How to Grow in Nature Journaling

Last week on the blog, Karen Smith and I were talking about how we are not that artistic, but we can still keep a nature notebook. This week we want to share with you some ideas of how we can continue to grow in that ability of putting pictures and beautiful sketches in our nature notebooks. It may not look exactly like someone else’s, but we can still grow in that ability. I’m so excited to share with you ideas from a good friend of mine, Richele Baburina. 

Sonya: Richele, thanks for joining us again. Your nature notebook looks so different from mine because mine is just lists and words and maybe a little tiny duckling here if nobody’s looking. But yours is much more artistic. My goal is not to make my notebook look exactly like yours, and that’s okay. But I would love to continue to grow in my abilities to add pictures and paintings into my notebook.

Richele: I have some tips for you to grow.

Sonya: We would love some wisdom, some encouragement in how we can all keep growing in that.

Richele: Right. We’re going to be talking about two different things, and that’s going to be the art lesson and then nature journaling, because they are two separate things.

Sonya: That’s a good point I didn’t think about. To improve in the nature notebook, it might be good to take some art lessons.

Richele: Historically, Charlotte Mason had handicrafts three times a week and then an art lesson, or a drawing lesson, twice a week. These were 20- to 30-minute lessons. But the point is that our nature journaling time is not our art lesson time.

Our nature journaling time is not our art lesson time.

Sonya: It’s not the time to learn these tips. It’s the time to practice them, to apply them, you mean?

Richele: The beauty of sitting down to paint a specimen that we found in nature, or that we’re out in nature observing, is that it gives us that time to observe and to make friends with that natural object. We’ve all heard the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. So what we actually draw or paint in our nature notebook is going to give us a lot more information sometimes than what we’ve written about.

Sonya: That’s true. My lists and and written observations tend to be very abbreviated, not flowing and all-descriptive. So, yes, I agree.

Richele: It doesn’t take an artist to actually make the illustration in the nature journal the way that Charlotte Mason wanted those nature journals to look like.

Sonya: So she wasn’t expectingThe Country Diary of an Edwardian Ladyfrom everybody.

Richele: We’ll talk about different mediums today, you don’t have to do brush drawing per se, but it was Charlotte’s preferred method. Once you do learn brush drawing though, you’d be surprised at what you’re actually able to do with a few strokes, what you’re actually able to say with your brush.

Sonya: So, with the strokes in your brush drawing course. I love the new videos that you have made to go with that course, because it shows how you can put those strokes together and create those things of beauty that are in your nature notebooks.

Richele: Thank you. So if we are using colored pencils, or if we’re using brush drawing using watercolors, then during our art lesson or drawing lesson we want to just learn that handful of strokes for both. With pencils, that’s just a curved line, a straight line, and those hash marks so we can do shading. With brush drawing, that’s going to be also just a handful of strokes. If we think about it like learning to play a musical instrument, we might have seven notes. But the power of those seven notes is that they can be combined into a song or a composition. If you think about it that way, by learning just a few strokes and practicing those strokes during our drawing lesson, what we learn in that time, we can then incorporate into our nature journal.

By learning just a few strokes and practicing those strokes during our drawing lesson, what we learn in that time, we can then incorporate into our nature journal.

Sonya: That makes total sense. So, I’m getting hope here that really, everybody’s able to do this. Is that what you’re saying?

Richele: Charlotte Mason felt very strongly about this. She was coming out of a time, and sometimes it’s hard to even imagine this, but she was coming out of a time where both music and drawing were only taught to people who it was believed that they had a capacity to do that. Because we give our children music lessons, composer study, and watercolor lessons, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when there was a belief that this was only an accomplishment perhaps for wealthy people. Now we have the freedom to learn these techniques.

Sonya: And enjoy them no matter what our proficiency level is. We can grow, we can continue to grow in them at our own pace, as an individual, as a person.

Richele: Right, and Charlotte Mason did believe that anyone could. I want to read some quotes. “A child of six will produce a dandelion, poppy, daisy, iris with its leaves, impelled by the desire to represent what he sees with surprising vigor and correctness.” This is from Home Education, page 55. This is a child of six. So, if a child of six can do that, I think we can do that, too.

