Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Interviewed by Lynn Seddon, author of Exploring Nature with Children

I'm delighted that Lynn Seddon, author of Exploring Nature with Children, recently interviewed me and has the full interview on her website, Raising Little Shoots. please take a look, I think you'll enjoy it. Read it HERE

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Let 2017 be the Year You Begin a Nature Journal

Let 2017 Be the Year You Begin a Nature Journal from Jan Blencowe on Vimeo

Double click the video for full screen or use the arrow icon between HD and Vimeo after you click the play button.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A First Look at Stillman & Birn Soft Cover Sketchbooks

DIY: Personalizing and Reinforcing a Soft Cover Sketchbook with Duct Tape from Jan Blencowe on Vimeo.

Stillman & Birn has sent me a few of their new soft cover sketchbooks to test drive. Same great paper inside (this is a Zeta, my fav) so that's already a plus.

There is no perfect sketchbook, there's only the perfect sketchbook for your priorities, preferences and projects, (and yours like mine may always be changing depending on what I'm exploring or focusing on). There's always a give and take on features, durability, paper weight, adaptability, and media friendliness.

I'll start by saying that I love the Zeta paper, smooth, heavy weight (180 lbs) and wet media friendly.

I also love working across a two page spread. I will work across a spiral if need be, because I do work in spiral books sometimes, and I will frequently work across the gutter in a hard bound sketchbook, which means I'm always looking for a sketchbook that lays really flat.

 I also scan my sketchbooks and having one that lays very flat is really necessary to get a good scan with out shadowing.

Paper weight, quality, and wet media friendly is priority #1.  Laying Flat is priority #2, and durability is priority #3. The weight of the sketchbook is also a consideration and the longer I travel around with a sketchbook in my bag or in my hand the more important that becomes. That may eventually become priority #4.

In the video I'm checking out the construction of the sketchbook to get a feel for how well it's put together and whether or not I think it will stand up to daily use out in the field.

The second part is my demo of how I reinforced the soft cover to give it more stability, and a bit of protection from water/weather.


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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Durham Fair Sketches 2016

Sketches from the Durham Fair 2016 from Jan Blencowe on Vimeo.

This video is in high def, you can enlarge it to full screen , and pause on any sketch you'd like to see close up for details etc. 

One of the sketching highlights of my year is sketching at Connecticut's largest agricultural fair. The Durham Fair turned 100 this year. There have actually been 97 fairs, a few being skipped due to war or hurricanes (not much gets in the way of New Englanders and their country fairs!) 

Fair day is always so exciting for me. It's a test of skill, focus, creativity, powers of observation.  For me, challenges are fun. 

Every year I prepare, select a sketchbook, and decide on materials and a few goals for the day.

Here's what I decided on for this year.


I went with a Handbook Journal Hot Press Fluid 100 7x10 inch spiral bound field watercolor journal. These are very hard to come by in the smooth hot press paper surface. Once again I have forgotten where I ordered it from and I searched the internet and still can't find one. The cold press ones are readily available though. In case you're searching for this, it's the one with the green cover. Blue cover is cold press paper. (and also very nice)

I like this size because it's a horizontal format, longer that it is high, which is great because most animals at the fair also fit those proportions. Cows, goats, sheep etc. will all fit nicely on a page.

I also love the very smooth Fluid 100 paper. It's not an outstanding watercolor paper but a very serviceable and reasonably priced one that I enjoy using.


I decided that the fair was a good time to really give my brand new Sailor Fude de Mannen fountain pen a workout. It's always a risk taking a brand new tool you're unfamiliar with to the fair but I decided to take it anyway. I did pack several other pens just in case it was a disaster. 

My Sailor Fude came with two cartridges of  black ink that are not waterproof. I ordered the converter so I can fill it with waterproof ink but it hadn't arrived yet. However, that didn't really matter at all since I love working with water soluble inks.

