As pines move past our minivan windows, my brain sweeps the landscape. A thick line here. Pen strokes to depict branches. Curls and hash marks to fill in leaves and add shape and texture. A splash of yellow morning sunlight and cool blues for contrast. And there is an itch to grab a sketchbook.
I’ve spent decades framing scenery like a photographer, collecting wildflowers, animals and birds, and serene settings since my first clunky Instamatic at age 12. These days, everyone’s a photographer. Images zip across smartphones constantly, aided by filters, shared by social media, a fleeting glimpse of beauty and gone again.
I craved more: something more substantial, more tactile. Armed with how-to books and coveting an increasing supply of colored pencils, drawing pens and watercolor paint, I happily dabbled in my down time. Adding sketching to photography felt like supplementing drive-through dinners with slow-food feasts.
As 19th-century German botanist Julius von Sachs said once, “If you haven’t drawn it, you haven’t seen it.” The words started to make sense.
Ironically, the digital insta-world that has me craving something more satisfying and complex also makes it easier to learn to draw, to share progress, and to find others seeking to capture outdoor beauty on a blank white page.
Illustrator Roz Stendahl of Minneapolis has helped hundreds of wannabe artists since she began teaching journaling and visual journaling classes in the 1980s. She also is among a global group of online teachers with the virtual Sketchbook Skool, which has gained 16,000 Facebook members through classes and tutorials. Stendahl also fills her blog, Roz Wound Up, with art advice and inspiration and offers her own online workshops.
“Visual and written journaling allow you to be in the present moment,” she said, adding that the biggest trick is turning off your inner critic and letting creativity flow.
Ken and Roberta Avidor, longtime Twin Cities illustrators who recently moved to Indianapolis, also have been instrumental in building an interest in sketching. They launched a Twin Cities chapter of Urban Sketchers in 2009. The organization sparked by a global movement to share sketches via Flickr in 2007 and now has 98,000 Facebook followers and more than 300 for the Twin Cities chapter. Local members gather for events such as the annual Minnesota State Fair Sketch Out and sketch nights at the Bell Museum of Natural History.
Stendahl recalled when she was the lone artist at the museum, capturing the patterns of feathers, the texture of fur, the curve of noses and beaks on exhibit. The visits sparked a regular after-hours event about five years ago after a staffer asked her to teach an art class. Sketching nature there comes with an obvious advantage: Nothing moves or flies away.
“In the classic Bell, we had a strong, steady core of about 200 sketchers who would come at least a couple times a year,” said Jennifer Menken, the Bell’s Touch and See Room coordinator. Attendance averaged 35 sketchers a night, but it could be as high as 70 people. “I can’t remember a night when there weren’t at least a couple of new faces,” she added.
The Bell, which is closed until it reopens at a new and expanded location this summer, has continued to bring specimens and artifacts to St. Paul’s Wet Paint art supply store for nature sketch sessions on everything from seashells and bugs, to birds and crustaceans.
Menken said she expects that once the Bell reopens, more people will be drawn to Sketch Nights. There will be more to observe, with expanded exhibits; the return of the museum’s renowned dioramas painted by wildlife artist Francis Lee Jaques; a bigger emphasis on art throughout the museum (picture skeletal illustrations of hands and arms above drinking fountains); and scenic views of Gibbs Farm and the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
Like gatherings sparked by the adult coloring book craze and social painting groups, sketch outings bring people together to share technical tips, swap advice on the best art supplies, and celebrate their creative progress.
“Every drawing or watercolor is a new experience and experiment,” Roberta Avidor said.
She also advised keeping supplies simple and portable — and expectations reasonable.
“Don’t expect a masterpiece every time,” she said. “Just do it, and don’t give up.”
Art moves science forward
Inspiration can be anywhere, from a bird feeder and open field at sunset, to bookshop or library shelves with an uptick in art and how-to books.
Crack open the cover on Explorers’ Sketchbooks (Chronicle Books), and whales, icebergs, deserts and exotic plants mingle among its hefty 320 pages.
Published last year, it shows how journals stacked with sketches and observations played a pivotal role for scientists and explorers. They studied landscapes and traveled uncharted areas, recorded details and discoveries of plants, animals and other creatures and curiosities.
Excerpts include work from 70 explorers, including pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin, known for his theory of evolution; Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who created classifications for plants and animals; and Meriweather Lewis, who paired famously with William Clark on an expedition from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean.
Photography, video and computers significantly speed up modern research, but drawing can require more studious observation and attention to detail.
“It’s another way of looking more clearly at the world,” said Doug Wood, a Minnesota author and illustrator who drew inspiration from Jaques, who painted the Bell Museum dioramas and created illustrations for environmentalist Sigurd Olson’s books.
Wood said that with an artist’s eye you can observe a forest better than you can while hiking through it or paddling past. Instead of admiring the overall beauty of the trees or a spot of color with flowers or mushrooms, you have to pay attention to the angles of branches and pine needles, the texture and lines on bark, the pattern and curve of ferns, or the way sunlight dapples across water.
“It’s very meditative,” Wood said. “When I’m working on a drawing, I’m in a whole different speed.”
Stendahl summed up a common denominator among people who sketch: “You pay attention to what’s in front of you. You savor it more, and you remember it.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”
Inspirational books on drawing
Check out these classic books with technical advice, inspiration for drawing nature scenes, and using watercolors:
• The “Sierra Club Guide to Sketching in Nature” and the “Artist’s Journal Workshop: Creating Your Life in Words and Pictures” by Cathy Johnson.
• “Creating Textured Landscapes with Pen, Ink and Watercolor” and “Painting with Watercolor, Pen and Ink” by Claudia Nice.
• “Keeping a Nature Journal” by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth.
• “An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers” by Danny Gregory, and his follow-up, “An Illustrated Journey,” show off a variety of artists and their styles.
• “The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations” by Emily Zach is an homage to Potter’s unsung scientific expertise. In another new book: “Botanical Sketchbooks” by William and Helen Bynum, leaves, petals and roots unfurl through the pages.
• “The Art of Botanical and Bird Illustration” by Mindy Lighthipe inspires those who want to pick up a pen and brush, while “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws was so popular it quickly went into a second printing.
• If you struggle to find time or confidence, Gregory helps with “Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are.”