Sonya: I keep picturing Leonardo as a child of six doing that.

Richele: So, we won’t all be child prodigies.

Sonya: Not everybody’s Giotto.

Richele: No, we have to give ourselves some grace. She says in Philosophy of Education, “The first buttercup in a child’s nature notebook is shockingly crude,”

Sonya: Oh, yay! (laughs)

Richele: “The sort of thing to scandalize a teacher of brush drawing, but by and by, another buttercup will appear with the delicate poise, uplift, and radiance of the growing flower.” That’s from Philosophy of Education, page 217.

Sonya: By and by.

Richele: By and by. Also, we aren’t expected to do a detailed botanical drawing. That might come later in high school in a course on botany. But what we really want to get across is the personality, if you will, of the flower or plant.

What we really want to get across is the personality, if you will, of the flower or plant.

Sonya: I like that. That takes a lot of pressure off.

Richele: Yes. And if you go to the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection and you look through the nature journals that they have online, you can see the beginning nature journals. Sometimes they’ll have up to three or four of one student’s nature journals, and you can see the progress that that student has made. It’s really amazing.

Sonya: It makes total sense when you compared it to a musical instrument. You have to practice and it’s going to take time to get.

Richele: Yes, we all start somewhere. I like to tell my boys that if it weren’t for practice, we would all be Major League Baseball players, because we just have to give the time to practice.

Sonya: If we just didn’t have to do the practicing, we could jump right in there. And we know that with our children, but so often I don’t give that same grace to myself. All right, so where do we start?

Richele: We start with the habit of observation. We’re going to build the artist’s hand and eye. It shouldn’t be a scary thing, because really, the main part of it, at least 50%, is observation. We need to be out in nature, observing nature closely.

Sonya: We use that term “observe closely” a lot. I know what it means, just for me personally, I know what it means to observe a sentence closely. But to observe nature closely, what am I looking for? What am I supposed to be doing? I know in your brush drawing course, you give some specific questions to ask yourself. Are those the types of things that we should be looking for?

Richele: Yes, and I’ll read those questions, because these questions will guide you in how you’re going to draw that nature specimen. There were six questions that Charlotte Mason’s students, at first, the teacher might be asking these questions to guide them, but then it becomes a habit. We’re asking ourselves these questions as we look at our nature specimens.

Sonya: So we need to ask them in almost every situation until they become a habit. Yes, of course. Okay, give us the questions.

Richele: All right. “What is its name and where is it found?” This might stir up some information, and you don’t have to have identified the nature specimen when you put it in your nature notebook. That could come sometimes years later, or I’ve had times where I’ve misidentified things and I find that out a few years later.

Sonya: But we can still write down where we found it to help us.

Richele: That’s really going to help you, because when you know where it was found, you can follow that one object through the seasons and you can come back to it.

Sonya: Good. Question one, “What is its name and where is it found?” Okay.

Richele: “How many parts is the model divided into?” That could be something like if you’re doing a twig from a tree, we want to know its divisions. Does it have two divisions? Or, say you have an, we were talking earlier about New England Asters, a New England Aster could have a number of divisions. You’ll have your chief stem, but then you’ll have other divisions of smaller stems coming off of it.

Sonya: I’m going to assume there’s no right and wrong answer to this. It’s really how your brain wants to dissect the pieces. You’re looking at smaller parts that make up the whole, is the main thing.

Richele: Yes, and what you’re doing with this observation is you’re actually learning how to compose the object in your nature notebook. It’s like when we’re doing picture study with our children, and we don’t talk, necessarily; we don’t use the word composition. But the child is observing and intently observing this picture, and he is absorbing these points of composition. You may ask, “Where’s the light coming from?” Or even if you ask, “What time of day is it?” when you’re looking at a picture he’s going to need to observe where that light is coming from and where the shadows fall. That’s all part of the artist’s composition. Now we’re talking about the Creator’s composition. These are beautiful flowers and plants, and we’re going to look at how the model is divided. Then, “What are its most prominent or chief lines?” We touched on that a little bit. That’s that main stem, the main stalk. So, the chief lines. We usually begin with chief lines when we’re going to paint or draw something.

