Drawing for Science

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…


Geology as Quilts

Sometimes you make the darndest connections on Twitter. Like a few weeks ago, when Nadine Gabriel tweeted this:

Here is a tweet from a geologist halfway around the world about an art exhibit less than an hour from me. That’s a fun connection. But also: how often do you get to see a geology-themed art exhibit? I had to go.

I had the chance to go to that exhibit (The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada by Ann Johnston) today, the day before it closed. The Bellevue Arts Museum was mostly empty, and I went alone, so I got to take my time and look closely at the fabric art, which spanned the entire third floor of the museum. The exhibit benefited from close inspection: there’s even more geology in the works on display than I’d originally thought. Plus, downstairs was an exhibit of new works by emerging glass artists that had some interesting petrologic parallels.

The Contact: Sheepherder's Ledge (2016) - A geologic map of part of the Eastern Sierra, in quilt form.
The Contact: Sheepherder’s Ledge (2016) – A geologic map of part of the Eastern Sierra, in quilt form. A stitched curve outlines the artist’s family’s mining claim, and stitched “x” marks are prospects from the 1860s-70s.

What struck me was the degree to which an understanding of the geology informed the artwork. These quilts weren’t simply illustrations of geology: they were a way to deeply understand a landscape, both through analysis and creation. Apparently, Johnston’s family own the rights to a mining claim in the Eastern Sierra Nevada – it’s delineated with a thin thread on this quilted geologic map. I can imagine that , having grown up with this claim in the family, someone who is both an artist and a geographer (as Johnson is) would want to explore it from both perspectives.

A lot of my own work deals with fabric in the geologic sense: the arrangement of mineral crystals in a rock. In this sense, fabric is a three-dimensional thing: something that pervades a rock but may change from one part of an outcrop to another or even across one hand sample. Fabric is also something that, most of the time, you need to look closely at to be able to interpret. I was impressed by the detail and three-dimensionality of the (textile) fabric in this exhibit. In most of the pieces, the stitching added a layer of information beyond the fabric’s dye and reflectivity – in the same way as a rock’s fabric gives a geologist information beyond the rock’s composition.

For more images, click the gallery below.