When I was sketching Canada geese at our local duck pond the other day, I got to mulling over field sketching and how I learned to do it. I'll use Canada Geese as my example in this post, but the concept applies to every species I want to sketch.
First I should clarify what I mean by 'field sketching' versus drawing. There is a lot of overlap. Field sketching is a type of drawing. To me it means drawing when I'm outdoors, usually quickly capturing the essence of what I'm looking at. 'Regular' drawing is often slow and careful and is usually done at home. I could draw carefully long before I developed my ability to field sketch. Give me a photo, a soft pencil, and an erasure and eventually I'd get to where I wanted to go. But, to capture an animal quickly from life, is a skill I developed gradually. First I had to realize there is a difference between the careful drawing and the ability to sketch quickly. Initially I just thought I was a lousy quick sketcher. But who ever learned to shoot basketball hoops without actually throwing the ball around.... or without knowing they even want to put the ball through the hoop?
Here is a pair of Canada geese I made many years ago. It was drawn from photographs, first with a soft pencil and an eraser, and finally inked on good paper. I knew I planned to print it as a notecard. I was trying to do my very best. It's O.K., but the geese are stiff and some of the lines are hard. At this point in time I couldn't quick sketch a good goose. It was about this time when I realized there was a big difference between my drawing skills and my sketching skills. When I saw the difference, I knew deep down that my careful drawings would be better if I could sketch too.
The eye-opening event that showed me the difference between types of drawing came twenty years ago when I took a week long work shop taught by Jack Hines, Jessica Zemsky, Robert Bateman, and Veryl Goodnight. I shall forever be grateful to all four. I had so much to learn! Learning to draw quickly and with expression required I push myself out of my comfort zone – sometimes draw carefully, sometimes quickly, draw from life, and, very important, dare to make mistakes. Somebody said it takes making 10,000 mistakes to become a good artist. I started making them.
I remember Robert Bateman, the wonderful Canadian wildlife artist, saying, “Contrive and contrive to look uncontrived.” I’ve often thought about that short comment. That's what I want my field sketches to do, to look as if they just flow off my fingers, as if I was born making a Canada goose look alert, sleepy, or mad. It is hard enough to make one species different from another, much less add that touch of emotion that brings life to the sketch, but that is my goal. I happiest field sketching when my sketch captures the moment. What are the geese doing? Why are they shaking their heads? Look how neatly the goose tucks its bill into the feathers of its back when it is sleeping. Can I capture that? Can I do it quickly, almost as if the lines really are just flowing off my fingertips?
Some people will always prefer careful, detail work; but I do run into people who love my quick sketches. Many years ago I was sitting on a low slope next to Norris Meadows in Yellowstone National Park. The elk had quieted down and someone I was in awe of, and knew only by sight, came and sat on the ground next to me. At the time Leonard Lee Rue III probably was the most published wildlife photographer. Lennie politely asked if he could see what I was sketching. He was delighted. What a compliment for me! Lennie admitted he would have loved to be an artist with a brush or pen. Instead he uses his camera. Every time Lennie sees me, he wants to spend time in my current journal. It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
But I digress. Back to what I have learned on the subject of field sketching.
· It's not just practice, practice, practice. A variety of practice is needed.
I sketch a lot in the field. Sometimes I sketch directly with ink; sometimes I start with light pencil lines and refine them just a little before I ink; sometimes my subject holds still and I can sketch slowly; sometimes I sketch from photos -- they hold still.
· I realize my field sketching has a better chance of being successful if I’ve practiced that species before. One winter I challenged myself to draw (from photos) 100 wolves before we headed to Yellowstone. I’m sure my wolf sketches are a little better because of it. Now I need to do another 100, 200, … . Drawing carefully puts information ‘into my grey cells,’ information that tells me exactly what the animal looks like – how many feathers in a ruffed grouse’s tail; does a cougar’s pupil close to a slit like a domestic cat (no); how many toes on wolf, a raccoon? So much to learn. In this modern age, every buddying artist has a plethora of photographs to practice from. – Note: ‘Practice’, beware of publishing or selling work from other people’s photographs.
· I can practice most anywhere and on most anything – old envelopes, one-sided paper, etc. At home, at the filling station, from the TV. A lot of my practice is on junk paper and most of it gets thrown away.
· Drawing in the field is the real key to learning the characteristic postures, personality, and behaviors of an animal. The wonderful bonus is I learn a lot of animal behavior while sketching. I feel any field sketching sharpens a person’s awareness of the natural world.
· When I’m field sketching and my animal leaves, I think it is better to leave the drawing unfinished than to fill in details I don’t know. There are a lot of unfinished sketches in my sketchbooks. If I don’t know the missing parts and just create something, I feel I’m putting junk information into my head. If it is a species with which I am familiar I may well be able to finish it -- or flip open my laptop at home and look up some of my photos of the subject. Often I have both sketchbook and camera with me and come home with the necessary photos or, maybe, my husband Dale, will have just taken the necessary photos.
· Part of the careful ‘practice using photographs’ part should include basic anatomy: What are the bones doing underneath all that fur or feathers? Study the direction of hair on a wolf's body; study how a bird's feathers flow off the main parts of the wing. By drawing this information, not just reading about it, I make it a part of my learned skills.
Many years have gone by since that workshop. I've made progress and I'm looking forward to continuing on the journey to becoming a better field sketcher. I’ve tried to push my comfort zone; I treasure my time in nature; I’m pretty good at forgiving myself when I botch a sketch. Fortunately I consider my journal a working journal, warts and all are part of my process. I treasure the memories contained within my journals.
Next post I plan to share some of my field sketches and the memories associated with them.