Sonya: So we’re looking at the parts, and then we’re finding the starting point.

Richele: Then, “Which are the finest lines?” That could be those stems. It could be smaller leaves. There could be larger leaves and then smaller leaves. The fifth question, “How many buds, berries, petals, leaves has it in all?” Now, during the drawing lesson, we can actually take off a few leaves, take off a few of the stems coming out of the chief one, so that it’s easier for a child to draw or for an adult to draw.

Sonya: So, you’re just drawing that part instead of trying to do the whole thing in the drawing lesson, which is a later time or a different time.

Richele: Yes. Then, “Where do the shadows lie on the object?” Equating that to picture study, we look at the shadows in the composition of a masterwork of art. Now, with whichever nature object that we’re looking at, we want to see where the shadows lie on that object.

Sonya: It doesn’t sound so intimidating when you break it down like that. If you can think about each of those pieces, that would be very helpful.

Richele: Yes, because rather than looking inside ourselves and what we can and we can’t do, we’re looking outside ourselves at the nature object, and we’re getting to know it, just like we get to know each other as we sit and talk.

Rather than looking inside ourselves and what we can and we can’t do, we’re looking outside ourselves at the nature object, and we’re getting to know it, just like we get to know each other.

Sonya: That’s huge, what you just said, because I’ve been thinking about that lately. So often, when we are in a tough situation, the first thing that floods through my mind is, “I can’t,” or, “I’m not. I’m not an artist, I can’t draw this.” And yet, Charlotte’s motto is, “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” If we focus so much on what we can’t do, we’re never going to get to the “I ought,” and “I will,” if we’re stuck in, “I can’t.”

Richele: A big thing about this is that when we’re telling our children that it’s important for them to do something, but they never see us doing that, there’s the problem. No one more than a child can recognize a hypocritical nature, I’m sorry to say. I know this from experience because I am not good at paper sloyd, or I wasn’t. I got better, actually. But I remember one day that I gave my children a paper sloyd project to do, and they were like, “Aren’t you going to do this with us?” And I said, “I’m just no good at it.” And out of of their mouths came, “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” And so, this is a really good thing, is to sit with our children to do a nature journal entry. Why would they want to if they never see us doing it?

Sonya: We want to encourage them. Yes, you might not be good at it yet, but you need to try, because the only way you’re going to get better is to practice. So often we want to stay in our comfort zone and not do that work to grow and practice. We could just stop the conversation right here and all go have a moment of repentance. That’s a good word. 

So we have observed this specimen with an attitude of, “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” And the tips you’re giving us helps us see how we can do this. So that’s habit of observation. What other tips can you give us?

Richele: First we’ll start with the physical atmosphere because we do want to set ourselves and our children up for success. If we’re inside and we’re going to be drawing our nature objects, we want to be sitting at a desk or a table that’s the right height and a chair that’s the right height. We want to have good light. We want to have enough room that we are physically able to keep ourselves fluid so we can express that plant or flower with our handiwork.

Sonya: Like how you said, the personality of it, yes.

Richele: That’s part of the physical atmosphere of it. Another part is the tools that we use. And we probably all have read in Home Education that Charlotte Mason tells us that children should have the best. The best does not necessarily mean the most expensive. I want to talk just a little bit about the tools of nature journaling, and this is the illustrative part. I won’t go into anything else. If we’re going to use colored pencils, or we’re going to be using watercolor paints, when we see the word student or academic when we’re going out to purchase something, we need to know that student versus professional grade does make a difference. The student grade is less pigmented. It has more binder of usually wax, so if it’s a student-grade colored pencil, it’s going to be harder. Does that make sense? Sometimes you’ve drawn with something and it’s not laying the color down. It feels really hard. It’s chalky; it’s opaque.

Sonya: And you feel like it’s your fault, because you can’t get it to look right. But it might be the tool’s fault.

Richele: Yes, it could be the tool’s fault. Especially today, we have a lot of good-quality art supplies at our disposal now that people didn’t have 100 years ago. Like I said, it doesn’t mean expensive. There are different ranges, of course. You don’t need the most expensive, but it can help your drawings to have actually better supplies. 

