UPDATE: Our winner is Lochlanina of Pieceful Slumber
Guest Blogger Doug Jones reviews for us this lovely book by frequent Rant commenter Susan Tomlinson
"Why is it so important that I
draw?” I asked after looking through the table of contents of How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook and
realizing that author Susan Leigh Tomlinson devotes about one half of the pages
to teaching drawing.
Initially browsing and skimming this attractive book, I liked very much what I read. For example, while Tomlinson downplays the
importance of gear, the advice she does offer is good: "Cheap binoculars are better than none
at all." I was also happy to notice
that she includes a copy of the Beaufort
scale, which is used to quantify wind speed by observing movement of leaves and
Although I've spent as much
time as possible in outdoor activities — fishing, camping, kayaking, hiking,
gardening — my previous attempts at keeping journals and notebooks had yielded
mixed results, and this book seemed a promising aid to jump-starting new
efforts. But still the question
remained: "Why is it important that
Tomlinson answers the question to my
satisfaction by asserting that the act of sketching plants and animals forces
us to slow down and study details, to really see as opposed to looking. This sounded good because my natural
inclination is to see the outdoors with wide-angle eyes. Wide angle is fine, but I would benefit by
shifting more often to telephoto to direct my attention to one detail, or to
macro to view the detail up close. In gardening, my tendency translates
to favoring overall design as opposed to appreciating the detail of a single
The author is a professor at Texas
Tech University and like any good teacher, she has learned from her students.
From her experience teaching drawing skills to enhance students'
abilities to focus on details in nature, she has noticed common obstacles. Students often have problems drawing wild flowers,
for example, because flowers “are so familiar to us that we forget to look at
them. Most people have in their heads a symbol of a flower (most often it is a daisy) and when they sit down
to draw they have a tough time drawing anything but that."
OK then, now she has sold me on the desirability of slowing down to study
details and on drawing as a method to achieve this, but what if I have little
or no talent? Tomlinson says she hears this
all the time from students and confidently responds that she can teach anyone
to sketch a reasonable facsimile of what they see. The book presents a series of simple
exercises towards this end. I
picture her rapping a ruler on a desk while scolding students on the importance
of practicing these exercises. So here I
am, a man who hasn't drawn since elementary school, half a century ago, and
even then I wasn't very good (except P-38 fighter planes and 1957 Chevrolets). Here
I am practicing drawing circles, triangles, and other shapes according to the
Drawing exercises aside, How to Keep a
Naturalist’s Notebook has much to say about relating to our natural environment.
Tomlinson argues that it’s important to learn the names of plants and
animals and illustrates this by making a comparison to our social relationships
with other humans. She notes that "something is missing from our
relationships if we don't know each other’s names. When a nameless person
has baked me cookies, she's just an acquaintance, albeit a nice one. But
when the cookie lady is Nancy, the relationship becomes one of
friendship." She believes that it
is beneficial to learn both the common and the scientific names for plants and
animals and offers suggestions for correctly pronouncing the latter.
Getting in touch with our natural
surroundings involves using senses other than vision. Tomlinson’s emphasis on drawing is
understandable since we can sketch what we see. On the other hand, what we
hear, smell, and touch while outdoors cannot be as easily recorded directly in
a journal. The author helpfully provides
guidance in using words to describe what we hear, smell, and feel without using
I very much liked How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook and
feel I have benefited from reading it.
Now I’ll have to move beyond drawing circles and triangles to attempting
birds and squirrels.
WIN A COPY
To enter, tell us in a comment about your own experiences with drawing or observing nature. The winner will be randomly chosen tomorrow night (3/16, 8 p.m. EDT).