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Learning to Draw the Outdoors

Drawing Pencils

I am teaching myself to draw with graphite pencils and it is one of the most challenging skills I’ve attempted to learn in quite some time. I’d always thought that drawing was more of a talent than a skill, but I am finding that it is something you can learn if you’re willing to commit the time and practice required to develop the necessary skills. I am starting from ground zero, so this skill is going to take perseverance to develop, but I’m ok with that. I’m already getting a lot of pleasure from the process.

I have many friends who are professional artists and one planted the seed when she let me borrow a book called “Botanical Art Techniques,” which in hindsight is too advanced for a beginner but is still quite inspirational and something I hope to work up to. To learn the basics, I enrolled in an online course for drawing at a website called the Virtual Instructor, which is very good, but I’m also augmenting that instruction with free youtube videos, which are also a goldmine of free instructional content, demonstrations, and exercises to develop core skills.

Botanical Art Techniques Book

Learning to draw has already changed the way I perceive the outdoors and helped me slow down, savor, and focus on the experience. Much like writing, it requires careful observation but in a very different way than when I’m writing about my internal feelings of awe in a landscape. My perception is much more focused on form, light, depth, and color, particularly in the rocks, boulders, and tree bark that I want to draw. I’ll eventually work my way up to draw botanical subjects and use color, but for the moment I’m content with simpler forms, black and white, and shades of grey.

Simple Object Studies
Simple Object Studies

The approach I’m taking is to focus on very basic skills, such as drawing simple objects, shading to create depth and shadows, depicting accurate proportions, and pencil control rather than trying to draw representational objects or scenes. These are the fundamental building blocks of drawing and it’s important to develop these skills to draw efficiently and tackle more complex subjects. The process reminds me of when I taught myself how to learn mathematics and statistics in graduate school, by focusing on the basics and practicing, a lot, to build up a solid foundation of how to think in a different way. It’s a slow approach to skill acquisition, but it’s satisfying to notice my progress.

Do you draw or paint outdoor subjects? What was your learning process like?

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  1. My niece’s daughter could draw surprisingly well at a young age, and I bought a Lucida device from Lee Valley for her to practice on. Similar devices are available advertised on YouTube. It helps get the perspective correct.

    It didn’t work out for her as it’s made for adult sized people, and she was 4 years old! But she’s a teenager now, should check if she still has it?

  2. I can’t really draw for crap but I hack at it. Weird what things I can do OK. When I asked my (landscape architect) brother in law about drawing, he handed me the Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. Unfortunately, he wanted it back before we left the west coast and I haven’t put the money down yet to get my own copy. What I did with it I liked, though…

    • Just bought a copy – thanks for the reference!

      • If you like his book, check out John Muir Law’s website for addtional information including free online lessons. He is also involved in the upcoming Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference (September 13-17, 2023) which has both online and live options for attending.

  3. I hiked England’ Coast to Coast trail and fell in love with A. Wainwright’s line drawings. Betty Edwards, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” was the most helpful drawing book I read to draw in Wainwright’s style.

    • I remember admiring all of Wainwrights books when I visited a friend in the Lake district in 2013. I’ve been thinking about hiking that coast to coast walk as a matter of fact. A lot of people have recommended that book to me. Think I’ll buy it. Thx!

      • The 99% Invisible podcast is doing a two part series on trails and hiking. They have a nice section in the first episode about Wainwright. I am familiar with his guides to the Lake Ditrict Fells but I knew nothing of his biography. Great stuff, check it out

    • Craig Can’t Draw

      That book is a great approach to drawing. I can’t draw at all but turn the object upside down and I can pencil a fairly decent drawing.

  4. I think it’s great to try new things and challenge ourselves. This year, I took up blues harmonica, taking an online course that gives me instruction, structure and feedback. Eight months in, I’m not very good, but I’m enjoying myself and keep plugging away. I think your drawing will give you an even greater appreciation of the outdoors, which is saying something. Good luck with it.

    • Your wife must really love you! Seriously, I love trying new things too. Some even stick. A friend turned me onto SUP this summer, which I never ever thought I’d enjoy, and I love it. Very helpful for the vestibular system and balance. I seem to recall a calm lake near your house….we get up to all kinds of no good on the water.

  5. That’s great you are getting into drawing. I’ve been drawing and painting for most of my life. I’ve worked with beginners before and I have a tip that you may want to try. I often see people struggle with getting it right and spending more time w an eraser than is really helpful. My recommendation is to just wing it using a regular pen or thin tipped marker. That way you can’t erase and you can’t get hung up on trying to get it perfect. You end up with looser sketches that develop your hand and eye skills. Good luck!

