Sketching Tip: Using words for all they are worth

Hares sketched in East Africa – this was the best I ever could do, because they didn’t stick around long enough! (© B.G.Merkle, 2016)

Not all sketching plans go according to plan, and then words can play a critical role. 

In May 2016, I took a trip to East Africa, working on the first international phase of my ecology storybook project: “The Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare.” I did a lot of prep for my trip to East Africa. But of course, all kinds of situations arise which planning can’t anticipate.

In my case, half the animal duo I was looking for – hares – proved difficult to find and observe, let alone photograph or sketch. Where I was, these hares are most active at night. And, nighttime in East Africa is not a prime time for slinking about quietly with a sketchbook, hoping to spot a hare near a light source. After all, there are plenty of other animals, much larger and more dangerous, also slinking around in the night hoping to spot…dinner!

As a result, I resorted to writing. In my case, I will rely on notes hastily scribbled while hares were in view (or dashing off). For example, while I never managed to get a series of sketches of hares in motion, my notes remind me the hares in Kenya resemble foxes in both their posture and gait.

Capitalize on words to augment sketching. 

Particularly when intensive observation and sketching aren’t feasible, capturing your impressions on an audio recorder or in a notebook can help you bring that experience to life later. Here are a few ideas:

  • 3 words or phrases: After completing a sketch, augment it with three words or phrases that add information not captured in your drawing.
  • Fill-in-the-blank: I love the prompts from John Muir Laws and the other authors of the California Native Plant Society Field Journal Curriculum. When making sketches and observations, complete the phrases: “I noticed, I wondered, and It reminds me of…” I wrote a brief review of the CNPS curriculum in my April/May 2015 newsletter.
  • Questions: A key part of learning through drawing is making space in yourself for not knowing all the answers. Practice writing down your questions, and speculate about the answers. Or detail how you might go about finding the answer. Don’t stop at “what’s it’s name?” type questions. Push yourself to make connections.
  • Orienting information/metadata: Most research-based notes require that you include this information, and it’s a good practice for personal purposes, too. Basics include date, time, location, weather, and anything else that might help you interpret your observations.
  • Personal observation and reflection: Go ahead! Include your personal feelings, metaphors, and ideas. Write down the grocery list, if doing so will then free to you go back to observing lichen or birds, or whatever had caught your attention.

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