This coming academic year, I’m going to be teaching our intro to research course to the Environmental Science major. I asked a few students what they wanted to see in that course, and was surprised to learn that they wanted more instruction in graphic design and field sketching techniques! It just so happens that I have a bit of background in this (I came about as close to being an art major in college as I did to being a math major…).

Because I wanted to pick some of that background back up, I decided last year to take the Natural History Illustration 101 online course offered through EdX by the University of Newcastle in Australia. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish the course last year, so I’m retaking it now. Now, though, I feel like I have a new reason to take it, since my students want some pointers on the material I’m learning. Here are a couple from the first week of class.

First up, a few useful links that I found in the course:

  • Outlines, edges, shading: This is a great video showing some basic techniques to create forms from 2D shapes. What I really like is the emphasis on how to hold a pencil, move your hand/arm, etc. There’s a certain amount of muscle memory involved in drawing. Paul Priestley, the author, seems to have a pretty good series.
  • How to shade basic forms: Specifics of how to shade spheres, cubes, etc. A bit cookbook-y, but these forms are the basis of most objects, so it’s worth investigating them. There are also some ideas about different shading techniques in a different video.

Second, something I noticed from working through the first week’s coursework: you need to actually do the drawing to get better at it, but you also need to have someone else critique it (and you need to learn to critique it yourself). It’s kind of like working on physics problems. I don’t think you can learn physics just by reading the book: you need to work through the problems. So too with drawing. But opening yourself up to constructive criticism is just as important. That way you learn how to become more effective at creating something closer to the image you want to create.

Third: get yourself some good pencils and a sketchbook! Just the feeling of using a good pencil makes me happy. I use Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils (the blue ones). Get a range of hardnesses – the letters refer to how hard or soft the graphite is, and so how easy or hard it is to make a mark. Mine range from H (somewhat hard) to 4B (very soft); the hardness really matters. I like to make light marks with the hard pencil to help me plan where I want to draw; I then make lines and shade with the softer pencils. I also have a kneaded eraser and a hard rubber eraser and a good, solid pencil sharpener. Practice with pencils for a while before using pen, which is a bit less forgiving. In the field, I make sketches using an ultrafine Sharpie on Rite-in-the-Rain paper, but I often wish I could bring my pencil kit.

Not from the course, but also useful: I got a copy of How to Draw What You See by Rudy de Reyna from the library a couple of weeks ago. It has some pretty good exercises that bridge the gap between those fundamental videos and the more applied material in a course like the one I’m taking. I also picked up a copy of The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, which I found inspiring but a bit hard to work through at my skill level… I put it down until later. But I still recommend it.

So: in the spirit of sharing what I did, some drawings…

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