  6. I would suggest you look at Nichoades The Natural Way to Draw. It has helped many to discover that they too can draw. Good luck it can be an addiction.

  7. I’m not that good at drawing but the post you made several years ago about Tenkara fishing got me into that and fly tying. I find that tying sometimes is more enjoyable than the fishing.. certain amount of creativity there.
    And I’m hoping all is well.

  8. I always thought that when I retired I’d paint. That didn’t happen. I was interested in art from a young age. I used to watch John Nagy on TV. My dad could paint anything and was a prolific artist as a hobby, self taught. In high school my highest grades were in art classes and my advisor recommended I major in art in college. College didn’t happen until several decades later, so again, that didn’t happen. I have an easel, pastels, oils, water colors, charcoals, colored pencils, canvases, etc. I painted and gave my work away as gifts. Ive got some hanging up in my house. I’ve sculpted, gave those away as gifts, and photographed. The photos are framed and hang in my living room. Yes, I’m one of those who tries to “get it right” so I started watching Bob Ross on PBS. I did two paintings in his style and what do you think I did? Times up. Gave them away. Painting, creating, for me was therapeutic. Now I’m sane so I don’t feel the need to be creative anymore. These days I just journal. It’s less messy and doesn’t smell. However, I have a great appreciation for artists’ works. Salvador Dali is my favorite artist. What was the question???

  9. Check for resources and information. While the environments may differ from hiking/backpacking, the techniques for urban sketching are similar in portability aspects. That alone makes it worth a reply to you.

  10. Agree with Phil S. about urban sketching. Urban sketchers also do sketch landscapes sometimes. Many cities will have a chapter which organizes sketching events. Ink and watercolor are popular mediums for sketching when backpacking. You can have a very light kit. Liz Steel has very good online classes – You can see her style at to see if interests you. Starting with her foundations class followed by her watercolor class is very helpful. I started out with youtube videos, but it’s so much easier to take a progressive class. I think it helped me progress faster, rather than haphazardly choosing videos. Claire Giordano has online watercolor classes for landscapes (she paints on backpacking trips), but I recommend starting with foundation classes first: For lightweight materials, see the small palettes from, and for inspiration, art from the company owner:

    I started around 2 years ago, and agree, it changes how you observe things. It’s fascinating – you’ll see how your mind simplifies things rather than sees things how they really are.

  11. I see the book in your photo is from ASBA. My mother has been doing botanical art for 15-20 years now and has been involved in ASBA and the New England Society of Botanical Artists the whole time (she was even president of NESBA for awhile). She has taken a lot of classes with them and learned a whole lot, and even attended many of their annual conferences. I’m sure their websites have info about classes and workshops if that’s the kind of thing you are into. She didn’t start doing it until she retired, though she was always a good drawer (haha, the human kind, not the bureau kind) and did take non-botanical watercolor classes before retirement (IIRC). Anyway, all this to say that if you want to get more serious about it, you definitely can! And that you can learn it in your old age too! :-)

  12. We didn’t have a TV when I was very young, so we colored and drew pictures. Between ages 8 to 12, my siblings and I won several awards in art contests. None of us ended up as artists but we did go into fields that utilized the art skills and creativity we had. Interestingly, some of the next generation are artists and working as such.

    My sisters could draw people and animals very well, however my skill more lay in technical illustration. Although I don’t draw much anymore, I still get plenty of practice designing signs and logos, usually after a pencil sketch. I also satisfy my art itch quite a bit by trying to compose photographs when I’m hiking.

  13. Ann, I whole heartedly agree! I too used to focus on getting the drawing perfect before moving on to painting a subject with watercolors. I’ve also found that going right in with a pen is a freeing and far more enjoyable experience for me. I found a course on Domestika entitled “Botanical Sketchbooking: A Meditative Approach” taught by the artist Lapin that is a very good resource for this approach to sketching. Phil, I hope you find this helpful as you progress in your artistic journey! Enjoy!

    • Hi Tina. Thanks for the tip on that course. it sounds very interesting and I will look it up. I found years ago Watercolor Secrets by Charles Reid and it was very impactful for emphasizing loose compositions that hint at a focal point. It’s always a struggle for me to not overwork pieces during drawing or watercolor. Using a medium like pens prevents me from fussing for sure.

  14. I am going to have to look into this. I love nature art that I see in people’s journals and have always wanted to do the same. I can see how it changes the way you view the outdoors.

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