Mountains, clouds, shadows receding; a few minutes of pencil on paper and John had caught the moment’s essence while the rest of us scrabbled to take a photograph of the first light touching Mount Kanchenjunga. We were watching dawn reaching the world’s third highest mountain from Tiger Hill, the highest point in Darjeeling, India.
By drawing, my friend, John, could focus on light landing on this Himalayan massif and remove the space between it and our scenic perch on Tiger Hill in a way that would otherwise need an expensive camera and zoom lens to achieve. John’s state of being while making his drawing was also more in tune with how people living in the area feel about and respond to their sacred mountain.
I recalled this 15 years later when my niece kicked me in the face with her fins as she barged past me in pursuit of photographing fish while we were snorkeling. Both my mountain photos and her fish photos turned out blurry, and something was lost in the moments we wanted to preserve. Drawing offered a different way to engage with places, but it was something I would have to learn how to do.
Signing up for an online illustration course with my 11-year-old niece, Rebecca, was part of a plan to escape from traveling around Australia with her glued to a camera. My mother and I were going to take my niece to the farm we had lived on for a few months when her mother — my sister — was her same age, 11. For my niece it would be a glimpse of her mother’s life before multiple sclerosis stole her freedom of movement and limited her ability to reminisce. Since it was a long journey that was unlikely to be repeated, it seemed a shame to filter it through a camera.
With our travel plans canceled by Covid-19 restrictions, instead of relying on our Australian well of memory, learning how to draw has been a journey on our doorstep in Kent, England.
In online videos, our course instructors, Dr. Bernadette Drabsch and Dr. Andrew Howells, were encouraging, as was the mantra they repeated: Observation is key. Drawing didn’t seem an out-of-reach skill reserved for artists since its foundation is not solely talent. After decades as an ethnobotanical researcher and journalist recording the world in words, numbers and photos, drawing felt like hitting pause while I really looked at what is there. Drawing entails being more present.
There are tricks to transferring what you see onto paper. For our first assignment we were asked to draw three natural objects of our choice. I used a water snail shell from my pond, a chrysanthemum leaf from a bunch of flowers, and an empty catshark egg case I found on the beach.
Three disparate objects, yet I could draw each of them following the same steps listed by Dr. Howells: basic shape, measurements, contours and shading. Each of these steps is a layer of information that you add. For example, the basic shape of my water snail shell was a cone. Using a ruler to measure the shell’s length and width, I could measure out on paper how long and wide my drawing of the shell should be. After drawing the contours of its outside edge, I used shading to show the shell’s texture.
I can’t draw a shell in one step, no more than I can cook croissants from scratch without instruction. But drawing is like a recipe; there are tools, amounts of ingredients and steps to follow.
In the age of digitized cameras with automatic modes, snapping a photo is a quick act involving little more than tapping a touch screen or pressing a camera button. Certainly professional photographers spend time anticipating action and setting up shots. For most of us it’s a brief interaction with technology and entails little thought about object or place.
In a field observation for our course, my niece and I hunted for something colorful so that we could try making color notations, recording hue and shade of color. We looked at familiar purple shoots of sea kale. Trying to replicate their color is the first time that I’ve noticed the white powdery bloom that dusts their surface, even though I watch them emerge every spring. Drawing sea kale made me see it more clearly.
Words we attach to the acts of drawing and photographing are different. We make a drawing but take a photograph. Taking a photograph is removal — from the scene and in taking something away with you. Looking into a viewfinder puts a camera between you and your surroundings. In contrast drawing or painting leaves room for people to see what you are capturing, and places you within the scene.
A few years ago, getting out of the Isle of Skye’s Fairy Pools in Scotland, my boyfriend and I peeked over the shoulder of someone working at an easel recreating shapes and colors of the crystal clear River Brittle and Cuillen Mountains. Tucked in the foothills of the Cuillens, the Fairy Pools are river pools big enough to swim in.
