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 devicea 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 wellonce
you learn the art of sharpening them!but you can also use mechanical
pencils. (I prefer white vinyl erasers to the standard pink rubber
varietythey'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 obliqueif, that is,
the light strikes your hand at an anglethere 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
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
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.
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 timeor any other, come to that. So you're in
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
timeswhen you're sketching the details of a track or a flower or a
butterfly, for instanceyou'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