A page from Carol Coogan’s new book Backyard Naturalist Vol. III
Even in chilly upstate New York, nature artist Carol Coogan tries to sketch outdoors whenever she can. Carol writes and illustrates a weekly column for my local newspaper called “Backyard Naturalist.” I have always loved her little vignettes of wildlife, and last year, when the kids and I were studying biology I even thought about contacting Carol for advice on getting kids to draw from nature.
As it happened, Carol contacted me first, to tell me about her volumes of collected columns. Backyard Naturalist Volume I and Volume II are available online, and Volume III (see image above) is coming out soon. Naturally, I took the opportunity to send Carol some of the questions I had. Here is what she wrote in response:
How did you start doing nature drawings?
I have been interested in nature since I was a little kid. I remember being interested in birds and bugs when I was 5 years old. Any time there was a program on TV about wildlife, I was glued to the set. My parent used to take our family camping and to the ocean every year, and I was always fascinated with the animals, fish, shells, frogs, plants, trees, etc… and the different habitats and environments. I started drawing when I was a child, and have always kept a sketchbook and/or journal of some sort, as long as I can remember. But I began to focus more exclusively on natural science subjects once I went to college for art. Eventually, I began keeping a special sketchbook/journal just for nature, after I bought the book The Art of Field Sketching by Clare Walker Leslie.
Do you work from life, photos, still lifes, stuffed animals?
I prefer to sketch quickly using a pencil, or a black ink marker or rapidograph
pen, working directly from what I see in real life. I go for nature walks or hikes, or look at what I see happening in my own neighborhood or backyard. Sometimes I even sketch from looking out the window of my house, or from the car if I am parked somewhere, or someone else is driving. I later will look through nature guides when I go back home, and rework the drawings to better refect the details, shapes and colors of the actual subject. I love pen & ink, and often leave my art as simple line or cross-hatching drawings. But sometimes I also add watercolors or colored pencil later. When I am crunched for time, or when it is too cold a day in winter to draw outside, I’ll take photographs of what interests me, and sketch from the photographs. Sometimes I “layout” a scene using a digital computer program called PhotoShop, arranging a couple of different images into a collage, and then draw from that. I especially like to ask questions. How was that bird able to do that? Why was that plant growing that way? What was that bug doing? Then I’ll research the subject and try to answer my own questions. It’s like sleuthing, or trying to solve a puzzle.
How do you find your subjects?
I often go for nature walks or hikes, especially at local parks, environmental centers, or nature preserves, or wherever I happen to be. I am always keen to observe whatever is around me in nature, no matter where I am. Even in a shopping mall parking lot. Nature is everywhere. You can even see all sorts of interesting things between the cracks of a sidewalk. Plants growing. Ants crawling. I especially like noticing what is happening in my own neighborhood or backyard. Or from looking out of the windows of my house. Or even from my car. Sometimes I will notice an interesting bird or plant growing along the side of the road while driving in my car, and look it up in my nature guides later in the day, finding out it’s name, learning all I that can about it. Or I may sketch it from memory, and re-draw it or make corrections to the original drawing later, after I’ve learn more about it, or from looking at pictures of it later.
How much research do you do, and what resources would you recommend?
I do a lot of research, but often I can learn a lot from my own first hand observations of the natural world. Nothing beats a first hand account of what was seen or heard or experienced right on site, seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears. But I also consult a variety of guide books, as well as Internet sites. And I even will find out if there is a specific scientist who is an expert or specializes in a particular natural science subject that interests me, and then contact them with a question or to learn more interesting information. It’s important to get more than one source for your facts. The Internet is not always reliable.
How does nature drawing feed into/enhance nature appreciation? Aside from the obvious, is doing a nature drawing different from doing nature photography, and if so, how?
There is nothing like observing nature and responding to it first hand, reacting to your own personal experience, observation, and the feelings you have about the other creatures, and plants you share your life with. Seasonal changes are constantly in motion, but nature drawing can connect you to a sense of place, and help you feel more in tune with what is happening at that very moment. It makes you feel more appreciative of the world in an intimate and personal way. In sketching what you see, you learn a lot that can’t be learned in books, or by watching TV, or looking at photographs. Through observation to using your hand to draw to inspiring your brain to ask questions and have recognitions, you gain a great deal of knowledge. It’s very gratifying. You feel like, “Hey, I discovered this!” But whether you keep a sketchbook, or a writing journal, or take photographs of the natural world, as long as you take time to be in the present moment and notice what is going on around you, it’s a valuable and rewarding experience. You may find yourself asking, “Why is that bird singing right now? What are those flowers in bloom? Can those clouds tell the weather feel like? Is the moon full, and where in the sky is it rising tonight? Why? As well as being valuable scientifically and educationally, it can also be creatively inspiring, and even spiritual. It informs your place and relationship in the world, in time, and in season. And it’s fun! Overall though, I think drawing is more intimate, creating a connection that can’t be replicated with a camera.