Our friend Cassy pulled herself out of the water to perch on a rock, inadvertently in the painter’s view. Pausing from her brushwork, the painter asked Cassy if she could include her in the painting. Although the river was October-cold, in the bright sunshine Cassy was happy to continue to enjoy the scenery from her perch. Amid the generic Isle of Skye experiences from Talisker distillery to the Old Man of Storr, watching Cassy take form in Jan Jewell’s painting was the most vivid moment from our days on Skye.
Seeing people painting and drawing, and looking at other people’s paintings and drawings, helps you to create your own. During week four, the course focused on botanical structure. Our homework was to make a drawing showing how a plant arranged its leaves, and include details like veins on leaf surfaces. My niece copied a picture of a leaf from a book of paintings. Seeing how someone else had turned a three dimensional object into two dimensions made this task easier than drawing a leaf from a living plant.
One of our introductory tasks was to add a link to a local painter to share in the course discussion group. It was a gentle way to get used to engaging with other participants, and studying other people’s drawings and paintings remained a useful touchstone throughout the course.
I looked at 19th-century paintings of Kent where I was staying with my niece and parents for the duration of Covid-19 travel restrictions in Britain. Afterward, I noticed remnants of classic English landscape parks in avenues and clusters of trees positioned to frame views and stately houses in the Kentish countryside around me.
Our illustrating course progressed with its rigid task and assignment deadlines as pandemic restrictions made us stay close to home and our world became smaller. But there wasn’t a shortage of things to draw. Until this stage I had stuck to drawing inanimate objects and plants, feeling wary of the challenge of giving animals realistic features. Arriving at the penultimate week of our course, which focused on birds and mammals, pushed me into new terrain.
“Did you see the similarities between the anatomical structure of a horse and your own body?” Dr. Drabsch asked online. Understanding anatomy helps to position drawn limbs correctly. Course reading included diagrams of bones and flesh in legs showing how humans are plantigrades walking on flat feet, like bears. Dogs, cats and birds are digitigrades walking on their toes. Horses walk on the tips of their toes, they are unguligrades. In an earlier video, Dr. Drabsch had said, “Your own skeletal structure will be a great resource for understanding how the limbs of the mammal you are drawing work.” Our family Bernese Mountain dog was useful. With pats and strokes we could feel the muscles on her legs and back.
In another video, Dr. Drabsch measured proportions on an outstretched wing of a taxidermied bird. Different species of birds are differentiated as much by proportions as by exterior coating of color and pattern.
I watched a goldcrest hunting insects outside my window. To me, goldcrests have always been recognizable as the smallest bird that lives in Britain. Our assignment for the week was to sketch a bird. Following our bird-sketching instructions, I drew a line to indicate how its body tilted, little sphere for head, larger sphere for body and then added features starting with a bulging belly. I realized that, quite apart from being tiny, its relatively plump belly and stubby wings are as much the essence of a goldcrest as its size. Once again, following the steps demonstrated by our instructors broke down the task of drawing into easy-to-manage units.
Alongside other people taking the course, I posted my goldcrest drawing in the discussion group. Because of the group’s international mix, some participants were more restricted in their subject material than others, depending on their government’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. A few participants wrote on their drawings that birds were the only wildlife they could see from inside their homes.
Even within the confines of our house my niece and I still found natural history to draw. Rummaging in our spice drawer while making dinner provided an array of shapes that seeds take. Black peppercorns are not smooth spheres; wrinkled folds of skin give them rumpled texture. Fennel seeds are tidily ridged. Our kitchen contains a full complement of plant structures from carrot roots to the green bouquet of unopened flower buds of broccoli. It reminded me of Jessica R. Shepherd’s year of painting every plant she consumed, from coffee to botanicals in cosmetics; drawing on an epic scale derived from everyday items.
We had signed up for our online drawing course in early January, before Covid-19 was publicly considered a global threat. As the course ran from early March to mid-April, online learning became a constant as everything else changed. Drawing has now become an enjoyable habit. Not so much for the end result; my drawings are becoming tolerable but have far to go on artistic merit. For now, I will keep drawing everyday nature that I can find in the house and on local walks. And when I can travel again, the first items to land in my luggage will be pencils and a sketch pad.