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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural!

Shape and Shadow—the Art of Sketching

By Tamia Nelson

July 9, 2002

One picture is worth a thousand words. This is a cliché, to be sure, but like most clichés it contains a healthy measure of truth. After all, you can fill your field journal with thousands of meticulously chosen words and still be at a loss to describe many simple things. At such times, a sketch or two can make all the difference.

Suppose you come across a line of tracks in riverbank mud. Imagine describing the tracks in words, using just enough detail to permit you to identify them days or months later. You'll need to record the length, width, and conformation of a typical individual impression, not forgetting to note the straddle (width) and stride (spacing) of the overall pattern, while drawing attention to any irregularities. You'll also want to describe the environment in which the tracks were seen. And don't forget a map reference.

Whew! By the time you've written all this down, you'll be lucky if you've gotten by with only a thousand words. Happily, there's a better alternative. Instead of scribbling, make a quick annotated sketch of what you've seen. Here's a sample:

On the Trail

How's that? Simple and good, eh? Here are the tracks themselves, the animal's trail, and a map showing the surroundings. Even many years later, just looking at this sketch will instantly recall the scene to mind.

The catch? Well, there really isn't any. You say you can't draw? No problem. You don't need to be a trained artist to make field sketches. You don't even need to be "artistic." You're not trying to create a masterpiece suitable for framing. You're just trying to record what you saw. And there's a bonus, too: drawing teaches you to see as nothing else can, not even photography. For most of us, taking a photo is as simple as pointing and clicking. But you can't draw something you haven't examined closely. That's not to say that photography doesn't have its place, obviously. I've taken many thousands of photos myself, and there's no reason why you can't shoot a photo and make a sketch, too. I often do. Still, the camera sometimes comes between you and the things you're trying to see, and that's not good.

Think of field sketching as a mnemonic device—a tool to help you see and remember what you've seen. In the process of shaping a sketch, your brain shapes a memory, too. And an annotated sketch makes a wonderful aide-mémoire in its own right, of course.

So how do you begin? I assume you already keep a field journal. If not, start now! Or maybe you'd prefer to keep a field sketchbook, instead. There's no hard and fast line between the two. In fact, my "journal" is now a sketchbook. I'd rather write without the assistance of lines than draw over them.

Does "sketchbook" sound too expensive? It can be, I admit. If you opt to buy blocks of premium watercolor paper, you'll pay for the privilege. But there are cheaper alternatives. I often get by with drawing pads purchased at the local supermarket, and they work fine for both ink and pencil sketches. (Not for watercolor, though.) I look for pads that are big enough not to cramp my style, yet small enough to stuff in a pack. Something in the 4-inch by 6-inch to 8 1/2 by 11 range works fine. Just be sure that the paper won't disintegrate the first time a raindrop hits it. Test your new drawing pad at home, and then use a plastic bag to protect it under way.

If you want to move up-market, take a look at the spiral-bound Strathmore drawing pads. They're widely available in art stores, stationery outlets, and college bookstores. (Some supermarkets even carry them.) The pad I'm using now is in the "400 series." It boasts good-quality medium-weight paper, smooth enough to give a clean pencil or ink line, but sturdy enough to withstand repeated erasures (and the occasional splash). The pad contains 24 6-by-8-inch sheets, and though it's more expensive than the cheapest student drawing pads, I forked over less than $3.00 for it. A bargain!

You'll also need a pencil and eraser. While I like pen and ink, it's really a specialist's tool. Pens blob and blot, and few inks are truly waterproof. Ink also can't be erased. For that reason alone, pencil's usually the better bet. Standard #2 pencils work perfectly well—once you learn the art of sharpening them!—but you can also use mechanical pencils. (I prefer white vinyl erasers to the standard pink rubber variety—they're less abrasive.) The 6-inch pocket ruler from your field naturalist's kit will also come in handy.

With journal, pencil, and eraser in hand, you're ready to begin. Don't get so involved in technicalities that you lose sight of the object of the exercise: seeing, recording, and remembering. You'll probably never have a one-man show in a major gallery, but every sketch you make will teach you more about the world around you. There's more to seeing than meets the eye. We live in a world of shape and color, light and shadow. These are the things you want to record.

Here's a simple exercise. Hold your hand out in front of you, palm down. Spread your fingers and thumb wide. Take a good look. What do you see? Viewed in silhouette, your fingers are linear and the back of your hand is square or rectangular. In three dimensions, however—"in the round"—your fingers are tapered cylinders, while your palm is rather slab-like. Now look at the shadows on your hand. If the light is "flat," if it's weak or if it strikes your hand directly, the shadows will be poorly defined and the anatomical topography will be hard to see. On the other hand (sorry!), if the light is strong or oblique—if, that is, the light strikes your hand at an angle—there will be deep shadows and bright highlights. The landscape of your hand will then be revealed in all its intricacy. Of course, the older you are or the more you've worked with your hands, the more intricate and interesting that landscape will be.

Next, get up from your chair and look out a window. Ignore detail. Search for shapes and boundaries. What do you find in the view framed by the sash? Circles and ovals. Triangles. Squares and rectangles. And all of them are bounded by straight or curved lines. Once you've finished exploring the geometry of the scene before you, study the play of light. Where are the darkest places? The brightest?

Shape and color. Light and shadow. They're the building blocks of our visible world.

Now take a simple object and use your mind's eye to break it down into its component elements. When you're ready, make a sketch of what you see. Pay attention to proportions, but don't worry about the fine detail. Concentrate on shape and shadow. Your subject doesn't have to be exotic. Use your hand again, or something from your desk, or a tree glimpsed through the window, or a flower. Just draw the shapes and then shade the object in, beginning with the lightest places and working outward toward the dark. Once you've finished, try something else. Above all, don't get discouraged. Learning takes time.

And as you learn, you'll frequently be surprised by the striking geometry of the living world. Take a look at the triptych of photos of a painted trillium, below. (I've masked the background to emphasize the flower.) Sketch this trillium now, using the left-most photo as your model. Since the photo isn't very sharp and there's little contrast between the light and dark areas of the leaves, concentrate on form.

Trillium Triptych

What do you see? A choreography of shapes. In the central picture, I've outlined the lanceolate structure of leaves and petals, using broad yellow lines. But that's not all, is it? The red lines in the right-hand photo highlight the triangular geometry that gave the trillium its name. Note the three more-or-less concentric triangles: (1) the innermost, formed by the "painted" highlights near the center of the flower; (2) that of the floral petals themselves; and (3) the outermost bulwark, defined by the whorl of three nearly-identical leaves. (The distance between adjacent leaf tips is about 5 inches.)

Still having trouble seeing the geometry of the living world? Then get some tracing paper and copy images from books and magazines (or your own photos). As before, concentrate on shape and shadow. And don't feel self-conscious. Tracing is an excellent teaching tool. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Beatrix Potter did it, after all, and she was one of the best illustrators of her time—or any other, come to that. So you're in good company.

What's next? Have fun! Don't allow your journal to become a chore. Sketch only when you're in the mood, or when it serves a purpose. And don't feel that you have to cover an entire page with each picture. Sometimes that's exactly what you'll do, of course. But at other times—when you're sketching the details of a track or a flower or a butterfly, for instance—you'll fill only a small part of a page. Whether the final image is large or small, though, always date your sketch and note the location.

Shape and shadow. Hand and eye. You don't have to be an artist to draw what lies before you. Your sketches will probably never hang in a gallery, but what does that matter? They'll help you to see the world around you, and later to remember what you've seen. Isn't that enough?

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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