Review by Katy Lyness
Some years ago, I took an excellent class at the New York Botanical Garden entitled “Introduction to Plant Science”. It was taught by a man you may have heard of – Gary Lincoff. At this stage in my life, I had just started my first backyard garden and was a new member of NJMA. More to the point, I was a super enthusiastic neophyte. Everything to do with growing things fascinated me. One of the class assignments was to record our experience with the natural world in a daily nature journal. I took on this project as only an “enthusiastic neophyte” can, and it was a wonderful experience. The act of keeping a journal focused my exuberance, giving me a place to contemplate and record. ough I have since filled dozens of sketch books with “plant portraits”, I didn’t keep up with my aforementioned nature journal. From time to time I would get it out and re-live my past enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder. But never started another true nature journal…that is, until now…and it is all due to John Muir Laws.
His book, The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling is not just a how-to book of drawing plants and animals. It is a comprehensive course in how to use these skills to more fully experience the world. He describes how the act of drawing or painting is as much about sitting still and observing, as it is about the resulting work of art. The added bonus is that the careful recording in a journal of what one sees, hears, smells and feels is a memory marker one can go back to at a future date or share with others.
The how-to sections of the book are excellent. Laws succinctly describes, step-by-step, each technique with beautiful illustrations and helpful hints. He explains how to put together a simple field kit you will actually remember to take with you. He outlines an artist’s special needs when working outside in the elements. For example, he suggests using a toned paper when drawing in the bright sun to lessen the harsh reflection. He gives insightful instruction in drawing, focusing on the balance between what one knows of the structure of the plant or animal and what one observes. He also has a wonderful section on color theory and practice. He includes solutions to such problems as creating depth, drawing a moving animal, simulating iridescence and transparent surfaces, and rendering textures such as scales, fur, and slime.
Not being trained as a scientist, I found his guidance in recording scientific information particularly useful. Laws has a mantra: “I notice, I wonder, It reminds me of”. What better starting point is there for scientific discoveries? There is also a whole section on “Quantifying your observations” in which he outlines exercises to improve one’s ability to intuit distances and quantities. He suggests bringing a “curiosity kit” including such things as a hand lens, a compass, and tape or a glue stick – so one can include actual objects in their journal. He also stresses simple things like including the date, time of day, location, and weather condition with your drawings. He even gives hints in how to visually record bird songs.
Laws also gives great tips on making one’s journal pages visually interesting, showing how to include scientific information in attractive, readable ways. Beyond this book’s informational importance, it is a joy to read. Law’s narrative tone is friendly, encouraging, and self-effacing. He describes himself as being incredibly dyslexic and is not afraid to point out where his drawings miss the mark. His numerous illustrations are interesting, informative, sometimes humorous and… beautiful.
The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling is a marvelous resource book for anyone interested in creating a nature journal – beginner or experienced artist. Is at once: a “how-to” in techniques for using watercolor, graphite, ink, colored pencil, and gauche; a step-by-step guide to drawing flowers, all sorts of animals, birds, trees, landscapes, and, yes…mushrooms; a technical guide to recording scientific information; a book of tips to make a nature journal visually compelling, and ultimately an inspirational guide to experiencing the world around us.” The most valuable aspect of this book for me was not that it taught me how to draw, but that it reminded me of why I draw.
by Tamira Jones,
The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, John Muir Laws’ newest treasure of an illustrated guidebook, is a how-to of nature journaling that touches on every aspect of his approach to “intentional curiosity” about the natural world. It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped to write such a book – Laws has spent thousands of hours outdoors sketching California’s flora, fauna, and landscapes, as well as teaching nature journaling to others.
Evident from the first page is Laws’s love of beauty and visual thinking. It’s clear that nature journaling requires a passion for attention to details and connecting to the subject – in this case, wildness and biodiversity. Laws’ guide explores the power of journaling to create a practice of observing, studying, and being present, which helps to transform moments of curiosity into the thrill of discovery and wonder. As he writes, “When you celebrate the world through the pages of your journal, every stroke of your brush or pencil can be a song of gratitude for the opportunity to be alive.”
