Playing on Paper

A nature sketchbook is a visual diary?a place to record your discoveries with words, quick sketches, drawings, simple prints and paintings, even pressed leaves and flowers. Most importantly, you don’t have to reserve your inspiration for later. As Nice puts it, “The sketchbook is fun because it’s direct into art right away.”

Don’t think that sketchbook pages should be finished works of art. In most cases, sketches are quick and rough. “If they catch the essence of a memory they’ve done their job,” says Nice, who may spend as little as five minutes on some sketches. Even if you consider yourself art-impaired, you can record an artistic response to nature using any of these simple techniques.

Make a Negative Stencil
Choose a flat, fairly stiff object, such as a fern, to use as a stencil and secure it to the paper with tiny bits of tape or rubber cement. 1) Brush, sponge or spatter paint on and around the stencil to darken the space around it. Let dry and remove the stencil. 2) Tint the white design blocked out by the stencil using a soft round brush and a thin watercolor wash.

1. Use a sponge to apply paint around the fern and create this stencil design. (right)

2. Tint the white design using a paintbrush and a thin layer of watercolor. (left)

Make Shadow Tracings
Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Trace the outline in pencil or paint it directly into a muted watercolor wash as a soft background object. This layered watercolor study began with a traced outline of a leaf.

Make a Twig Brush
If you forget your paintbrush, use a twig instead to create spontaneous paintings. To do this, break a 5-inch twig from a tree. Peel the bark away from the larger end, then mash the end until the wood fibers soften and separate. This branch was painted with a twig brush.

Make an Impression
Objects pressed or patted down into a freshly laid wet watercolor wash will attract pigment and create a dark design if left until the paint dries. To the far left is a thin watercolor wash with a fern-impressed design. To the left is a fern impressed into a heavy, wet wash; the pigment was trapped under the leaves.

Make Prints
Brush a leaf (or other suitable object) with a medium-thick coat of watercolor. Blot the leaf gently on a paper towel and then press it onto your sketchbook page. Lift and let dry.

Any print gaps can be filled in later with a paintbrush and a thin coat of watercolor.

Clockwise from top:

  • Fuzzy leaves like these make nice prints.
  • Print filled in with a wash (a thin coat of paint).
  • Original fern print.

Pictures and captions excerpted from How to Keep a Sketchbook Journal by Claudia Nice.

Back to “A Walk in the Woods”

Loraine Crouch is assistant editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

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