Learning to Watercolor

I have long wanted to keep a nature journal. Despite spending nearly six years with a drawing pen in my hand at school – with the exception of one class – I never had any proper art instruction. In my landscape design and landscape architecture schools, art was a crash course, something I had to do to communicate design, but not something we had any sort of training in. I was never happy with my skills as an artist and that prevented me from picking up a book and pen and jumping into keeping a nature journal.

When my daughter started preschool I had the opportunity to take a watercolor sketching class once a week for a month. Although it was aimed at botanical sketching, I knew I could carry what I learned to sketching the nature I encountered. Something about the class really clicked for me and I’ve felt a steady improvement in my artwork ever since the first day. As a result I’ve also discovered an eagerness for sketching. Previously watercolor frightened me. In one design studio we were required to produce drawings in watercolor. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me and I hadn’t touched them since then. It was with much trepidation that I dug out my art supplies for this class.

In the sketching class we worked on some basic exercises which taught us how to look at objects. We did blind contours, where you only look at the object you’re drawing and not your hand – particularly terrifying but strangely liberating. We also did negative space exercises, contour drawings and color mixing. Perhaps it was the instruction, the exercises, the change to a looser drawing style, or the practice, but whatever it was it worked. When producing landscape drawings in school I had to draw in a very technical manner. The rest of the drawings were expected to be very finished. This loose method of sketching, with only a pen, really freed me up. I realized they’re not meant to be exact, it’s a sketch, they can be messy. I’d previously had some sketching in an art class, but always with pencils, which never seemed to agree with me. The pen, ironically, seems to give me less stress.

I have started out small; a book of only 24 pages, and focused on small objects like leaves, flowers, samaras and fungi. I’m so far excited about the results, which are far from perfect, and I’ve been sketching regularly since the class ended. I’m encouraged by the knowledge that the more I do it the better and faster I’ll get. But it’s also fun, and a nice way to spend a few calm minutes during the day.

The inspirational Clare Walker Leslie has a very helpful book titled Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You which I’ve been reading through. After my class I bought several different journals to try out and as soon as I finish the final few pages of my first book I look forward to starting my first nature journal.

Above is a slideshow of samples from my first journal.

 

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Kelly Brenner

Kelly Brenner is a naturalist, writer and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of NATURE OBSCURA: A City’s Hidden Natural World, coming Spring 2020 from Mountaineers Books. She writes freelance articles about natural history and has bylines in Crosscut, ParentMap, National Wildlife Magazine and others. On the side she writes fiction.

Kelly holds a bachelors degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon and a certificate in non-fiction writing from the University of Washington.
Kelly Brenner
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