AMC Outdoors, July/August 2003
In the 20th century, to stop rushing around, to sit quietly on the grass, to switch off the world and come back to the earth, to allow the eye to see a willow, a bush, a cloud, a leaf… I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen.
— Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing
Aristotle used it to create his Historia Animalium in 335 B.C. Lewis and Clark’s ability to do it earned them the plum job of cataloging the American West. John James Audubon set its bar high with his exquisite paintings of bird life. And Darwin’s greatest regret was that he was not able to do it better. Before photography became portable, scientists and explorers depended on the power of the pen and brush to capture the details and intricacies of their subjects.
Today, we don’t need to draw nature to document it. But many believe that the simple act of drawing gives us much more meaningful contact with the natural world. And, they hold, the exercise goes deeper than just sketching. The added component of up-close examination offers numerous rewards for the patient practitioner.
A few years back, I took a watercolor class in Boston’s Arnold Arboretum and still can recall the paralysis that set in as I examined my chosen subject: a half-acre tangle of hundreds of green shapes and textures and shades. I attempted to paint lawn fading into shrubs dissolving into evergreens. As I stared at the green watery mass on my easel, though, the teacher gave me some great advice: Start small. Just look at one single piece.
Over the years, I’ve followed stirrings to take notebook and black felt-tip to the backyard or down to the river near my house. Just jotting the movements of a goldfinch at the feeder or tracing the daggers and swirls of a sword fern, I find myself much closer to that subject and more right with the world at the same time. We move in such fast, broad brushstrokes so often; taking notice allows us to see the details, so easily missed in haste, that are in fact the vital building blocks of our world. Believe me, you’ll never nonchalantly walk by a day lily once you’ve spent a few minutes trying to transcribe its gentle contours on paper.
To learn more about journals and to get some expert tips for the uninitiated, I spoke with naturalists Clare Walker Leslie and Nona Bell Estrin, two premier artists in the field. We’ve also excerpted a few exercises from Clare’s latest book to get you started on your own voyage of discovery.
—Madeleine Eno is publisher and co-editor of AMC Outdoors.