Category Archives: Art and Nature

Online Nature Journal Class,Session #3

As I’ve mentioned before, 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.]

Here are my notes from today’s class.

Science is a process of making observations while seeking to understand and attempting to explain what you observe. Just as in science, making observations is at the very core of nature journaling. An observation is any information you gather using your senses. Have fun and get creative exploring all the different types of observations you can make… You can challenge yourself to think like a scientist and explore scientific themes that can help you focus your observations and explanations. These themes include observing scale and quantity, looking for patterns, thinking about how form relates to function, exploring natural systems, and noticing change.

Nature journaling is your own creative form of data gathering. Through focused observation, you open up new ways of learning from your outdoor experiences.

In this lesson you’ll be…

  • Expanding your powers of observation.
  • Discovering the benefits of practicing the sit spot technique.
  • Experimenting with a variety of ingredients for making your journal pages come alive.
  • Designing a comparison study to identify and record patterns, connections, and relationships in the natural world.

Opening Your Senses

Slowing down, sitting quietly and observing nature with all your senses can be an awe-inspiring experience. Find a spot where you can sit comfortably for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Settle in and try not to make a sound. Open your senses and start to take in the world around you.

First, close your eyes and just listen.  Then open your eyes and look around you.  After several minutes you’ll notice that the creatures in the area grow more accustomed to your still presence and will resume their natural everyday habits.  Record what you observe in your journal.

A Sense of Awe

Making observations is at the core of nature journaling. Taking time to carefully observe allows you to notice and appreciate so much more. It’s also a practice that can help you experience a sense of awe more regularly.  Recent research says experiencing awe is good for you—and so much of nature is awesome. Among other benefits, you might feel happier and more connected to others. It can even sharpen your brain and help you think more clearly.

  1. Find a location to try a sit spot. You don’t have to go far. It could be in your yard. Sit quietly for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Do you notice birds or other animals returning after a period of time? Do they return at different intervals? Which comes back first?
  3. Open your journal and set up your page with your name, date, time, place, and weather notations.
  4. Start recording your observations, use as many of your senses as possible and play with including some measurements.

My first focused observation:

I was more focused on observing and taking notes than drawing, so my drawing for today isn’t very detailed.

I had just filled the birdfeeder outside my bedroom window, and watched the birds and squirrels that came to it.  I drew the Chinese Privet tree and the feeder, but also used my cellphone camera to get some images.

I saw White-Crowned Sparrows, Mourning Doves, a California Scrub Jay, House Finches, House Sparrows and an Oak Titmouse. 

I could hear the squirrels running across the roof, to and from the feeders. When the squirrels were around, the birds stayed back from the feeders but didn’t fly away.

I could hear the sparrows “chirp” at each other, and heard the male Mourning Dove cooing to the female as he followed closely after her along the ground. She didn’t seem interested in him and kept avoiding his attentions by scurrying away. I could hear the wind whistling through the doves’ tail feathers when they flew in and flew out.

The White-Crowned Sparrows were more interested in the suet blocks than the seeds in the feeder, and the doves ate the seeds that fell onto the ground. Some of the White-Crowns ate seeds off the ground, too; they kept looking up and around them every few seconds as they fed. Keeping an eye out for other birds and predators?  Some of the White-Crowns also flit up onto the window sill to peck up the seeds there.  They’d look up into the window as they fed.

Didn’t observe long enough to see “intervals” of movement; but I’m looking forward to doing more observations outside at more remote locations.

There was also a young Eastern Fox Squirrel who couldn’t quite figure out how to get the seeds in the feeder, and an adult Western Gray Squirrel who was adept at stealing the seeds.  That squirrel also went over to the hummingbird feeder and tipped it just enough to get the nectar inside to dribble out, and he drank from the feeder!  Ingenious.  [[A “sense of awe” moment, for sure.]]

Western Gray Squirrel drinking from hummingbird feeder

Noticing Themes in Nature

Nature journaling is a thought process—one that builds on itself to generate a deeper understanding of what you’re observing. When you use your observations as a springboard to develop possible explanations, it will inspire more curiosity and more appreciation. As a way to help fuel your own curiosity cycle, start noticing scientific themes and incorporating them in your journal.

  • Scale and Quantity: How big or small? How many are there? What is most common or rare? Noticing the scale or quantity of something can lead to further investigations.
  • Patterns: Patterns are the regular and repeated ways in which something occurs. They may involve appearance, sound, structure, or even behavior. [pattern of a fawn’s spots]
  • Form and Function: This is a “big idea” in biology. Basically, it is that the shape of something is closely related to, and therefore a clue to, its function.
  • Systems and Energy Flow: Systems involve parts working together, and fail when critical components are missing. For example, ecosystems have many different members playing different roles: producers, consumers, and decomposers. Materials and energy flow through this system. Think about where your subject fits into its system.
  • Noticing Change: Living things and ecosystems change constantly. Explore the scope, timespan, and causes of the changes you observe.

