Inspiration: Natural history resources and examples to jump-start and inspire you, your students, and your friends

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There’s a lot of SciArt out there, as you can see by this Google Image search for the term “#sciart”.

A few weeks ago, a friend wrote and asked me: “What natural history illustrators/artist-scientists would you want to use to inspire youth/adults to love nature, art, and science?”

Oh, was I excited to answer the question!
Here are a handful of the natural history SciArtists I recommended:

And, here are a couple of books that can get you rolling with even more ideas  & inspiring SciArtists:

  • Field Notes on Science and Nature -essays with field note examples from about 10 different people who do field work and use field journals/notebooks.
  • The Heyday of Natural History – great investigation of how the pursuit of natural history became a popular past time and then developed into specialized science
  • I want to read this one: Of Green Leaf, Bird, and Flower: Artists’ Books and the Natural World.

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.

Artful Science: Learning by drawing

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Work in progress: illustration of a Wyoming toad (© B.G. Merkle, 2017)
One of my favorite things about being an artist is getting to learn about other people’s science.

For example, in the past couple of years, I’ve learned:

  • about traditional ecological knowledge relating to caribou genetics (link)
  • several fish species build nests (link; my take)
  • citizen science is helping Wyoming biologists track amphibian populations (link)
  • bees have germs, and these germs can be studied (link)
  • dogs are a big concern when trying to reintroduce bighorn sheep near cities in the Southwest (link)
  • you can make pants for frogs (link; my take)
  • there are many different ways to measure biodiversity (link)

It’s been pretty neat to learn about all these things, and I’m excited to think there’s no telling what I’ll learn about next!

Sketching Tip: Sketching your notes at conferences, meetings & in class

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Notes from a training I did in preparation to volunteer for an amphibian monitoring citizen science project in Wyoming.

These tips are excerpted from an earlier article I wrote highlighting many ways that sketchnotes are being used by scientists. The following tips, though, are broadly applicable for many kinds of note-taking situations. Continue reading Sketching Tip: Sketching your notes at conferences, meetings & in class

Sketchbook Snapshot: Mystery Moth

One foggy morning, I found this moth on the back steps of the cabin where I stayed in June (at the UW Research Station in Grand Teton National Park).

I spent a fair bit of time with this one, like I do with nearly every moth I can get my hands on.

I sketched it from a couple of angles (right to left on the page). Each time, I aimed for increased precision with how I recorded the markings on both front and hind wings. I figured the placement of the spots and bars would be key for identifying it.

When I looked through the insect ID guides in the research station library, I could only find one on moths: Moths of Western North America by Jerry A. Powell and Paul A. Opler. It’s approximately 500 pages, a hardcover reference, not a field guide. There are 65 pages of color photos (roughly 25% of “each family, subfamily, and larger genus” are depicted). Using only those images, I couldn’t figure out what the moth was. The closest I could get was something in the family Noctuidae. Continue reading Sketchbook Snapshot: Mystery Moth