I know that almost every water soluble ink is dye based and likely to fade over time. Yup, bummer. But, the ease of creating tonal ink washes one the spot with just a water brush, and the ability to soften misplaced lines and "mistakes" really takes the pressure off me when I'm working very quickly in a crowded venue where a lot of people are likely to ask to look at my sketches. It's just a little bit of protection against having sketches that go horribly wrong and feeling crappy about people looking at my work. 

I also took my Lamy Joy filled with De Atramentis Black document ink (waterproof) for writing.

Paints and Brushes

I took my 14 color set of QoR watercolors and a few brand new Pental Aquash water brushes in various sizes. 


Two cheap PaperMate mechanical pencils and a stick eraser


Mini spray bottle, paper towels, and a bunch of extra pens that I never touched. (They were there "just in case")

Field Bag

I have recently switched from my over the shoulder Eddie Bauer bag to an around the waist bag. I've  had it for a couple of weeks but my trip to the fair was the big test. I found it incredibly helpful to have the bag around my waist. My shoulder didn't get painful and I had an easier time finding my supplies because I can look down into the bad. It also has an attachment for a bottle of water, which is wonderful, except that I was so engrossed sketching that I forgot to drink until I stopped for lunch. 

This is the bag I bought. It might be a bit small for some of you but I am always trying to eliminate and bring only what I truly need. I can fit my wallet and cell phone in the bag also. This is a keeper. 


Sketching at large, crowded venues with live subjects (or complicated subjects like at the natural history museum) is challenging and I have finally worked out a process that works well for me. I start with a very brief pencil sketch. This helps me identify the absolutely essential characteristics of my subject. It often includes things like the angle of ears, the shape of the nose and mouth, the slope of the shoulders and angle of the hips. This is typically a very loose, contour line sketch, with special attention paid to the things I just mentioned. This is also an opportunity to make changes if the animal moves, turns it's head etc. It also lets me quickly choose another animal (same kind of course) if the first suddenly becomes active but another in the pen is resting quietly. Generally, I leave the pencil lines as part of the sketch and don't erase unless there's a build up of graphite that's likely to smear. 

Next, I switch to fountain pen.I am not simply tracing over my previous pencils lines, but I am looking with fresh eyes, making new observations and correcting and adjusting, which is unavoidable with moving subjects.  I may also indicate lines for shading or markings. I include the ground that's usually covered in straw, hay or wood shavings, to place them in a bit of a setting.

I bring out the water brush and watercolors next. First, I work with the ink to create some tonal washes which helps create the form and pattern of light and shadow. Then I go right in with the watercolors. Sometimes I let the watercolors touch the ink and mix, other times I allow a bit of white space to remain so the watercolors stay clean.

One of the advantages to working with water soluble ink is that it does mix with your watercolors and creates a harmonious look to a series of related sketches. 

Once the color is dropped in I use a pen with waterproof ink to make a note of the breed of animal, or the farm that's exhibiting. 


My goals for the fair this year were to give the new Sailor Fude a really good workout and to focus on quantity, creating as many sketch as I possibly could. That goal really helped me to focus, push forward and keep my sketching fast, lively and loose.

How Long Do They Take?

I got asked that question at least a dozen times at the fair. Here's how the day's sketching panned out. I was at the fair for 5 hours and 45 minutes. I took a very quick lunch break and spent a little time talking with a few of the exhibitors (rabbits and Shropshire sheep) and picking out a dozen bars of my favorite goats milk soap, I think that basically takes care of the 45 minutes. That leaves five hours of sketching. During that time I did 26 sketches, that works out to approximately 8 minutes per sketch, which seems about right to me. I think the break down would be something like 3 minutes for the pencil sketch, 2 minutes with the fountain pen, and 3 minutes for the watercolor. 


All of the pencil, ink and watercolor work was done on the spot. Later that evening I added borders, backgrounds, a little more writing and cleaned up a couple of sketches. The mini lop rabbit needed the addition of white to help get him looking really fluffy and the Brown Red Modern Game Hen's head got too dark from the ink and I used an acrylic marker to bring the color back. The backgrounds were made with Faber-Castell brush tip markers, and a Higgins India ink marker.

