We live in bewildering times: weather and temperature changes; a pandemic that has caused massive population upheavals; and environmental changes that have impacted on us all. There are increasing alterations in our Western climate brought about by our neglect of our stewardship of the earth’s resources (usually brought about by greed). It sounds so negative, it is easy to become depressed and frustrated, and feel helpless to mitigate the situation.
There are practical things we can do, however, not only to reverse the changes but, as artists, also to become recorders of these times. In this article, I want to suggest ways you and I can help manage our own surroundings and the inspiration this can afford us. Perhaps you don’t have a garden, but you probably do have access to some space, even if it is only a balcony or windowsill.
I used drawing as a medium to record the world around me, in particular pencil, coloured pencil and ink with some colour added using coloured inks. I wanted to explore techniques and look at ways of using linear media to record nature. The following are some ideas that may inspire you to do something similar.
Begin a diary
Why not undertake to keep a visual diary? Recording the changes during the year in nature becomes more relevant in the uncertain time of climate change. We may not be able to change the world, but there are changes happening around us that we can help conserve and record.
A hard-bound sketchbook with good-quality cartridge paper can become the record that you make of changes in your environment. In the book you can note thoughts and observations alongside your drawings.
Small is beautiful
Begin by looking at the small creatures inhabiting nature. Flying insects can display the most interesting and gorgeous colours. If you have only a small space to grow plants, look for bee and butterfly-friendly plants to encourage visitors. These plants help develop the web of support that nature needs in order to survive and be healthy.
Butterfly (technical drawing pen)
When recording nature, you may have difficulty catching moving creatures. If you see a butterfly and recognise it, it may not stay around to be your model, but taking a photograph can help you to depict it later. Ladybirds are the charmers of the insect world. They assist in controlling plant-eating insects and are nice to look at; they are mentioned in nursery rhymes and, in Europe, are treated as good luck symbols.
Nature Sketchbook (A3). Pencil and coloured pencil on cartridge paper. Tracking the season’s climate changes visually week by week creates a body of information that can be more personal than photography.
On the bottom left of this sketchbook page (above), there is a drawing of a ladybird. I used coloured pencils to build up the layers of deep red on the wing cases. Coloured pencils are best worked from light through to dark colours and tones. I used well-sharpened pencils and shaded each colour in lightly, laying the pencil slightly sideways at a low angle. As the colour built up, the point of the pencil was used with considerable pressure to develop a deep rich colour.
Unlike watercolour, coloured pencils are easily managed. Mistakes can be erased quickly and, as long as the colour is built up gradually, the drawing remains controllable.
Bird (pencil on brown cartridge paper)
There is enormous pleasure in encouraging and observing animals that come to visit your garden. Even if you have no garden, you may be able to feed birds on a windowsill and try sketching them. Hedgehogs can also be helped by installing special hedgehog houses and can be fed with a little cat food (never milk, as it is poisonous to hedgehogs). If you are patient you may be able to record a visiting hedgehog.
Hedgehog (nibbed pen and Indian ink)
If possible, locate water somewhere in the garden. If you don’t have a pond, old washing bowls or ceramic bowls make excellent water containers. They provide drinks for the birds, and homes for small creatures and aquatic plants. I have several mini-pond containers, in addition to a larger pond in my garden. Mostly the cats drink out of them, but the birds do too when it is safe to visit. There is also a frog living in the vicinity.
Frog (nibbed pen, Indian ink and coloured ink wash)
Change of surface
I used graphite pencils (2B, 4B and a woodless 6B) to record the scene of the mini ponds at the bottom of the garden (below), which also contain small rushes and aquatic plants, and are surrounded by semi-wild plants. Although cartridge paper is suited to drawing, I used Bristol board for a change of surface. Bristol board is a smooth card used mainly for pen and ink, however, I sometimes like to change my drawing surfaces to see what happens.
Garden containers, pencil on Bristol board, 6¼x9in. (16x23cm). Here is a sketch of small water containers I set up to attract insects and birds.
In this drawing I discovered that the pencil techniques of hatching and varying pressures gave crisper results. I was also able to smudge some tones in a little with my finger, to soften areas creating varied visual interest.
I hope that this has given you some ideas for encouraging wildlife into your surroundings for studying, drawing and simply enjoying the natural world.
ART NOUVEAU PROJECT
I grow as many different plants as I can in my garden, including many ‘weeds’, in order to create different habitats for creatures. As an artist I love the varied shapes that the plant world produces. Nature with its organic forms influenced the Art Nouveau movement and formalised its shapes into magnificent art forms, from textiles, furniture and ceramics to architecture, jewellery and painting. I took this photograph (below) of my garden and used it to create an Art Nouveau inspired drawing of plant forms.
Plants in my garden provide a range of organic shapes for an Art Nouveau interpretation