Keeping a Visual Nature Journal

The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist.  The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration.  Exploration leads to accomplishment.  All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.”  ~ Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way)

I wish I could draw.  This is what most people tell me when they avoid putting pencil to paper.  My answer?  You can, but your expectations are in the way.  Too often we focus on the product – what we want to create.  Our culture values the end result: the finished item, the goal reached, the happy ending.  Think instead, about the process of drawing.  A few pencil marks can reflect an observation and a connection.  For me, the process of keeping a visual journal is a pathway.  Every time I sketch something, I create a new connection to nature; I get to know my subject on an intimate level, I ask questions, I reflect, I explore.

My first journals were like written notes to myself – about what I planted and where, about the butterflies that visited my nectar and larval plants, and the birds I saw in my yard.  When I visited parks or hiked in the woods, I’d write down the plants I was able to identify, and what flowers were blooming.  Then I started to add small sketches and photos, maps, and pressed leaves.  I also kept a separate sketchbook for ideas, studies, and color mixes, because I painted in watercolors. 

 At some point, my separate books blended into a nature journal composed mainly of artwork, with notes and observations added as the mood struck me.  My subject matter varies – one day it might be a flowering shrub, the next day a snail shell.  I particularly enjoy drawing our native plants and wildlife, and observing them through the seasons.  I find it helpful to add the date, weather, and temperature information, sometimes incorporating it into my art.  Other artists’ works have inspired me to add calligraphy and poetry to my images occasionally.

Here’s what I’ve discovered that makes these journals valuable to me:  my drawing skills have sharpened, especially when I draw on a weekly basis.  My observation skills are much better.  I find myself specifically looking at details in order to capture them on the fly or to write them down after my sketches.  My knowledge base has become more dimensional.  I don’t know exactly how to explain this statement, but not only have I learned more, my emotional connection to nature has become more specific.  I also have a deeper sense of how individual parts fit into the whole.

On the practical side, to keep a journal is simply to record information and/or explore inner thoughts.  Some people like to keep two journals, one with and one without images.  Some (like me) combine media.  Journals can be as organized or as creatively arranged as desired.  Think about how you might want to use the information in the future, or how you might organize the material for future reference.  My journals tend to be time-based, like a diary, but I’ve been considering journals based on a theme: perhaps by season, by location, or by habitat. 

I like to incorporate other disciplines and different art techniques in my journal.  I’ve always loved the written word, and have been inspired to write my own Haiku poetry.  Historical connections add meaning and sometimes explain present day circumstances.  Photos and maps can be added easily.  Leaf and bark rubbings, leaf prints, or pressed flowers make interesting additions.  Sometimes math enters the picture in the form of distances, patterns, and dimensions.  Many plant lovers are familiar with the Fibonacci sequence, which manifests in the spiral patterns of pinecones, pineapples, and sunflower heads.

I’d like to encourage you to keep a visual journal as your personal journey of exploration.  It might start with simple drawings of your garden or hiking adventures, with photos and descriptive words.  It might be a chronicle of the wildlife that visits your backyard.  It might be reflective of your day-to-day explorations. 

Remember to keep in mind the process, and not get over-involved with the outcome of each page.  As you practice, you’ll find your skills improving in every area.  Don’t be discouraged if you start and then stop.  When you’re ready, you’ll pick up your journal again and the words and pictures will flow onto the page.  This is your exploration of the beauty of life around you!

Themes for journals:
Specific groups:  wildlife, medicinal or edible plants, flowers, butterflies
Location: your own backyard or garden, park or preserve, your town, your state
Habitat: the beach, swamp, scrub, pine flatwoods, tropical hammock
Event: vacation trips, family get-togethers, holidays
Time: day-to-day diary, seasonal changes, historical events

Books that may be helpful to you:

How to Keep a Sketchbook Journal” by Claudia Nice.
She explores types of journals, the whys and wherefores, themes, and gives examples of entries.  There is also a chapter on materials and one on drawing basics.  Many of her subject are outdoors themes.  Her specialty is pen and watercolor, and she gives some nice basics on drawing and how to create textures.

“Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You” by Claire Walker Leslie and Charles Roth. 
The authors explore the value of nature journaling, giving examples of different styles, ideas for themes, basic equipment, drawing basics, ending with chapters on teaching and sharing nature journaling, including a suggested scale for assessing journals.  A great tool for educators or home-schoolers.

The “Watercolourist’s Nature Journal” by Jill Bays. 
If you are interested in using watercolor paints, this is a nice book to browse.  The author assumes you have some basic watercolor skills, and briefly discusses materials and procedures at the beginning, adding other materials and techniques throughout the book.

And a website with lots to explore about nature journals.
Donna Long uses photographs in her journals, and she has some great suggestions for inspiration.

Elizabeth Smith


Ginny Stibolt said…
Beautiful and inspiring, Elizabeth. Thank you for letting us peek into your journal.
Elizabeth said…
Thanks so much Ginny! And thank you Sue and FNPS for having me as a guest blogger. If you'd like to look at other nature journals, Sketching in Nature has contributors from all over the world.

And another book has just come out, although it is not nature related it does have nature artists featured: "Artist's Journal Workshop: Creating Your Life in Words and Pictures"

You can also see my native plant set of sketches on Flickr at

And tommorrow (7-23-11) is a great day to start sketching for fun, it's the 32nd Worldwide SketchCrawl! Enthusiasts all over the world will grab paper and pencil (or other fun media) to draw the world around them. If you are in the Naples area, please feel free to join us at the Collier County Museum from 9 amm to 12 noon!
A very timely message and the quote is perfect right now.
Congratulations on a wonderful blog post.
Elizabeth Smith said…
Thank you Vicki! I've always loved that quote. If we were 5 or 6 years old, we would be bold and create for the sheer joy of it, wouldn't we?
Anonymous said…
Lovely post. I wasn't familiar with the term drip tip, I like that.
Elizabeth Smith said…
Thank you! A friend taught me that term, and now I recognize it when I see it.
Anonymous said…

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