Paper is another supply. With your Journaling a Year in Nature, I really love the paper in that. It is 67-pound, correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s close to 70 pounds, called a vellum Bristol. What that means is that vellum is the texture of it, and that paper has enough tooth to help your colored pencil. It’s heavy enough that it can take watercolor, not really wet watercolor, but with brush drawing, we don’t use a lot of water. It is also smooth enough, because it’s Bristol paper, that you can write in it as well, so that’s a really good paper to use for nature journaling. I was really pleased when you chose that paper. If you’re going to purchase a nature journal, a separate sketchbook or something like that, and you’re going to use more water in your watercolors, you might want to go to one with cotton because it’s more absorbent than wood pulp in the paper. Something that’s at least 25% cotton. If you grow to really love nature journaling, and you know you’re going to continue, you could invest in 100% cotton paper. That’s just one other tip.

Sonya: I never thought about the quality of your tools, but I can see how it could have a big effect on your desire to keep going and your encouragement to keep on growing. As you said, with colored pencils, or with paint, or anything with pigmentation, saturation points are important.

Richele: If you have, now, the lower quality paper, printer paper, even, you can be using it for your drawing lessons in the beginning because we don’t want to go overboard; it gets expensive. But if you are using a paper, a lot of times they have coatings on it now. It won’t take your medium, it won’t take your colored pencil, it won’t even take your marker. You’ll see it floats on top, so you want to make sure that you are using a paper that doesn’t have a coating on it.

Sonya: All right, so we’ve got the habit of observation. We’ve got the physical atmosphere. What else?

Richele: We discussed a little bit about keeping your art time separate from your nature journaling time. I’ll just give you a few tips on the art lesson. In Charlotte Mason’s schools, the children put on pinafores before they began their brush drawing lessons. And while our children might not be putting on pinafores, there’s this time where you’re putting your art supplies out neatly. It’s not quite a ritual, but it shows a break in what we have been doing. It’s going to get us into this mindset of, “Now we’re going to pause. We’re going to be good stewards of our art supplies because we have nicer art supplies.” It’s going to make us want to take care of them. We set apart this time and we know that we’re going to sit down. We’re going to come ready to observe, ready to train our hands and our eyes.

Sonya: The idea of putting on pinafores to me is like giving you permission that this might be messy. It doesn’t have to be perfect, so just protect your clothes and let’s go have some fun.

Richele: You do want it to be fun. We don’t want to be uptight during our art lesson because it’s really important to remain relaxed. If you’re tight, that’s going to show in the movements that you’re making with your hands.

We don’t want to be uptight during our art lesson because it’s really important to remain relaxed. If you’re tight, that’s going to show in the movements that you’re making with your hands.

Sonya: There’s a key right there. Okay, mental note. Good point.

Richele: Another thing: we discussed learning the techniques, so that’s what we’re going to do during our art lesson. No matter which medium we’re using, we just want to learn those basic techniques that we can then apply.

Sonya: Let me just insert, because I know you probably won’t mention this, you’re too modest. But if people want to use brush drawing as Charlotte did, you have a wonderful course, a basic course that walks them through those strokes. It has video components so they can see you doing it and you talk them through it, and the individual cards so each child can go at his or her own pace, and each adult can go at his or her own pace. So, that’s a wonderful tool to use for these art lessons.

Richele: Thank you. It really does start for the very beginner. Because it’s a new technique, even if you are artistic, this is a different technique from what you might be used to. One of the reasons that Charlotte Mason liked brush drawing is because she said it gave life to a line. When we’re looking at our optics out in nature, these beautiful plants, the wind might be blowing. One plant turns its face to the sun, things like this. Those are the things that those fluid strokes we practice a lot can do. They become very fluid; that’s what we’re able to relay in our nature journals using brush drawing.

Sonya: It’s funny that you were talking about the flower turning its face to the sun, because I just noticed that yesterday in one of the flowers in my front garden. I never thought, though, about taking the time to do an art lesson with that. To me it’s always been, “Put it in your nature notebook.” If it’s nature, it goes in your nature notebook. But doing the actual lesson to practice it and to get better with the techniques is a freeing idea. I love this. So the brush drawing gives the life, shows the personality of this nature object. What other tips can you give us for those art lessons at separate times?

