Nature Journaling for the Unartistic

“What’s your takeaway from the workshop?”

“I really need to work on my art anxiety.”

I spent last week in the Lake District, with three days at the Charlotte Mason Centenary Conference in Ambleside, put on by the Charlotte Mason Institute and University of Cumbria, the institution that incorporated the Charlotte Mason College (formerly the House of Education) in 2007. As part of the pre-conference activities, John Muir Laws put on a nature journaling workshop. Given that I’ve been running a nature study group for a good few years now, and that my boys have watched most of Jack’s Nature Journal Connection videos, signing up was an obvious decision.

The session was delightful. We played ‘My Secret Plant’, discussed the tools of nature journaling, found badger tracks and got tips on how to draw waterfalls. But after lunch as I attempted a basic landscape of the fells rolling in front of me, I got a familiar sensation: elevated heart rate, clamming up, embarrassment despite no one looking at my drawing. Even after years of encouraging children in their nature journaling, I still find drawing and painting stressful, which is probably why my own nature journal has a grand total of one entry in it (well, two and a half if you include My Secret Plant and my unfinished landscape).

I don’t ever remember someone telling me as a child that art is a learned skill. I believed that painting and drawing were skills you were just born with. There were a lucky few who were artistic and the rest of us needed to find other hobbies.

But as Jack pointed out in the session, this simply isn’t true. What tends to happen is that when children get to around third grade, some kids keep drawing and get better, and others stop drawing and therefore stop improving. From other sources I’ve read, this may have to do with the desire to draw realistically developing around the same age, and when kids don’t have the basic skill to do so, they label themselves as unartistic and give up, rather than practicing and developing their skill.

Essentially, then, I have the drawing ability of an eight year old, and the self-consciousness of an adult. I think my art anxiety is understandable. And yet, it’s not something I’m ok with. Sure, I could probably make my way through life quite easily without drawing or painting, but I want to be a role model to my kids in developing new skills and building habits like nature journaling. I want to show them in word and deed that these are valuable and good uses of time and effort. I’m also noticing signs of some anxiety around art in one of my children, and I don’t want to push him into art, but to lead him (and hopefully avoid him developing the same issues I have!)

What to do then? I’ve developed a little plan.

Play to my strengths in nature journaling. Jack teaches that nature journals can be words AND numbers AND pictures. If words and numbers are my strong point, then it’s ok for my journal to be mostly words. And actually, if you look at example nature journals in the Armitt, you might be surprised to see how much words and writing feature alongside the brush drawing that we associate so much with Charlotte Mason. My goal this year is to embrace this facet of nature journaling, trusting that it is far, far better to have a habit of writing in a journal rather than thinking I ought to be doing watercolor and instead doing nothing at all.

Separate art instruction from nature journaling. This is advice from Charlotte Mason that Jack echoed in his session. Nature journaling and developing art skills are two separate areas, and the nature journal is not a place for a critique in art. On one hand, this means that I need to turn off my inner critic when it comes to nature journaling. But on the other hand, if I genuinely want to develop my skill, I need to seek out art instruction separately. To that end, I’ve started an online course with the kids where we are learning and practicing drawing. I’ll share it when we’ve finished and can give a full review.

Go tiny. One theme I’ve heard when it comes to art is that the larger we make something, the more complicated it becomes. As Jack shared in the session, the larger a painting is, the more detail we expect to see, and when you are looking at something quite complex, you automatically have a much more difficult job if you make that painting too big. With this in mind, I’ve shelved my current nature journal which is roughly A5/half letter size in favor of a 9x14cm sketchbook that I picked up a while ago and never used. It’s small – a touch bigger than an index card. My idea is that if I fill a page mostly with words, I’ll only have space for a small drawing. I will still be stretching my drawing skills, because I’m starting from almost zero, but hopefully I will be less overwhelmed and less likely to get in over my head in terms of technique.

Do you have a nature journaling habit? Do you avoid nature journaling because the thought of drawing or painting is off-putting? I’d love to hear from you!

A letter from me to you, every week.

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  1. Thank you for this! My oldest is five so I still have some time to learn more about Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy, but I definitely feel inadequate a lot of times! I haven’t developed drawing either, and many other things, but it’s always encouraging to read that I still can cultivate these things for myself!

    1. You are so welcome, Tianna! One of the challenges of home educating is the feeling that we need to know everything so that we can teach it to our kids, and I think we benefit a lot when we realize that we don’t. And we benefit even more when we start to learn alongside our kids, leading the way in learning and showing them that learning is valuable and good regardless of your stage of life!

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