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.

Summer 2017 newsletter: Drawing on windows, making fish & more art-science tips

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Happy summer, dear readers!

I trust this finds you enjoying the weather and doing a bit of sketching. It’s hot in my corner of the Mountain West. I’m writing you from my basement – the only space where it is cool enough to think. But, happily, along with the heat comes garden season, complete with loads of the pollinators I so love to watch and draw. Speaking of which, this is my third year gardening at 7,200 feet above sea level, and it’s a garden in a new part of town.

On top of moving, there are other reasons why it was a busy spring. I successfullydefended my master’s thesis and started a new job. I published a blog series about using the internet to source images for SciComm. I’ve also been co-editing a blog featuring the wide range of career paths possible in SciComm. And, I did some traveling and teaching about art-science synergy, collaborate on communicating about migration, and more. Also,CommNatural is on Instagram now!

As a result of my transition to a new job and all this other busyness, I’m shifting this newsletter from monthly to quarterly. That will ensure I can still connect with you, and share ideas and field experiences, while also giving attention to this new work. Meanwhile, I’ll be posting material on the blog more frequently. I will reference some of it in the newsletter each quarter.

If you’d like to keep up as material is published, and don’t want to miss any of it, please subscribe to my blog. Just visit the website, scroll to the bottom, and provide your email address in the subscription bar! Thanks in advance for subscribing there.

As always, feel free to share* this newsletter with your  friends & colleagues. And do share your sketches & SciArt adventures with me via email or social media!

Happy sketching,

Summer 2017 Table of Contents

  • Insight: E.O. Wilson on drawing & creativity
  • Sketching tip: Drawing on windows
  • Artful Classrooms: Using resin sculptures and drawing to learn about cichlid (fish) phylogeny (genetic relationships)
  • Artful Science: A best-practices primer for using images
  • Sketchbook Snapshot: A mystery moth
  • News & Events: Upcoming science communication graduate course; field sketching workshops for the Wyoming Outdoor Council; recent publications, including a book featuring my illustrations of bighorn sheep; get your summer sketching kits while they’re still in stock
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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

Sketching Tip: Solvent Transfers

Reproducing or presenting an image in an artistic way can help you catch the attention of a wider or different-from-usual audience.

One such method is the packing tape sticker I mentioned in my October 2016 newsletter. If you want to create something more permanent, though, you might try solvent transfers.
Wintergreen transfer + watercolor pencils; Bethann Garramon Merkle/public domain clip art

I learned about this printmaking technique just last week, when my writing students, co-instructor, and I took a field trip to the University of Wyoming Art Museum’s studio classroom. Our field trip was part of an on-going multidisciplinary approach to “Communicating Across Topics in Energy” (the name of the course). See the Artful Classrooms section of the March 2017 newsletter for more information about how students are exploring the connection and communication potential of artworks and energy issues.

Most of the images you’ll see throughout my April 2017 newsletter were created using this technique.

Solvent transfers are fairly straight-forward, judging by the process we learned at the museum:

Continue reading Sketching Tip: Solvent Transfers

Sketchbook Snapshot: taking a closer look at winter vocabulary

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Though many a northerner might beg to differ with Robert Frost’s somewhat flippant statement – “You can’t get too much winter in the winter” – there is a truth to the poet’s words that became evident when I looked into winter vocabulary.

Wintry word origins

According to etymologyonline.com, the word winter likely derives from a combination of Proto-Germanic, Norse, Dutch, and Gaul words which meant “wet” or “white.” The word snow dates from circa 1300, shares linguistic roots with winter and was alternatively spelled “snew” until the 1700s. Continue reading Sketchbook Snapshot: taking a closer look at winter vocabulary