A Walk in the Woods

I live in the city, but just a few blocks away from my house is a park with walking trails that meander through a small but pretty wood. From the moment I walk beneath its canopy of leaves, a calm comes over me and I can feel my thoughts shift from business meetings and to-do lists to trillium blooms and butterfly wings. Deep in the woods, I can shut out the noise of daily life and listen to my creative self.

Perhaps the most famous advocate for the benefits of a walk in the woods is Henry David Thoreau, best known for his 1845 experiment in simple living on the shores of Walden Pond where he tuned out life’s noises for about two years. Thoreau’s walking accoutrements included a pocketknife, magnifying glass, flute, walking stick, an old music book for pressing leaves and flowers, and paper and pencil. The notes he took during and after these contemplative walks would, of course, become his book Walden.

Fortunately, two years in a far-flung cabin and the mind of a philosopher aren’t requirements for reaping nature’s rewards. In fact, when a Sunday afternoon walk beneath the trees of a nearby woods or city park stirs your artistic soul, you need only take out a sketchbook or camera to channel your inspiration in a visual way—regardless of your artistic talents.

Sketching the Treasures of the Forest Floor
Make sure you keep an eye on the ground as you walk though the woods, because there’s more than just dirt beneath your feet. Leaf through the pages of pen-and-ink artist Claudia Nice’s nature journal, which is filled with sketches of mossy stones, wild mushrooms and snail shells, and you’ll realize the forest floor is an artistic gold mine. In fact, Nice is so captivated by this part of the forest that she says she has to remind herself to stop and look up from time to time.

Nice takes a daily walk in her backyard, a 100-mile stretch of woodland behind her home on Mount Hood in Oregon, and brings her sketchbook along about once a week. She might use a sketch back in her studio as reference for a finished work of art, but her primary reason for keeping a sketchbook is for the creative release. “It’s a place to record memories in a visual way,” she says. “A place to experiment. A place to dream.”

When she’s starting out on a walk, Nice doesn’t have any idea what she’ll end up sketching; she prefers to let her imagination run ahead of her into the forest. “I wait for something to strike me,” she says. “It might be the way the sunlight hits a certain plant or something heading across the trail—a slug or a beetle, perhaps.” Sometimes it’s her German shepherd who makes the discoveries for her. “His inquisitiveness forces me to stop and look.”

The ability to “take notice” is all part of the creative process, and there’s nothing quite like making art to heighten your sense of observation. Nice was recently reminded of this when she taught nature sketching to a class of nonartists. Several students remarked afterward that they were starting to see the world around them “with new eyes.” And this, according to Nice, is when the creativity starts to happen. “I don’t feel there’s anything new out there to create. Nature or God, if you will, has done the creation and all we can do is rearrange.” That’s the creative part for Nice—seeing the rearrangements.

Photographing the Majesty of Trees
Whether it be patches of sunlight through thick summer foliage, the rich hues of autumn leaves or the beauty of stark bare branches against a blue winter sky, trees are magical in every season, and a camera is a great tool for capturing their majesty. For David Rosenthal, a Cincinnati-based landscape photographer, it’s the patterns of light and dark, the variety of shapes and the fabulous textures that make trees a natural for anyone shooting in black-and-white film. But, when looking at his work, you realize that Rosenthal isn’t only photographing an image: He’s telling a story.

Like Nice, Rosenthal doesn’t go into the woods with a specific subject in mind, but instead lets a subject take hold of him. “I try not to go out on a shoot with any preconceived notions,” he says. “I probably spend 15 to 20 minutes at least just getting a feel for the place. Sometimes I’ll even make up stories about the place—about the people who may have walked that spot hundreds of years ago. Or how the area might have been used as a campsite during the Civil War. I let my ideas run wherever they may go. Then, once I get a concept in my head, once I get the story, I start to see photographs.” The result is photographs that stimulate a viewer’s imagination.

Having a concept or vision for every photo is paramount, according to Rosenthal, and he points out that his failures have usually been the result of trying to take photos when the inspiration simply wasn’t there. “I’ll think, ‘This is a great subject, why can’t I take a picture?'” Often, all he has to do is walk away and come back later to get the shot. Rosenthal likens this to the problem described by Ansel Adams: “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” So it’s the search for a story that takes Rosenthal out into the wood, and the trees that often oblige him.

Seeing in a Different Light
For both Rosenthal and Nice, the secret behind their art is the ability to observe, to see the beauty in the details, to see a story unfold. It’s a side effect of the creative process. So, whether you choose to load your pack with pencil and paper, paint and brush, or camera and film, be prepared to have the art-making process sharpen your senses. What used to be an ordinary walk in the woods will now be transformed by the simple act of “taking notice.” See Also:

Tera Leigh is a writer and artist living near San Francisco. She writes columns for several magazines, including Decorative Artist’s Workbook and Artist’s Sketchbook (from the editors of The Artist’s Magazine). Her Web site is www.teras-wish.com.

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