My friend Roxanne and I are always trying to learn from what we see and ask ourselves questions about forms and functions.  I’ve been focusing a lot on lichen lately, and have begun to observe the different ways the lichen reproduce.  Some use apothecia through which they produce and release spores, some use soredia (crumbly-looking bundles of algae and fungus cells that they shed – which then go on to form another lichen), some use isidia (structures that look like eyelashes on the edges of the lichen)… and some use a combination of those structures. I used to think of lichen as fairly “commonplace” somewhat “simple” structures, but observation has shown me how complex and varied they are.  I’ve been using a macro attachment for my cellphone to observe some of the deeper details and structures of lichen.  Here’s an example of what Bark Rim Lichen, Lecanora chlarotera looks like to the naked eye and to the macro attachment:

Without close observation, you miss all the details.

The Power of Comparison

Drawing and recording observations about two similar subjects side-by-side on a page provides a simple way to focus your observations and get more from a journaling session. Through focused comparison it’s often easier to discover new patterns, connections, and relationships.

  1. Head outside with your journal and choose two similar subjects—perhaps flowers, tree branches, or rocks—and complete a comparison study.
  2. Try different ways of recording your observations by exploring drawings, words, numbers, and/or diagrams.
  3. Through your study did you notice anything of interest involving patterns, form following function, change, scale or quantity, or systems?
  4. What questions come to mind about your subjects from this study?

I did my comparison study on the feet of American Coots and Mallard ducks.  Coots have lobed toes and very sharp toenails; Mallards have webbed feet and somewhat flat toenails.  Coots legs and feet are a mix of blue gray, green, and yellow; Mallard feet and legs are various shades of orange and umber.  The toe formation, webbing variance and different colors made me wonder why the birds were put together like that.

The Coots are more or less confined to marsh lands.  Their lobed toes give them traction in the water when they’re swimming, but the separation between the toes also allows for more flexibility on land and walking through and over matts of marsh plants.  The Coots also use their feet in dominance battles. I would assume that the light color of their legs and feet make it less likely that predators under the water could see them, and might mistake them for wafting plant fronts.  On land, they WALK rather than WADDLE.

I know that Mallards are the ancestors of all of the domestic duck (except the Muscovy) and they can thrive in a variety of habitats.  Although they nest on ground, they spend a lot of time in the water feeding and displaying to one another. On land, the ducks WADDLE rather than WALK. Obviously, their webbed feet make it easier to maneuver in the water while still allowing them to travel on land.  The orange color, though, is suddenly interesting to me.  Why such a bright and obvious color on their feet? 

I did a little more research on them and discovered that the color of their feet can vary depending on their age and hormone levels. The feet turn bright orange in the breeding season, signaling to others that they’re old enough and healthy enough to breed.

CLICK HERE for the PDF of my notes from today’s session.

Online Nature Journal Class, Session #2

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.]

This is an image from the lesson itself.

This session focused on different marking techniques, and how to depict light and shadow.

  • Keeping your lines short and sketchy for more accurate drawings.
  • Varying your strokes to capture shapes, textures, and dimension.
  • Understanding light to capture three dimensions on a two dimensional page.

“Every artist was first an amateur.”

Creating Texture:  You can creature texture on an object using a variety of techniques:

  • Hatching: all the shading lines go in the same direction
  • Contour Hatching: all the shading lines go in the same direction but also follow the contour of the object.
  • Cross Hatching: shading line cross one another (like “###”)
  • Stippling: shading with tiny dots
  • Scribbling: literally scribble in the shaded area
  • Blending: can use any of the above and then blend/smudge the lines with your finger tip or a “blending stump” [available from Amazon.com] The softer the lead in your pencil (B or 2B),the more easily you can blend it

Here are my drawings from this lesson.

Practicing drawing in a single line versus short sketchy lines, and trying different shading/texture techniques.
Here I tried different techniques just drawing the apothecia of a species of lichen.

I used to do all kinds of “pointillism” (stippling) drawings, so I’m familiar with that one, but that takes a LOT of time and concentration, so I can’t see doing that in the field.  And for blending, I need a much softer lead in my pencil. So, I ordered some 2B lead and some blending stumps from Amazon.com

I tried different techniques with simple shapes, like the apothecia on lichen.  I liked using the pencil more than the pen for most of the techniques.

The class suggested creating a “value scale” (light to dark) to use as a guide before you start drawing, but I didn’t think that was helpful at all.  I didn’t know what technique(s) I was going to use until I started drawing, and I tended to mix several of them, so a single value scale in a single style was pretty much worthless (for me anyway).

With any three dimensional object you see, be it a plant or animal, light and shadow fall across that object, and that’s how you see that it’s three dimensional. This brings me to our topic for this lesson, Chiaroscuro. [KEE-ar-oh-SKOOR-oh] The word Chiaroscuro comes from the Italian words for light and dark. It’s a term to describe the way light and shadow fall across an object.

Q. After trying some of your new drawing skills, was it easy to see where and how each could be applied? Are you starting to feel more comfortable putting marks on the page? Which do you still want to work on?

