an insatiable curiosity for the thing you are drawing.
When it comes to nature sketching, the thing I love about foliage, shrubs and grasses are how they remind me of getting back to the basics of mark making. (Hooray for the simple constructs of the natural world!) At the heart of all drawing is placing a pencil or pen on the paper and making a mark, the challenge is knowing how to do so! You can read my thoughts on mark making here.
You don’t have to be brilliant at drawing to capture the basics. And is it not fitting that these complex creations can be translated into simple lines on a page.
My top tips for sketching flora and fauna include;
- Focus on mark making. Forget what you are looking at and see it as a mix of lines. Blend fine and thick lines in your sketch. Just by altering how you choose to draw a line in your page can make a dramatic difference. Use different types of nib or pen thicknesses. My Fude pen is a great type of fountain pen as you can use many different angles to produce different textures and thickness of line. It’s a perfect portable travelling companion too.
- Less can sometimes be more. You can hint at grasses with seeds for example by keeping your strokes short and dotting the paper with spots. Don’t try to capture the whole, focus on textures and experiment with how to show their surface.
- Fill an entire page in under 5 minutes. How quickly can you get your images down on paper?
- Alongside standalone sketches, practice incorporating what you draw into larger sketches. You can even use foliage to surround sketching.
You may be interested in watching my free tutorial on trees where I show you how to break down a landscape of trees.
The Birds and the Bees
What would sketching nature be without the inclusion of the proverbial birds and bees aka the insect and animal worlds? You can fill an entire sketchbook with birds alone.
So the first thing to mention with regards to anything that moves and rarely holds still, is that you will have a challenge on your hands capturing these flighty creatures.
- In the first instance if you are drawing them live you will need to build your confidence in keeping your eyes on the bird whilst you draw. (And draw you will need to do fast!) I would recommend that you employ “gesture’ drawing in this instance. Gesture drawing can take place between 30 seconds or 30 minutes and is designed to capture the movement or shape of an object. Keep lines simple and minimal for definition and your eyes fixed to the object at all times (it will be a short time). You may even transcribe a scribble and beak in the first instance.
- Capturing birds in flight, unless you are advanced, may need the help of a camera. You can still aim to transcribe a sketch the moment you’ve snapped it.
- Try and aim for capturing animals and birds in natural habitats. For example, a bird in a garden bird bath, on an electricity line, your dog curled up asleep or a flock of sheep grazing in the fields may give you ample time to capture the scene where the subjects feel most comfortable. I captured the birds in my garden below hanging off branches. It took a few morning of watching them and working from photographs.
- Get comfortable sketching animals and birds as standalone sketches. Practice breaking them down into simple shape and adding smudges of colour.
I have only really covered some very basic approaches to sketching out in the natural world in the points above.
In summation and addition, here are a list of things to remember and to implement;
- Travel light when out and about. Keep your kit minimal, and your colours basic.
- Don’t forget to collect nature’s treasures to sketch later. Moss, shells, twigs and leaves all serve as brilliant sketch resources. You can even use a magnifying glass to capture the finer details.
- Accept that your sketching is going to look different to normal on the basis that you will have different challenges to contend with.
- Format your page in advance, break up your pages and fill with small and varied sketches to create variety and interest in your page. Allow sketches to also blend into one another.
- Pay attention to how you draw naturally. Do you implement contour drawing (controlled linear approach?) or are you more of a continuous line (done continuously and at a constant speed without lifting your hand off the paper?) Or do you prefer gestural drawing? (Looser and encompassing the whole image to work at speed?) Both lend themselves in different ways to quick sketches.
- Carry a small sketchbook with you wherever you go and some basic supplies so that you get into the habit of sketching wherever you are!
I look forward to seeing how you get on!
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