Drawn to Quebec: Sketching the world around you

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Photo: Illustration © Bethann G. Merkle, 2014

Quick sketches from daily life or travel experiences are a great way to build your confidence and create one-of-a-kind momentos.

Humans think in images. Indeed, studies show that our brains actually understand images faster than words, and remember images longer. The act of drawing helps you clarify what you know and can assist instructors in assessing student knowledge.

Today, many people avoid sketching because drawing has become art. Art (like science) has become specialized and professionalized. But drawing isn't limited to the pros. After all, the curiosity, close observation, recording, and critical thinking required for drawing should seem quite familiar to anyone who has done a science-fair project or actually worked as a scientist.

Everyone can sketch, even you. It could be argued that humans are born with the ability to draw. Archaeological records indicate that drawing was the first visual representation method. However, modern drawing basics are learned, not innate. Fundamental skills, techniques, and knowledge of different media (ex: watercolours, pencils, pen and ink) can be taught, practised, and improved upon. Combine childhood aptitude and basic drawing instruction, and anyone can learn to sketch.

Why not take a photo instead?

1. Sketching is a great learning tool. Before you sketch, you must observe, and close observation increases your knowledge of your subject and helps you remember it.

2. A sketch does what photos cannot. You can highlight key features, combine elements, and depict fleeting or rare events. And a sketchbook and pencil require no special apps, and won't run out of batteries.
3. Sketching offers a multidisciplinary way to connect with your environment, new places, and nuances of everyday life that you might otherwise miss.

Field journals enhance our experience of the world around us.

One of the more rewarding ways of incorporating sketching into your life is to keep a field journal. In a field journal, you combine words and sketches to record what you see and what you wonder. Also known as location sketching or urban sketching (if you are in a town or city), the practice of field journaling encourages you to slow down.

A field journal can: train your eye to make careful and accurate observations; creatively record what you learn about an ecosystem, animal, or plant; or record your travel and everyday experiences.

Your sketches can reflect your whole life, not just the outdoors. A great field journal might be a beautiful leather-bound volume or a stack of loose scraps of paper. Often, it becomes a meld of personal observations and natural history anecdotes. A sketch of a deer may be accompanied by the day's to-do list.

You can turn any sketch into a field journal entry by including some basic information (time, date, location, weather, etc.), making detailed observations to accompany your sketch, and recording any questions you have. In the case of researchers, additional information specific to their study will also be noted.

Some people think non-nature notes belong in a separate journal, but I encourage you to keep a record of your life as you live it. Jot down your grocery list if it is distracting you while you are out birding. You'll feel freer to concentrate on the warblers if you're not attempting to remember that list.

What do I need?

Something to draw on and something to draw with; there are no "magic" or ideal tools. Choose materials that you're comfortable with, and practise with them. Select materials that are easily portable, so you can sketch when you have a few minutes of free time (ex: waiting for a friend, riding in a car, sitting outside at lunchtime).

How do I get started?

The main hurdle is self-doubt. If you perceive drawing as a way of enhancing your understanding of the world around you, rather than as "art," you'll be fine. Begin by writing the date, location, and other relevant details. You'll no longer have a blank page to contend with, and you'll have more information to refer to later.

Try one of the techniques (described in detail in this writer's Guide to Sketching & Field Journal Basics, available at www.drawntoquebec.com) as a warm-up or as your actual sketching style. Regularly sketch mundane things to get comfortable with sketching quickly and casually, without high expectations for producing "art" every time. Consider sketching with others to gain confidence and get tips. Don't cross-out, erase, or throw away sketches. Keep even the ‘crummy' ones, looking back at previous work, you'll see how you've improved.

Editor's Note: Even though she may soon be living in Wyoming, Bethann Merkle's popular "Drawn to Quebec" column will appear regularly in the last issue of each month.