I am feeling a bit more confident about laying down shapes and doing shading, but I know I’ll need more work to get comfortable with it in the field.  I need more work with fur and feather’s too as they seem daunting.  Drawing things likes eggs and lichen seem easy in comparison.

It’s easier seeing the differentiation of shadows when looking at black-and-white images (rather than color images), and when outdoors the light will change a lot from one moment to the next, so catching the shadows may prove even more difficult in the field.

CLICK HERE for my class notes on Making Your Mark.

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

I Have Started an Eventbrite Account, 12-30-19

I have set up an account with Eventbrite through which I’ll post the upcoming events I’m going to and/or will be hosting. The majority of the events will be for adults only, focused on seniors, and free of charge.

Go to : https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tuesday-nature-walk-at-effie-yeaw-tickets-87743620531 to start with, and then click the FOLLOW button and sign up to get updates as new outings are planned.

Working on Piñatas: The “Any Bird”

In the summer of 2018 I’ll be teaching several adults-only workshops on making and decorating tabletop piñatas.  The first four classes are called “Monumental Piñatas” events (because they’re based on creatures and plants found in the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument), and the last two classes art called “Art/Nature Fusion” events. All of the classes are two-day workshops (on two consecutive Saturdays) during which I teach participants how to build their own piñatas “from the balloons up”, and then teach them how to decorate them.

I’m volunteering my time for these workshops, and all of the proceeds from the ticket sales will go to support Tuleyome’s Certified California Naturalist program.

Before the classes start, however, I needed to create the sample piñatas to use for advertising purposes. What you see here is the “Any Bird” sample piece.  The “Any Bird” piñata form is a very generic one, and it allows participants in the workshop to decorate it to make it look like any kind of native, nonnative, or imaginary bird they want. I based this sample on the male Western Bluebird.

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Just about everything about the piñata is made of recyclable, biodegradable materials. The form is made of recycled newsprint paper, flour, salt and water and is built up around balloons (which are popped and properly disposed of once the form dries).  The exterior is decorated with tissue paper, light poster board, art paper, construction paper, and water-soluble glue.

The bluebird’s feathers are made of tissue paper and created using two different techniques: flat scale feathers and “fringe edge” feathers. The eyes are surrounded by an eyelid made by twisting two different colors of tissue paper together.  The wings and tail are made of poster board and covered with varying layers of tissue.  Te bird’s bowtie is made of construction paper and turquoise glitter.

Like all of the piñatas I create, the Any Bird doesn’t need to be smashed to get to the goodies inside of it.  Instead, the head of the bird  can be removed in order to fill its body up and empty it out again.

If you would like me to do a workshop for your nonprofit, business or group, please contact me at thechubbywoman@gmail.com

Working on Piñatas: “Evergreen Santa”

In the summer of 2018 I’ll be teaching several adults-only workshops on making and decorating tabletop piñatas.  The first four classes are called “Monumental Piñatas” events (because they’re based on creatures and plants found in the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument), and the last two classes art called “Art/Nature Fusion” events. All of the classes are two-day workshops (on two consecutive Saturdays) during which I teach participants how to build their own piñatas “from the balloons up”, and then teach them how to decorate them.

I’m volunteering my time for these workshops, and all of the proceeds from the ticket sales will go to support Tuleyome’s Certified California Naturalist program.

Before the classes start, however, I needed to create the sample piñatas to use for advertising purposes.  What you see in this post is my “Evergreen Santa” sample piece.

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Just about everything about the piñata is made of recyclable, biodegradable materials. The form is made of recycled newsprint paper, flour, salt and water and is built up around balloons (which are popped and properly disposed of once the form dries).  The exterior is decorated with tissue paper, light poster board, art paper, construction paper, and water-soluble glue.

Santa’s boots and pants were done in a flat-application technique where the tissue paper is glued flat onto the piñata form in strips.  That technique allows for quick coverage of an area, and can be layered to give it less translucency if required.

The jacket and faux fur was done in the layering technique I use for most of my own piñatas. I tried several different kinds of evergreen plant leaves and needles, and although it’s kind of a cliche, I settle on using holly leaves. That choice also allowed me to give the Santa holly leaf buttons and cufflinks which I liked.

The hair and beard were made of regular 20# white copy paper.  I chose that paper and weight because it’s relatively easy to curl (running the paper strips along the edge of the blade of a pair of scissors, like curling ribbon) and it’s light enough to cut somewhat intricate patterns.  All of the curls were glued into place first, and then the cutout layers of the beard and mustache were added last.

Final touches included a stocking cap made of tissue paper, and accents of “icicle” glitter and a sprig of mistletoe (made of cardboard, tissue paper, and faux pearls.)

Like all of the piñatas I create, the Evergreen Santa doesn’t need to be smashed to get to the goodies inside of it.  Instead, the hat on the top of the piñata can be removed to fill it up and empty it out.

If you would like me to do a workshop for your nonprofit, business or group, please contact me at thechubbywoman@gmail.com