Keeping a journal or sketchbook to document the things you find and see in nature is such an enjoyable hobby but also a gateway to lots of scientific discoveries. Maybe you have always wanted to try Nature Study yourself or with your kids but never found a way to get started.
I’m going to show you how we simplify Nature Study to keep it fun and doable. You can make it more complicated or sophisticated later on if you wish. In fact, this is what I do with a lot of things I want to learn or try out. First I make it really easy for myself to begin and then, once I have my first small successes, I can add more difficult or extra steps to the process.
Here is my easy 3 step process of starting a nature journal:
Step 1: Grab Your Supplies
In the beginning all you need is a journal and a pencil. You could even take a lined copy and a pen if that’s all you got at home.
In fact, it can take away the fear of messing up a nice journal if you don’t even try to make it look pretty.
Many years ago, when we travelled through New Zealand, I only had a lined journal for writing with me. One day I came across “The Creative License” by Danny Gregory and I wanted to start drawing again. I didn’t need any extra luggage, so I just started drawing with my cheap pen into the lined journal and was surprised how interesting it looked.
Anyway, take whatever you have at hand to begin and later you can get yourself something fancier if you want.
Step 2: Draw in Your Nature Journal
Go outside, look around and choose something that catches your interest. In the beginning wildflowers, trees or garden flowers are good objects because they don’t run away. Leaves and twigs with berries are interesting too. Or some slow moving animals. Once we found a big colourful slug and brought it inside, another time we observed a bumble bee closely on a flower.
On warm, sunny days I love to draw outside, sitting on a garden chair, blanket or little cushion. Other days we might bring our species inside and sit around the kitchen table.
Observe your object for a while and then start drawing.
Always remember that the goal here is not to create a beautiful piece of art but to learn something new about nature.
We want to find out more about this object by looking closely and slowing down. Drawing is perfect for that.
There are two helpful ways to approach your drawing. Either look at the outline of your object and follow it slowly with your eyes while drawing the line at the same time. Or you can capture the rough shapes of your object first by drawing light circles or ovals where petals or leaves go (or heads and bodies, depending on what you draw) and then go over it to work out the more detailed shapes.
While you are drawing you might have some questions or observations that you want to jot down next to your drawing.
Once you are finished, you could leave it as a pencil drawing or add some colour. Watercolours and/or coloured pencils are our favourite art supplies for Nature Study.
Step 3: Identify your species
Your final step is to get out a local field guide or an identification app on your phone and find out the name of your nature object. I often write it down in both English and German because we are a bilingual family, and also in Latin because it’s the universal scientific name. And it’s quite fancy too. 🙂
Over time you can acquire different local field guides if you want. It’s always good to have a book on birds and wildflowers in your area. And of course there is the wonderful Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock published in 1911. I can highly recommend it even though it’s focused on the American Flora and Fauna while we live in Ireland. I still get a lot of useful and interesting information from this book.
The best thing about Nature Journalling is that it heightens your awareness for the species that you studied but also for nature in general. You are going to see the same wildflowers again in other places and it’s like seeing an old friend. Learning about a plant or an insect can also open up questions about their habitat or way of living and surviving, or you might find other species that are similar but not quite the same. What’s the difference? Why are they here in this spot?
Nature Study can lead down many interesting rabbit holes.
I also want to add that I never made my children do Nature Study. I started by trying it myself and invited them to join me. Sometimes one or two of them draw with me and sometimes I paint on my own.
We all like to bring our nature journals along on hikes and day trips, and usually fit in a sketch after our picnic.
It’s a lovely past time in so many ways. I hope you give it a go.