Intro to Nature Journaling
Get outside and draw with artist-naturalist John Muir Laws. (Plus GIVEAWAYS!)
Calling all Educators & Home Schoolers: DrawTogether Classrooms is kicking off the 2023 school year with a FREE Art Assembly on September 14 at 4pmPST/7pmEST. Join the DrawTogether Classrooms team and educators around the world to learn more about DrawTogether Classrooms resources. This extra special Back To School Art Assembly features a Q&A with the one and only Dr. Dena Simmons — founder of LiberatED, a collective focused on developing school-based resources at the intersection of social and emotional learning, justice, and healing. Register to join us on Sept 14th (Zoom). Now back to our regularly scheduled GUT.
In my experience, keeping a nature journal is one of the most powerful ways to fall in love with the natural world, and when we love something, we want to take care of it. - John Muir Laws
Hellooooo GUT fam!
It’s the long Labor Day weekend here in the USA. I hope it offers you a little extra down-time for rest, reflection and, of course, drawing. I’m hailing this week from stunning Santa Fe. Yes, I’m back again. I can’t seem to quit this place. I came here last week with my parents to celebrate their 50th (!) anniversary and am sticking around for a spell to look at art, be in nature, do some drawing, and dive into the deep end on an exciting but daunting long term project... Something that’s hard to focus on when there’s emails to answer and laundry to be done. A little open sky always helps me tap into big dreams, so here I am. Wish me luck.
Last week’s adventure into color with Lena Wolff was such a gift. GUT members, the color charts you’re creating and sharing in the chat are OFF THE HOOK. Such a huge wave of inspiration. All the unexpected ways you came up with to create palettes from your art supplies literally made me gasp. They are gorgeous AND a great foundation for future color explorations. I’ve included a few faves at the end of this dispatch for inspiration.
Lena will be back later this Fall with Part 2 of the GUT Color Series, so if you haven’t been able to make your palette yet, never fear. You have some time. No such thing as an art emergency.
This week we are lucky to have another magnificent visiting artist. It’s a bounty of brilliance on the GUT right now. I have a hunch some of you are familiar with this week’s visiting artist: the naturalist/artist John Muir Laws. We call him Jack.
GUT Visiting Artist: John Muir Laws (aka Jack)
Heard the term nature journaling? You can thank Jack in large part for that. He’s a leading voice in the worldwide nature journaling movement, founder of the Wild Wonder Foundation, and director of the annual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference. (I spoke there in 2022! Super fun crew.) Jack is a rare combination of scientist, educator, artist, and author. For over three decades he’s helped people forge a deeper connection with nature and science through keeping illustrated nature journals. In other words, he helps people paying attention to the natural world through drawing and writing - and an obvious choice for GUT Visiting Artist.
Fun fact: you may have heard that author Amy Tan has a book coming out about birding that she illustrated herself. It was Jack that inspired Amy to start nature journaling.
Another fun fact: like many artists (and likely a lot of us at the Grown-Ups Table), Jack’s brain works a little different than your typical human. He is dyslexic and struggled in school, but discovered his joy and gifts through spending time in nature and keeping notebooks of his observations, discoveries, and adventures.
Trained as a wildlife biologist and scientific illustrator, Jack is the author and illustrator of The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (also available in Spanish), The Laws Sketchbook, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, and The Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada. He is co-author with Emilie Lygren of How to Teach Nature Journaling.
Everything we do here on the GUT - drawing, looking, loving; paying attention to the world, outside and in through drawing; using drawing to connect with each other, ourselves and the world - is how Jack approaches nature.
In the foreword to Jack’s book on how to teach nature journaling, Amy Tan wrote “I think of nature drawing as a spiritual connection to nature, and nature journaling is a written testament of miracles in the wild. Each day, I wake with curiosity over what is happening in my yard. Each day holds discoveries that I write down….”
I hope this conversation with Jack and the assignment he offers the GUT inspires the same in us - that we get curious, grab our sketchbooks, head outside (even if it’s looking out our windows) and connect to nature in a whole new way.
Q&A with John Muir Laws (AKA Jack)
Wendy: You are a leading teacher, advocate and practitioner of nature journaling. Can you tell us what nature journaling is, and why you think getting outside and paying attention is important to us humans.
Jack: A world of infinite beauty and discovery waits just beyond the point where we usually stop paying attention. Nature journaling is the best tool I know of for helping us pay attention, and through that attention, we develop a deep personal connection with the natural world. It is a powerful practice that is appropriate for people of all ages, including (and maybe especially!) children.
When we nature journal, we sit in the presence of any natural object or phenomenon and transcribe onto paper everything that goes on in our minds and in our hearts. We use words, pictures, and numbers to explore our observations, questions, and connections. I like to think of a nature journal as your brain on paper.