Hope you enjoyed hearing about my day at the fair. I encourage you to sketch at YOUR local fair this year ! 

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Guest Post: Lynn Seddon on Exploring Nature with Children

"Essential nature literacy", a term coined by Robert Michael Pyle in Orion in 2000, describes the aim of beloved books such as Handbook of Nature-Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, which was to train teachers and facilitate direct contact between children and living organisms is one of the ideas discussed in this wonderful blog post by Jennifer Frazer: Natural History Is Dying, and We Are All The Losers.
Please take the time to read Frazer's blog post. It really is a must-read. In it she discusses her own 'free-range' childhood, and love of the natural world.
My own children are educated at home. One of the primary reasons for this decision was the freedom for them to spend hours out of doors. When my eldest daughter was four months old, I came across the writings of Charlotte Mason , a British educator who believed that education was an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Her emphasis on time spent outdoors, in all weathers, "Never be within doors, when you can rightly be without." was a large part of her philosophy, it being necessary for a child to form a relationship with the natural world, and to learn about nature directly.
Her ideas are often counter-cultural to our modern, fast-paced, intensive lives. We often feel our children are to be supervised at every turn, facts stuffed into their little heads, every moment filled with activity.
Charlotte advised differently:
"They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens."
In other words, we must let them form their own connections, ask questions (and not necessarily give them an immediate answer; let them see if they are able to work it out themselves. Allow them time and space to form their own relationship with creation.
"Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way."
Note the words Miss Mason uses: "encouraged to watch" and "patiently and quietly". What skills our children will develop if only we followed this advice.
"Consider, too, what an unequaled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun — the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth, what will they not fit him for?"
Here is where Miss Mason puts it in black and white for us; we don't need to worry about the child who spends their time dawdling among the flower beds, watching a butterfly, listening to bird song, or running their fingers through a group of tadpoles, gathered in a pond. These are valuable lessons for a child of any age. This "mental training", it will prepare them for anything they will chose to study, any career they will follow in later life.  Miss Mason even lists out some of the qualities this time in nature will develop: "the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit".
This is a call to all parents, grandparents, and carers of children of all ages. We can reclaim the childhoods of our precious children as Miss Mason would have us do:
"Every child has a natural interest in the living things about him which it is the business of his parents to encourage."
How to begin if this is a new idea for your family; start small. Just five minutes each day, over the course of a year will give you over thirty hours of nature study!
  • Before you tuck your child into bed each night, take a moment to look at the moon. Notice how its shape, size, and even colour changes.
  • Plant seeds in a seed tray, water them carefully, and plant them out in your garden when they are ready. Pumpkins would be a good plant to grow with children, as would sunflowers, radishes, and sweet, cherry tomatoes.
  • Hang up a feeder for the birds in your garden and spend a few moments each day watching which feathered friends come to visit.
  • Take a picnic, and watch the world go by.
  • Take a late summer walk and see how many different types of seeds you can collect.
  • Dress up well and go puddle jumping.

I would strongly recommend keeping a nature journal along-side your child - a record of what you observe in the natural world. Do not worry about your sketching ability; the point of a nature journal is to record scientific data, so accuracy is much more important than creating pretty pictures. Drawing skills can be learned along the way. It will also be encouraging for your child to see you learning something new. Here are some pages from the journals my children and I have kept:
                      Exploring Nature with Children from Jan Blencowe on Vimeo.

If you are keen to get going but would like more ideas, consider my book Exploring Nature With Children, a complete, year-long curriculum designed to guide you, step by step, through an entire calendar year of nature study. Completely self-contained, this book has all the information you need to make nature study happen regularly for your family.
Exploring Nature With Children is currently available with a 20% discount until August 20th. Simple use code EXPLORE as you checkout.
To find out more about my book Exploring Nature With Children, or simply to follow our nature walks and journals, please visit us at my blog: www.raisinglittleshoots.com

Happy exploring!
[Sign up for a Free Mini Nature Journaling Video Class HERE and stay tuned for my upcoming on line class, Beginning a Nature Journal: creating lively sketches of the natural world, launching in spring 2017 ~ Jan]

Monday, August 29, 2016

Should You Nature Journal from Photos?

click image to enlarge
Should you nature journal from photos? 

