How to Use Naturalist Skills to Enhance your art

Artists have always been inspired by nature. We love to capture or create images of our favorite landscapes, animals, moments, and scenes. But well-practiced artists will tell you that nature can be more than just a muse. I have learned about the benefits of using skills taught to me as a naturalist to enhance my artwork. Nature observation and study skills are incredibly useful to any painter, illustrator, sculptor, or photographer.

ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

I was recently asked to create a set of designs for enamel pins for the Arizona Master Naturalist Association. I have a moderate amount of experience with digital art, but this would be my first time attempting pin design. Pins require a unique art style because they have to use limited colors and have thick lines to accommodate the pin printing process and they need to get their point across in a very small space. I was faced with the challenge of creating art of something as complex as a California condor or ponderosa pine on a “canvas” about the size of a quarter.

California condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

Like many artists I started by looking at reference pictures of my assigned flora and fauna. This is where I began to use my naturalist skill of observation. During one of my winter field labs with the Pima County chapter of the Arizona Master Naturalists, we learned about nature journaling. We learned to look at an object, say a small plant, and try to draw it. This exercise seems easy enough if you sketch some abstract leaves in a few seconds — but will one of your classmates be able to guess what plant you drew if they see your drawing? This is where it helps to look — to really look — at your subject. In class we learned to look at the margins of the leaves, texture of the bark or stems, colors, veins, spines, thorns, shape, texture, and so much more. I then used these newly-learned observation skills with the pin designs. I observed how condors actually hold their wings when flying and how pine tree’s branches actually hang. The more I practiced focusing on all the details of my subject the better I became at recreating them in a way that others can also observe and understand.

The next naturalist skill I learned to employ in my art is interpretation. As naturalists we learn how to take the knowledge that we have and interpret it for a variety of audiences. How we present information on pollination to a group of master gardeners should be different than how we present it to fourth graders. This idea holds true for art. How I might draw a pine tree for a large mural is different from what I needed to accomplish for a pin.

California condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

Using these skills I began to create sketches of my subjects. I asked myself questions about what angle, scale, and even phenophase I should use. Should I interpret a bushy plant by drawing one entire bush, a clump of its leaves, or just a single flower? Should I interpret a bird perched calmly or soaring high above?

cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
devil’s‌ ‌claw‌ (Proboscidea‌ ‌parviflora‌)

These four images are examples of the final designs I created for this project. Each subject was carefully observed, interpreted, and designed to best identify the species to any viewer. I chose two plant designs and two bird designs to share with you to demonstrate how I tackled similar organisms so differently. The skills I have learned as a naturalist are what allowed me to create these designs in this style, and I hope that you can also find ways to incorporate your skills into any art you create!

devil’s‌ ‌claw‌ (Proboscidea‌ ‌parviflora‌)

One Comment on “How to Use Naturalist Skills to Enhance your art

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