Online Nature Journal Class, Session #1

In February of 2020, I started an online nature journaling class through Cornell. [There will also be a separate page showing all of the classes in case you’d like to take the course yourself or maybe want to start nature journaling on your own.]

A sample of someone else’s nature journal as shown in the class.

Here are some of the notes I took from the first class:

  • Whether you’ve set out to document your travels or to celebrate your back woods, you’re carrying forward a centuries-old tradition of combining science and art to learn about the world.
  • You can submit your photos on iNaturalist!!
  • Research shows that it takes 66 days (10 weeks) to build a habit. So, stick with it! The more frequently, and longer you nature journal, the more natural it will feel.
  • Carrying your nature journal is like carrying your field journal – and carrying your memories of your outdoor explorations.
  • As distinctive as each page is— incorporating a basic structure for your entries that includes the date, time, place, and weather conditions is highly recommended.Start with a drawing, then add your notations.  Later look up the scientific name and whatever other information intrigues you.
  • Your style can and probably will change over time.  If the blank page is daunting to start with, make boxes on it that you can fill in. If color is daunting, start in black and white with pencil and waterproof pens.Break things down into geometric shapes first to help you draw and capture an impression of your subject.
  • Rather than doing a daily journal, or a trip journal, select one image for every day of the month and do a month of observations on one or two pages.
  • Sit for at least one hour focused on one thing…  Use several pages if you want to. 
My finalized drawing of the Warbler with notes

For the drawing of the Yellow Warbler I started my drawing in pencil, then added splashes of color then outlines things in black.  I noticed as I was doing this that I was “distracted” by nagging thoughts about shape and proportion, and I had to dismiss those in order to proceed with the image. As I was working, I was also distracted from the bird by the realization that there were LICHEN on the branch the bird was sitting on.  I’m really into lichen right now, so that detail pulled my focus for a while. I think the biggest thing I noticed as I was working was how the bird’s feet were wrapped around the branch.  I focused on its toes for a bit, and how the toenails were sooooo long.  When I’d finished with the drawing, I added a date and a few notes.

Q: What advantages do drawings have over photos?

Drawing forced me to break the image down into components.  I used the technique of creating the bird out of geometric shapes, and that really helped. I don’t think I got the proportions right, but I won’t beat myself up over that. 

The “advantage” to drawing is that it made me STOP and really LOOK at the bird: how its body was put together; what its eye color was; what the beak color and shape were; how its feet were holding the branch.  I also noticed more about the branch itself; the lichen on in; the gnarly wood; the leaf with the circle cut out of it (probably by a leaf-cutter bee)… I was more “present” with the bird and its surroundings.

If the nature journal is supposed to act, in part, as an assist to scientific understanding and knowledge of wildlife and their habitat, then noticing and capturing the “small stuff” (like the lichen) would be important.

It makes me wonder what sort of habitat the Yellow Warblers prefer to live in.  Will Climate Change affect them?  Do they interact at all with the lichen (for nesting, etc.)?  It makes me want to learn a lot more.

Q: What advantages do photos have over drawings?

The most obvious advantage to me is that a photo freeze-frames a particular moment in time, and you can take that image home with you and draw from it (rather than sitting out in the field)

Photos also have the advantage of keeping your subject absolutely still. Birds flit all over the place; trying to do a drawing of a moving subject would make me, as a beginner at nature journaling, absolutely crazy.

Another advantage: The light stays the same.  When you’re in the field, even a few minutes can completely change the way the light on your subject looks and acts.Thank you, Karlyn, for paying the tuition for this class for me so I could take it. I’m hoping that I’ll get comfortable enough with the process to help teach other naturalists, and maybe even host some nature journaling outings!

  • CLICK HERE for a PDF of my class notes on getting started
  • CLICK HERE for a PDF of my class notes on jumping right in