The guide speaks to the naturalist, but is invaluable to any artist looking to improve technique. What first drew me to the book was Laws’s artwork and the hope that it would improve my own ability to illustrate native California plants. I picked up watercolors this winter after a 10-year hiatus when small living quarters and a busy life seemed to get in the way of my joy of painting. I began by painting a series of flowers, thinking this would be an easy subject, but darn it if the anatomy of a flower isn’t frustratingly detailed. I was instantly attracted to Laws’ technique of breaking the illustration process down into simple steps that anyone could follow.
As Laws repeatedly writes, drawing is not a gift but a skill that anyone can master. Along with his detailed instructions, the book includes lovely illustrative examples from Laws’s own journals. The guide also includes practical suggestions on creating an artist’s field kit, a useful comparison of watercolor, pen, and pencil brands, and recommendations regarding his favorite journals. Laws even adds a segment on making natural paint in the field by using sedimentary rocks. Talk about naturalist street cred – painting rock formations with pigments made from those very rocks!
Laws grew up with parents who spent weekends in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore recording the cycles of wildflower blooms, which left a lifelong impression on their sons. Laws’s own philosophical tutorials on creating meaningful and scientific nature journals reminds me of being a child, wanting to know the names of everything within eyesight, and taking the time to sit by a creek and wait for something to happen. That unhurried expectation that the natural world has much to teach resounds throughout the book, beautifully marrying science and soul.
Besides being full of poetic and deeply personal narratives, the tome is more than anything a thorough instructional guide to thinking like a naturalist – Laws is, after all, one of the world’s foremost naturalists. The foundation of natural history is, as he puts it, “careful and specific observation with rigorous and exacting note-taking.” The pages of the guide are filled with examples of Laws’s own process of scientific inquiry through notes, questions, and astoundingly accurate illustrations. He shares methods for detailing the surrounding world with what he terms “focused awareness,” whether it be diagramming birdsong, recording wind speed, or measuring tree foliage cover. The reader can’t but be impressed with Laws’s full immersion into the journaling experience. Suffice it to say, a man who dips his journal in fresh wolf urine to capture the scent and memory of a place inspires a deeper love of and respect for the natural world.
What Laws and publisher Heyday have given us in this guide is a rare bird – the combination of a dense educative read on topics like how curiosity increases dopamine and activates the hippocampus, which allows us to better retain memories, with illustrated step-by-step instructions on drawing a foreshortened leaf. Laws’s blend of knowledge, passion, and experience are packaged beautifully with Heyday’s ethic of sparing no expense on production quality. This is one of those special books that instantly becomes your favorite strategically placed coffee-table conversation piece.
David Lukas, May 22, 2016
In an age where we are losing the art of the long observation it’s refreshing to see hints of this deep old flame coming back to life. And one of the leading practitioners of this craft is the naturalist-artist John Muir Laws, whose most recent book The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling is a stunning compilation of nature observation and illustration techniques and insights.
You might think that observing nature is simply a matter of looking around but there’s more to this than meets the eye. As Jack says, “intentional curiosity” is a skill that must be nurtured and carefully cultivated. Long observation asks you to be curious and to embrace mystery; to slow down long enough to ask questions, look for patterns, and ponder possible explanations.
I have had the honor of spending many hours in the field with Jack, teaching classes together and exploring natural landscapes while musing about the role of the naturalist. His infectious exuberance and sense of wonder is the perfect model. Every little detail leads to questions, which lead to more questions, until gradually we begin to see underlying patterns and the hints of possible explanations.
Jack follows a three-part process of asking questions with every observation: I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of. Noticing means that you start by saying out loud every detail you can observe. Wondering means asking questions out loud. Reminding means that you weave in any kind of assocation that comes to mind without filtering or judging these connections. And at the same time Jack will probably be sketching the observation in his notebook and jotting down notes as this conversation unfolds.
Several important things arise out of this process: One is the discovery of patterns and explanations that would otherwise be missed (why are all these ducks facing the same way on the water? who made all these holes in this leaf?). Another is that slowing down and taking a few minutes, or even a few seconds, to ask questions means that observations shift out of short-term memory and become embedded in long-term memory. Another is that observations begin to filter into a deeper kind of wisdom about the world around you. And finally, the entire process begins to change who you are as a person as you slow down and start paying attention to things.