Interesting question, right? Actually, I thought I'd left that whole "working from photos" controversy behind when I gave up plein air painting (that's the practice of painting outdoors, directly in front of your subject, as opposed to painting in the studio from either a photo or your own field studies or both).

Why is this even a question? 

It's a question because people have mixed feelings about this and it keeps coming up. This very question was asked recently in a group I participate in, and it gave me that same sinking feeling that I used to get in the plein air groups I participated in when this discussion would inevitably come up.

So, What's Going On?

This is what I observe. First, there's a group of people who work from photos and really, really want to justify that. They work from photos because it's easier to work from photos, and because it's easier to draw from photos, they're happier with their results. Fair enough, we want making art to make us happy.

I think we all realize that much of the hard work of translating a 3D object into a 2D image is done for you by the camera. So, better results are almost guaranteed, no surprise there.

Photos also hold still, and with a click of the mouse we can zoom in to observe detail to a painstaking degree. Photos can be marked with a grid to help get proportions correct, traced, and any number of other techniques that help you draw.

If your observation and drawing skills are weak then working from a photo will fill in a lot of those gaps.

Yet, I often get the sense that these folks feel guilty, because they realize that if they had better observation and drawing skills they wouldn't need to work from a photo. So they're a little defensive (OK sometimes a lot).

There's another group who are the purists. They will never, ever, ever use a photo and will be pretty vocal about that and condemning of people who do use photos. Do you see why I get a stomach ache whenever this issue comes up?

So how does this fit in with nature journaling? 

These are just my opinions so take them with a grain of salt.

Nature journaling is about interacting with and observing the natural world. I think much of the benefit of keeping a nature journal is lost when you work from photos. From a broader art making perspective I think it is always a hundred times better to work from life (no matter what your subject is) than to work from a photo.

Copying from a photo is one of the surest ways to suck the liveliness and truth out of your work leaving you with a dead, dull rendition of your subject. It takes many years of working from life to be able to use a photo reference wisely.

Is it Ever OK to Use Photos?

Of course. The page above is a perfect example. I was absolutely taken by surprise by a fox at a local park. She was literally right there, she didn't seem to mind my presence, and walked right in front of me as she crossed the parking lot to enter the meadow to hunt. I followed her and was able to observe from a fairly close distance. She ignored me and went on with her hunting, (and if you've ever watch a fox hunt you know how absolutely adorable they are when they pounce!).

Needless to say I was pretty excited, and began literally scribbling down her movements. I mean look at the sketches on the left hand page. They are nothing more than ridiculously bad gesture sketches done in seconds flat. But... they are very authentic. They recall for me my excitement, her quickness, and did I mention my excitement?

I also snapped a few photos with my phone. While the fox was still there in the meadow, and after I had filled the first page with gesture sketches, I did the two more developed sketches on the right, by both directly observing the fox and referring to my phone photos. That, basically, is how I use photos, as supplements to direct observation.

Here's the Rub

Even after thirty years of being an artist, I still struggle with other people judging my work and comparing it to other people's work. I thought when I began to focus solely on nature journaling and sketchbook work that I'd be in an arena where everyone was working pretty much directly from life. I thought that the value of rapid, gestural, lively sketches done on the spot would be appreciated and understood.

That's not the case though, and I find it difficult sometimes to remember that not everyone is going to understand that some of the really amazing "sketches" that they see online were actually done from photos, and that working from life is a very different genre with different qualities that make it amazing.

Stay True to your Call

I don't particularly like to work from photos, unless I'm really focusing on a bird, or animal  and I need time to deconstruct its anatomy, markings etc by making drawings from photos, so that when I see it in the field I have a knowledge base to dip into as I'm sketching. I'm not interested in doing scientific, bird or botanical illustrations. I'm all about the gesture!

