Sometimes we forget why we do what we do.
I fell back in love with sketching outdoors about six years ago, after a very long hiatus. I had drifted away from sketching, and in doing so I had forgotten what magic it held. The magic is simple.
When you draw on site, you become simultaneously more alert and more relaxed.
How can that be? It makes no sense. But it’s true.
At first I sketched by myself, then I took a few online classes, and there I made friends I would not have met otherwise. Here is the blog of one such friend I met through Sketchbook Skool, Dana Burrell. Dana lives about an hour away, and she and I get together to sketch while also introducing each other to our favorite sketch-able places (others might call them ‘photogenic’ places, but we choose to take ‘pencil-pictures’ instead.)
My journey from sketcher to sketchbook-art teacher surprised me, and I enjoyed the three years I spent working with adult students. I retired from teaching at my local art school a few months before the current pandemic temporarily closed the school as well, and until today, I thought I didn’t really miss teaching.
But then I watched this video by John Muir Laws. Pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of water, and settle back to enjoy watching about 12 minutes of this inspiring man.
The best way to teach: Appreciation
I understand what John Muir Laws talks about in this video. Think back to a time when, unbeknownst to you, someone was watching you and silently cheering you on. Then afterward they told you how impressed they were: at the impromptu speech you gave, at the way you paused to help someone for a moment, at the way you took time for them. Pretty motivating, right?
My first watercolor teacher, Giffin Russell of Antrim, NH, had the ability to spot the one thing you did well in your painting, and then she told you all about it. I love the word “admire”— from Latin, meaning to be ‘at wonder’. Regular sketching can lead to wonderment, as John Muir Laws so clearly emphasizes in his many free online classes. His three prompts are “I notice… I wonder… It reminds me of…” With this approach, we are allowed to simply take notes on what we see, spend more time being curious, and less time judging the ‘handwriting’ of our sketches.
Attention is a Skill
As John says, attention takes practice, just like everything else. The good news is that even when you are new at paying attention to what you see, you are instantly getting better at it. There is no time limit to how long you look at something before picking up your pen or pencil. For me, it helps to fall in love a little bit, before I start to draw…
Will you too become a nature journal ambassador?
Perhaps. Can you start by becoming a flora observer? (It moves around less than fauna!) All you need is a pen, paper, and an impromptu pause.
Yesterday I was walking to an appointment, and I realized I would arrive about 15 minutes early. Knowing they would not want me in the waiting room that far in advance of my appointment (due to the strategic reopening methods being honored by most businesses nowadays), I decided to pause a block away and lean on a granite post while I sketch-doodled parts of a nearby rhododendron bush. The first marks were quite uninspired, but I loved looking at what I was looking at (that is a key!), so I kept going. I intentionally used a gel pen because I knew it would later react well to a selective application of moisture from my waterbrush. With that bit of water, I was able to reactivate the ink and give the black & white sketch some depth and life.
When I got back home, I decided to toss in a splash of color, not necessary, but still fun.
If there ever was a time when we need to be re-inspired about being alive, it is now.
There is so much truly scary stuff in the news nowadays, not only in America, but around the world. Indulging in a time-out to look, observe, sketch, and breathe is not denial of the state of the world around us, not by a long shot. It is how we restore ourselves, how we resolve to observe, carry on, and keep participating in this life. Sketching resurrects courage. Perspective is not just an aspect of art, it is an aspect of life.
Keep calm, carry on, and don’t forget the paper and pencil.