What nature artists do you enjoy?
I enjoy the work of almost all nature artists. I do prefer a bit of abstraction, spontaneity and personal interpretation of a subject, though, rather than an absolutely photo-realistic art style. I like the work of some commercial illustrators, like Jack Unruh, for their origianality of expression, quirkiness and comfortable looseness of line, as well as the work of members of the Natural Science Illustrator Guild, and local wildlife artists like Wayne Trimm and my friend David Kiphuth. I enjoy the “how to keep a nature journal” books written by Clare Walker Leslie, Cathy Johnson, and Hannah Hinchman. Actually, though, I most enjoy looking at individual sketchbooks kept, not only by artists, but also by regular folks who aren’t artists, and especially by children. Each person’s different take on nature is so interesting. Everyone has their own energy, quality, and unique way of using squiggles, scribbles, scratchings, lines and handwritten notes. Each person’s individual impressions and expressions are always interesting to note. Sometimes someone else may have a way of describing something in a way that is totally surprising to me. They may help me notice something in a new way that I may never have thought of before. I love that.
Do you have any suggestions for getting kids to do nature drawings? Either encouraging kids who are already inclined but don’t know where to start, or kids who need prodding to go outside and/or pay attention to nature?
There are thousands of little stories and dramas going on in the natural world all the time. For kids who seem reluctant to engage in outdoor activities, it may help to inspire an interest in nature from that angle. Also, if an adult in a child’s life is interested in the natural world, it’s more likely that a child will follow suit, than if the adult in their life seems disinterested. If all a child has around them is monitors with games and movies and the Internet, they may develop a distance and disinterest in the natural world. Kids need opportunities to go outside and touch, feel, see, hear and experience nature, but more importantly, they need someone in their life – a teacher, a family member, a friend – to do it with them, to mention and bring their attention to it. To help them notice the seasons, cycles, rhythms and recurring events in nature. The loud buzzing sound of cicadas in the summer? What time birds begin to chirp in the morning? When leaves start changing colors in the fall, or when the days start to seem shorter. When birds form flocks and fly away? What birds stay around all winter? Why do some birds stay, and others migrate to warmer areas? When does the first snowfall occur? How do mammals like mice, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, and raccoons survive the coldest days of the year? When do the days seem longer again? When do the first green buds form on a tree? What are the first flowers to bloom in your neighborhood? When and where do you notice butterflies, bees and other bugs? It’s also fun and empowering to learn to identify different kinds of birds, and plants and animals by name. This inspires more interest. Rather than seeing a “bird,” you see a “black capped chickadee,” and it has a call that sounds like, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee!” That’s more interesting.
Writing or sketching about these things gives children their very own place to put their thoughts, words drawings and feelings. It’s important to let them do it in a way that feels right to them, without judgment as to whether it’s “good” or not. Sketchbooks are not meant to be perfect like a fine art painting you’d see in a gallery or museum. It’s important to really observe what you see, hear, smell, experience, etc… take good notes, and try to make your drawings as accurate as possible, but the observing and mark-making itself is where the real learning takes place. Things can be looked up later and corrections made or information added. It’s even OK to draw something, and then redraw a line right over it to correct the shape or size. It’s OK if art in a sketchbook doesn’t look professional. In fact, it’s better. Sketchbooks are more interesting when the drawings are a bit messy. That why it’s called a sketch. It’s a drawing that helps you learn. It has character and personalty. My sketchbook is quite messy and many of the drawings look like scribbles, or even stiff, stick-like markings, because in a sketchbook, I’m just gathering information, not trying to make beautiful art. I may use this information gathered from my sketches later though, to help me when I do decide to make a more detailed and beautiful piece of artwork. The more you sketch, the easier it gets to jot things down loosely and confidently. And the better an artist you may become. The more you practice doing anything, the better you will get at doing it. But half the fun is in the watching, looking, noticing, asking yourself questions, and then trying to find out the answers to your questions, like you are a nature detective. Who knows, you may become an expert on some particular bird or animal or plant that no one else has really paid much attention to before. You may even become a biologist, or natural scientist, veterinarian, environmentalist, or artist, or writer, all of those things.