What I do love is being outside, and the challenge of sketching directly from life, even if the result is only a very quick, scribbly gesture study like the foxes above. I don't particularly like knowing that viewers are comparing sketches I have done in a matter of minutes directly from a moving subject outdoors to someone else's sketch done from a photo that took hours to complete.

To help with that I continually remind myself why I value the approach I've chosen. I really, truly do believe that working from life is the best possible way to approach nature journaling. It certainly brings me the most joy.

At the end of the day I love what I do. I value each and every sketch, the more developed ones, the scribbly ones, the half-finished-because-the-subject-ran-off ones, the really "bad" ones that I try not to think of as "bad". I've made a commitment to myself to value and honor all my sketches for what they are: glorious experiences of the natural world, honestly recorded in the moment.

Own your Process

I think it's important to own your process. If you work from photos, understand your reasons for doing so and say so when you discuss your work publicly. If you work from life, accept that your sketches are going to reflect the rough and tumble excitement, motion and inaccuracies that working in the field produces. Love what you do and how you do it. Don't judge or worry about what others are doing.(easier said than done, I know).

Making art should make you happy. Being in nature should make you happy. I made up my mind long ago to make that a reality in my life. How about you?

Don't forget, Thursday is a guest post from Lynn Seddon, author of Exploring Nature with Children.

Click HERE for a free nature journaling mini-class, and stay tuned for my upcoming online course Beginning a Nature Journal: creating lively sketches of the natural world coming in spring 2017

Friday, August 26, 2016

Can Keeping a Nature Journal bring Natural History Back from the Brink of Extinction?

In June 2014, Jennifer Frazer wrote an article in Scientific American called Natural History is Dying, and We Are All the Losers. That article has once again been making its way around Facebook, in groups dedicated to nature journalers, naturalists and other involved in environmental issues. Its garnered a lot of attention and many comments.

There's been much discussion, and lamenting of the state of affairs that Frazer points out. 

Her article opens with this sobering insight, "In other words, the people society depends on to know the most about life -- people with college biology degrees -- in nearly all cases have no obligation to learn anything about actual living organisms. To me, this is a shocking dereliction."

She goes on to point out a number of other disquieting facts about the stigma of "natural history" within the scientific and academic communities and notes that "Natural History [flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries], when Linnaeus, Darwin, and even U.S. Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were avid and avowed naturalists. It was a time when basic knowledge of local plants and animals was considered part of a good education -- and of being a good citizen" (emphasis mine). 

Frazer tells us that the enthusiasm for nature study and natural history encompassed schoolchildren as well, noting that between 1890 and 1940 books such as....Anna Botsford Comstock's, Handbook of Nature-Study  were an essential part of classrooms across America. 

I believe that keeping a nature journal has now become a very important part of creating a culture that values nature. In fact, I might go so far as to say that acquiring a basic knowledge of local plants and animals makes us better citizens, global citizens as well as local citizens, who will act, engage and vote with environmental concerns in mind. It may also be a practice that rescues natural history from the dust bin in the university basement. 

Years ago when my children were young I home educated them and nature study was a big part of our lives. We had Anna Comstock's book mentioned above, and we were heavily influenced by the 19th century educational philosopher and practitioner Charlotte Mason, who advocated nature study as an essential part of a child's education. In fact it was during those years that I  began keeping my own nature journals, (badly at first, but with much joy). 

Our children are our future, and the best hope for the future of our planet, and because I think that keeping a nature journal is such an easy, enjoyable but important way to develop a knowledge, love and appreciation for nature in both adults and children I have invited Lynn Seddon, author of Exploring Nature with Children, to write a guest post responding to Frazer's observations and expounding on her own experiences as a Charlotte Mason home educator in the UK. 

Lynn's post will be published on Thursday September 1, 2016 and I hope you will check back to read it. 

Click HERE for a free nature journaling mini-class, and stay tuned for my upcoming online course Beginning a Nature Journal: creating lively sketches of the natural world coming in spring 2017