While the bulk of Jack’s new book focuses on nature illustration techniques, his careful explanation of observation skills is worth the price of the book alone. And it may not be obvious at first, but these skills also lie at the core of word making. More than anything else, word making is about naming that which has not been spoken of before, and discovering these vital gaps requires looking at the world around you with compassion, care, and a capacity to see things that everyone else has missed.
In writing my book Language Making Nature, I have been deeply inspired by Jack’s sketchbook techniques, how he sketches quickly, constantly, and combines images and words to reflect the moment at hand. Jack isn’t worrying about creating perfect art or perfect reflections, the focus is on fluid, fun, and fast. I’m no artist but spending time with Jack made me realize that “word making artists” could just as easily “sketch” with words and word fragments and new ways of putting words together in their own notebooks.
See a step-by-step demonstration from the book on Audubon.org.
Read an excerpt and watch animated step-by-step illustrations.
One-line review: An excellent art instruction book that could also improve one’s life.
Many of us in the Sierra are familiar with the illustrations of John Muir Laws, the naturalist, educator and artist behind the “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.” In his latest book, “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” just out from Heyday Books, rather than simply teach technique, Laws shows us how to see.
For anyone who has ever looked at an illustrated Laws Guide and thought, I wish I could do that, Laws gives you the tools and the inspiration. “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” is essentially a master class in capturing the Sierra Nevada in pencil, pen and ink, gouache, watercolor, and more. Although the book is ostensibly a guide to drawing, we learn how to deepen our observational skills, the practice (and benefits) of intentional curiosity, and the value of cultivating creativity—all of which expand our understanding of the natural world and our place in it.
The book is broken into useful sections: How to think about what we are seeing, how to capture it in a journal, what to keep in our journaling kit and how to draw our favorite subjects: animals, wildflowers, trees, and landscapes. At 312 pages, it’s not the kind of book you’ll carry in your backpack, but it is good for car camping, road trips and as an indispensable home reference. (You can always photocopy pages and stick them in your journaling kit.)
Hundreds of colorful illustrations with step-by-step instructions make this book a keeper. From beetles to bears, it’s all here. On a recent trip, I took the book and learned a few things new to me: When drawing waterfalls, you draw the rocks around the waterfall, not the water. Conifer branches reach out like a hand near the bottom of the tree—how had I not noticed this before? Now, when I’m in my backyard, I not only greet the lizard, but also note its proportions and where the light falls, which deepens our relationship. The habit of careful attention Laws encourages heightens our appreciation of the environment, which will make us better stewards.
“The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” would be a great graduation gift for a budding artist or naturalist. Those new to drawing and journaling will find it an amazing resource, while veteran creators will appreciate the depth and specificity of Laws’ tips and hacks. All, however, will find inspiration—this book will elevate the wonder that lies in us all, and give us a new way to look at our beloved Sierra.
“The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” also has a great companion website, with a blog featuring video tutorials, and instructor guides. You may find it here.
Kim Wyatt is the owner of the independent press Bona Fide Books in Meyers.
Tonya is an avid nature sketcher who writes about her work at scratchmadejournal.com. She has posted a full review of The Laws Guide to Nature Journaling and Drawing and found the book “excellent – well organized, highly detailed, and beautiful…” Tonya also writes, “I have an entire shelf of books on nature sketching and painting, but this one could probably replace them all.” You can read her complete review here.
Enjoy a page flipping romp through the book with Nancy Maewi, February 2016.
Kids Book Buzz, Review by Heidi, age 14, March 5, 2016
If you have an interest in nature, you will want to keep an account of the things you observe, from sweeping vistas to vultures to the smallest flower bud. True naturalists know that it is essential to record their observations by drawing what they see. This book assumes you, as a naturalist, have some artistic skill or training already, but will guide you through many types of drawing and painting that you will need to chronicle your outdoor experiences. It covers everything. Writing, journaling, taking notes, depicting birdsong, diagramming, organizing your thoughts; correct tools, the difference between different media and how and when to combine them for different effects; how to draw various creatures, including insect anatomy, birds in flight, and muscles and fur; drawing plants; and drawing landscapes. The book instructs you in various projects to practice your skills.
This book is very beautiful and is like a textbook, but is extremely engaging and easy to read. Even if you are not an avid naturalist, you will appreciate the effort and artistry that goes into recording the beauties of nature. But if you want to record your own experiences, this book is an essential guide.