Richele: Well, one thing that I really like that Charlotte Mason schools did is during the art lesson, they would take a piece of paper and the teacher would draw a line down the middle of the paper. Now, when you’re asking those questions, I’ll get to why we draw that line. When we’ve asked those questions of what we’re looking at, what is the chief line, how many leaves, how many berries, things like this, and we’re building that composition in our head, we can also take our paintbrush. Before we ever set paint to paper, we just take the brush and we can do that composition in the air.

Sonya: I’m seeing the relation here to when children are learning how to write. They start in the air. Of course, Charlotte is so consistent! Okay, go ahead.

Richele: Her methods are everywhere in this. So, then we’ve got that drawn up in the air. If you’re doing this with younger children, then you can help them build it step by step through that thought process of pinning a piece of paper up on the wall, taping it up to the wall, and going through while they tell you what’s the chief line. Then you can draw it. And again, you don’t have to be an artist for this because it’s the natural object that is the star of the show, not you. You can build that up. Then, your student can draw one of his own, or brush draw one of his own, on one side of the paper. Now that the child knows or you know where you’re going with this, you do it again on the next side of the line, on the other side of the paper. So, now you’ve actually drawn that in your mind, you’ve drawn it in the air, and you’ve drawn it twice during your art lesson. Now, whether you choose to put this in your nature journal is up to you and up to the child. But what you’ve learned during your art lesson now can be incorporated with any plant.

Sonya: That is brilliant, so brilliant. I can see how having that background, that experience of the art lesson, infuses more confidence in you the next time you go out for your nature study. It’s like a continuous cycle. It’s like we need to have an attitude of, “I am, I can, I ought, I will,” in order to encourage us to keep growing. Then we can use those art lessons as a tool in that growth. As we use that tool in that growth, it fuels our attitude that we want to keep growing, and it is a continuous cycle.

Richele: There’s something even even more that we can add to that that’s happening during all of this. That’s that when we are observing these things, we’re falling in love with nature more and more. Not only are we training our eye and training our hand, we’re also training our hearts.

Sonya: Yes, it’s not just a mechanical exercise. It is, I was reading last night In Memoriam, the tribute of a former student of the PUS school. And he talked about how he did the nature notebook and the stuff like that. He was kind of like, “Yeah, okay, I did that.” But then later in life he moved over to Italy for a while, and he said, “And because of my training in the habits, I just naturally picked up another nature notebook and started going out and capturing all of the wildlife around me and the wildflowers and the things on the Swiss Alps,” he was traveling over in Europe, “And all of these things around me.” Because he just had that love for it and it was just ingrained in him. That’s what you do. Of course, you get to know it around you. He told a funny story. He took a flower back to his cottage to paint and put in his nature notebook. And when he came in, one of the national ladies there, local ladies, saw it and said, “What are you going to do with that?” And he said, “I’m going to paint it.” And she said, “I don’t know if it’s going to stick on the flower.”

Richele: I love it!

Sonya: But he was in love with those things. It was ingrained so deeply. That’s a wonderful point.

Richele: My children have graduated now. I don’t know, but maybe one day they will pick up their nature journals again. I don’t know. But what I do know, because we still go on nature walks together, is that because of their nature journaling, it did instill a love of nature in them.

Sonya: And even if they don’t become the next Leonardo da Vinci, which is most likely not going to happen, the things that they learned in those art lessons, and separately in those times of drawing and sketching and painting in their nature notebooks, has benefited them. It has played an important role in who they became, in developing their character, and in developing the sense of “I am, I can.”

Richele: That reminds me of something that one of my good friends told me. She was raised in a state where they they were taught in school a lot of fear about how we need to take care of the environment. It was all fear-based. She said that when she became a Charlotte Mason educator, having children and beginning Charlotte Mason-style lessons, that is what truly taught her to be a good steward of the environment. And with her children as well, because of the love that it instilled.

Sonya: Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing all these great ideas to help build that love within us and record it in our nature notebooks. We can continue to grow in that process, both internally and hopefully externally as well.

Richele: You can do it!

Sonya: Thanks so much.

Richele: You’re welcome.