Friday, February 24, 2012

Field Sketching

One of my favorite field sketches. I look at it and remember how chilly the day was. Dale and I were in Yellowstone, watching a sandhill crane nest. I was scrunched in the backseat of our car so that both Dale and I were on the side of the car facing the black bear. The elk carcass had been hidden by winter snow. When spring came this bear or another pulled the carcass to shore. This bear spent the next few days feasting and sleeping near his treasure.

I recently posted a series of field sketches on "The Sketching Forum" (} and have decided to do it here too. Plus I’m in desperate need of seeing if I can post via Dale’s Mac versus my PC.

Some of these sketches are quicker than others; the purpose of some is different than the purpose of others. So I’ll add a running commentary along with the drawings to explain why I did each one.

It been a good exercise to think about my sketching. It got me thinking about why do I sketch? -- My purpose is twofold. I sketch to capture moments in nature, often to capture a specific event or behavior; and I sketch to get better at sketching. My early sketchbooks tend to have very sloppy ‘just to remember the moment’ sketches and ‘encyclopedia’ type drawings . I tried to draw accurate animals -- stiff. Later I realized the importance of the character of the animal.

Capturing this ellusive character of an animal means sometimes I have to work quickly. I need to allow myself to make mistakes and to feel O.K. about the scribbles that happen along the way. If you thumb through my journals you’ll find a few drawings scratched out … I was way off base. You’d also find some drawings unfinished. If I don’t know where to go with a sketch of an animal I think it is better to quit than to create fictitious information. Mostly you’ll find a variety of loose sketches tucked in between lots of words. Very few pages are properly laid out, neat and tidy. In my mind it is a ‘working journal,’ not a finished product.
I’m sure the more I sketch the more information I put into my grey cells. Hopefully I’m putting them in faster than they are falling out! I don’t say that lightly. During the ten plus years Dale was disabled I didn’t sketch nearly enough and I basically quit painting. I was time challenged. I knew rust was gathering in my veins. Dale got two new hips in 2009. I’ve now had two years of finding a decent amount of time to sketch and do some light painting. I doubt I’ll ever go back to gallery painting. I’m having too much fun sketching and writing. The writing part is new. I’ve scribbled in my journal for years, but I’ve only come recently to writing something for other people to read. For me the writing and the sketching are tangoing together. Both help me see nature and bring me close to it.

For me capturing a bird that I’ve never sketched takes practice. I wish I could just pop a little bird on a branch and know what kind of bird I’m looking at. Sometimes I get lucky, but I get luckier if I’ve drawn it before.
So I practice. Here is an example of several robins, all drawn from life. I’m convinced some of the information remains stored in my head when I do little practice sketches like these.
Here is a different type of practice drawing. I know I’ll find myself in situations where I want to be able to sketch good ravens on the wing. Here I looked at our photos on the laptop and made a series of careful sketches – pencil first and then ink. I probably could have learned just as much with careful pencil drawings in a fraction of the time.
I can’t say this little field sketch is particularly well drawn, but it does capture the interaction. A raven flies low over a vast expanse of marsh, looking for opportunities to steal blackbird eggs. The blackbirds are frantic and mob him. If I want to do a careful drawing later on I’ve got one of the most important elements here.

And now for some quick sketches on one of my favorite birds, sandhill cranes. For the past several years we have been fortunate to know of a nest in Yellowstone. I usually use a spotting scope when drawing the birds. I either sit outside with the scope on a tripod and I sit on a stool, or else I mount the scope on the car window. Either way both my hands are free.

I could have erased the words with photoshop elements, but it gives you a better idea of my journal if I leave them. I look at all these crane sketches and they take me back to a special place where I’ve spent many, many hours. The little arrow by the crane's neck is just a reminder to myself I should have drawn a longer neck.

I’m happiest when Dale is in position to photograph and I’m free to sketch.

Another of my favorite field sketches. I love it when I can say it all with just a few lines. Learning to draw just the essence has been harder for me than trying to include every feather.


  1. Lovely jizz. Love that word. It IS harder to do less then more. You do it so well. Interesting post. Love the Bear.

  2. Hi,Elva,
    All drawings are so lovely and the very interesting post.
    I particularly like flying birds. For me, birds are tricky. Different kinds of birds have different shapes. In my eyes, their flying shapes, too, are different. Your drawings are brilliant!!
    Cheers, Sadami

  3. Wonderful notes and sketches as always. Especially liked your last line as I aim to draw just the outline and end up over doing it every time.

  4. This is a fabulous post Elva! Full of information about field sketching and it made me feel good that you have the same problems as most of us when it comes to quick sketching but are not afraid to show them. Your finished sketches are as beautiful as your words are wonderful. Now I know how you got there.

  5. What a wonderful compilation of your sketches and reflections on what and why you do what you do. I love your verbal image of the tango for the play between words and image. That is what fascinates me - text and image. I really enjoyed reading about these sketches and your thoughts.

  6. Meaty post, Elva, and such wonderful sketching. I too love your words.

  7. Your drawings and watercolour painting are really beautiful. Wonderful work.
    Have a wonderful creative week,

  8. Very cool post, Elva! I love that you've distilled down the different types and reasons (not to mention circumstances) for which you sketch. It is wonderful to get a "peek" inside of the mind that creates the images and stories that hold us captive!

  9. ...really interesting post, Elva. I really enjoyed it. Every time I see one of your sketches I can see all the hours and hours you've spent observing nature over the years showing through.