Drawn to natural history and science through art

Photo: Photo by Shirley Nadeau

Louisa and Minum Blair admire some of Bethann Merkle's watercolour sketches during the Q&A period after their drawing lesson at the Morrin Centre.

Last Thursday evening, artist and photojournalist Bethann G. Merkle gave a "sketchy" art lesson in the old chemistry lab of the Morrin Centre, as part of its Connecting through Culture series.

Armed with pencils and sketch books, and a glass of wine, some 20 enthusiastic participants, including this writer, were treated first of all to a fascinating lesson by Merkle on the history of drawing, from prehistoric stick-figure pictographs of animals and people on cave walls, to the more two-dimensional Egyptian drawings, and on up to modern times with more realistic three-dimensional shading and perspective. We also learned about the invention of paper, the graphite pencil and the rubber eraser, all essential tools for budding artists.

Participants went from blind sketching (we weren't allowed to look at our drawing or lift pencil from paper while looking at the object we were trying to draw - a leaf, an acorn, a wine glass), to tracing, "frottage" (rubbing), and shadow drawing, and by the end of the evening we had all succeeded in producing pretty decent representations of the objects we had chosen to depict. Some even went as far as to add colour using crayons or water paints. Our instructor encouraged us all to practise to get better.

Merkle explained that as a child she was naturally drawn to sketching. During high school and university years, she studied science and natural history and, on field trips, she kept journals in which she made drawings of what she was studying. Her "Eureka!" moment came when she realized she could combine her two passions, art and nature. Months into a natural history course, she gave her classmates a lesson on the basics of drawing, prompting them to confess they wished they'd known how to draw at the beginning of the year. Merkle said that is what inspired her to share her passion for drawing with others.

A lively Q&A period and discussion about naturalists and artists - can they be one and the same? - followed the instruction period.

Should you be interested, Merkle provides drawing tips and a behind-the-scenes look at the Drawn to Quebec column at www.drawntoquebec.com. She has also written an e-book, Guide to Sketching and Field Journal Basics, which describes how to get started and includes some of the sketching techniques explored in the Thursday evening workshop. The guide is also available at www.drawntoquebec.com.