Nature journaling is creative, rigorous, and playful, easy to begin and learn, and your practice can grow and mature over a lifetime. Keeping a nature journal is a learnable skill that can change our lives forever, opening doors to mindful attention, curiosity, wonder, beauty, connection, peace, and joy.
This powerful practice also helps us think and remember. We all keep grocery lists–we know that if we write it down, we are more likely to remember. The act of creating a journal page, no matter what it looks like, helps our brains better remember that moment. We know that Leonardo da Vinci was this really smart guy AND he also kept notebooks. I believe da Vinci was smart BECAUSE he kept notebooks. His genius was actually facilitated and made possible by the act of keeping those notebooks. Leonardo’s notebooks were a critical tool for his thinking and growth, and your notebook can also reflect your experiences and discoveries.
What does nature journaling look like? I might sit down in the shade next to a flower. I would draw it in my journal, add written notes about my observations, ask questions and wonder about things I have never noticed before, and see if this flower reminds me of anything in my past experience. I like to use three simple prompts–“I notice…”, “I wonder….”, and “it reminds me of….”--as guides to help me dig deeper into the experience.
In that moment, I am not worried about making a pretty picture or how my words are spelled. I am looking for opportunities to get curious, notice more, and connect more deeply with this flower in this place on this day.
Connecting more deeply with nature by keeping a nature journal brings us a sense of peace and it inspires us to protect this wonderful world around us.
Wendy: Can you talk a little about your notion of “sustained compassionate attention”?
Jack: In my experience, keeping a nature journal is one of the most powerful ways to fall in love with the natural world, and when we love something, we want to take care of it. My working definition of love is sustained, compassionate attention. When you pay attention to another, it changes your relationship with them, and it also changes you. That attention is also what forms and sustains our relationship with the natural world. Your attention is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to the world. It is a celebration. It is a song of connection. It is a prayer to the wonder of what is around us.
Wendy: What advice would you give a newcomer to nature journaling? How can we start?
Jack: To help you get started, I encourage you to leave behind the idea that a journal page has to look pretty or that your writing must be profound. Your journal is a tool that will help you connect with nature. That connection is our goal…not the journaling itself.
Go outside (if you can) or open your refrigerator or pull up a chair next to a houseplant, and choose something to journal. It could be a leaf, a flower, a squirrel, a banana, a bird, the clouds, or anything that catches your eye. Lean in, pay close attention, and notice the beauty and mysteries that you find. Describe these by any means necessary. If writing is easier for you, start there. If drawing is easier for you, your journal can be mostly drawing. If you like numbers and measuring or counting, this can be your entrance. As you develop your nature journaling skills, you will learn more strategies and techniques to help you get your experience onto the paper.
Your skills will grow with time and practice, but know that you have everything you need right now to begin.
One of the primary challenges that many new nature journalers face is that they are judgmental about how their pages look. If what they drew doesn’t match what they saw, they feel like they can’t engage in this practice. Many people believe that the ability to draw is a gift...and if you aren't already good at it, you can't get good at it. But it turns out that drawing is not a gift--it is a skill. You can learn to draw, and the only thing standing between you and the ability to draw better is practice. Believing you can improve with practice is part of a growth mindset. A pretty page is not the goal of nature journaling, but if you give yourself permission to make lots of pictures, your drawings will improve over time. As I like to say: You just have to put in the “pencil miles.”
Most importantly, we must always be kind to ourselves. So anytime you feel overwhelmed by acquiring new skills, just take a deep breath and give yourself permission to safely lean back on your existing skills and strategies. Begin where you are.
For those who’d like to learn more, this helpful page on the Wild Wonder Foundation website includes links to our new Quick Start Guide to Nature Journaling (a free PDF download), lists of local nature journaling clubs and mentors, and links to my books. This page also links to The Nature Journal Connection, a free 40-episode series of short videos I created to be a fun introductory course for folks age 8 and up, as well as my archive of hundreds of FREE drawing and nature journaling tutorials.
We are also hosting our fifth annual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference, online September 13-17, which offers classes and talks from more than 30 teachers, journalers, writers, artists, authors, and thought leaders in nature, nature journaling, nature writing, visual thinking, and conservation. If you’d like to dive in, it is a great nature journaling jump start.
Wendy: What are the basic materials you suggest people use?
Jack: You can start this practice with a pencil and paper. I like to use a bound journal as it helps me collect more thoughts and ideas side by side, and it gives my brain a place to develop this practice. I can also flip through old journals and see my growth, which inspires me to continue.
Some people do all of their work with a pen or pencil. Others like to add in a splash of color with a small set of colored pencils. Some people like to work with watercolor. All of these approaches are good, but you do not need to master a new medium to begin your own nature journal.
I have a list of suggested supplies on my website, but none of these is required to begin.
Jack is giving us our assignment this week! If it’s an excuse to go outside, awesome. But like he said above, we can nature journal from anywhere. Jack, take it away:
Jack: For the GUT drawing assignment this week, I’d like to invite you all to try creating a “joint comparison”…