The Illustrated Nature Journal:

A Handbook

Aleta Karstad


Drawing and Writing in Nature


On Nature Journalling: Beginnings


Methods and Advice: Writing in the Field

The Journal Page

Materials and Methods

A Final Note

[Paper Birch in Tobermory Bog, watercolour]

Drawing and Writing in Nature

The close and careful observation necessary for an on-the-spot
nature drawing is like taking your finger and tracing the face of a lover.
You're not mechanically snapping a photograph of a wildflower or
the shell of a snail - you are taking time to trace the graceful shapes,
admiring them and thinking about them. You become one with your subject.
A line of the song that my husband Fred wrote about my painting says,
"Bind another species' spirit to your own".

The concentration and stillness that it takes to draw or paint
out of doors gives nature time to unfold and reveal itself,
time for the shrew to pop out of the leaf litter beside you and dart back in,
time for the wren to call, the hawk to soar, and the butterfly to alight
and feed from the flower you draw.
My journal account often develops as the drawing or painting is done.
I pause now and then to jot down a word or phrase, to use later
in composing the text which frames the finished drawing
- so the story becomes complete in word as well as picture.

[Joyce journalling in Letrim]


There is a kind of freedom in nature journal work that engages the interest of the most hesitant and insecure adult, and the most suspicious and recalcitrant child - one chooses the subject that most intrigues one (and there is plenty of that in a natural setting) and then the closer one looks, the more interesting it gets! There is no room for feelings of resentment or reluctance in the dialogue between a grasshopper, or a mushroom, or a salamander - and the curious eye and steady hand, equipped with good quality paper and a soft pencil.

Children should be encouraged to draw from nature. What they learn at school too often is restricted to constrained imaginative work, so that children develop no interest in the usefulness of drawing. Most of them grow up with no respect for their own artwork, and no confidence in their natural ability to draw from a subject. I remember one journal workshop in particular. I had been warned, ahead of time, that there would be one girl given to disruptive and disrespectful behaviour. I busied myself throughout the workshop guiding the children, and afterward, realized that no child had been troublesome at all. I never found out which of the absorbed and hardworking young artist/journalists had been the "problem student".

Some children feel very alone in their interest in drawing realistically from natural subjects. I met one such child while doing a nature drawing workshop for a group of young naturalists. The children had all been out catching insects, and brought them in, where I showed them my work and my published books, and told them how I developed as a nature artist and author. Then I set them up with good paper and pencils, to draw their own discoveries of the day. One little girl was absolutely glowing afterwards. "I'm glad you told us that it's okay to draw real things", she exclaimed. "My art teacher tells us that we should only draw with our imagination, and when I bring my drawings from home to show her, she thinks my Dad did them". I then went on to encourage the children to sketch from memory as well, to record their fleeting glimpses of things they want to remember.

When I was young, I thought it was cheating to copy other people's work, or use photos as reference for my drawings. I never even thought of using paper and pencil on the spot to make study sketches of my favorite animal, the Horse. I would visit the horse barns at the University of Guelph, tracing in my mind the lines, curves, and proportions of the horses in their stalls, and then bicycle home to draw what I remembered. I remember being offended when my Grade 6 teacher said to me, "There'll come a day when you won't draw just horses". However, by highschool, I could and did draw horses in any position, all over my notebooks. It wasn't until I entered art school, drawing from still life arrangements, that I learned that I had been unnecessarily restrained in my interpretation of what types of artistic expression were legitimate. All a child needs to do is to try to draw what they observe. Anybody can do it, because anybody can observe!

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On Nature Journaling


While in Art School, I met biologist Frank Ross at the Royal Ontario Museum, and began to do some ink drawings of Crocodiles for him. Frank kept his journals in lined, bound books using india ink. He drew animals as he observed them, and encouraged me to keep my own natural history journal. I bought a cheap, lined, record book and a Rapidograph pen. Frank also told me that in order to be a naturalist, one should have a favourite animal or subject to study, a sort of window or stepping stone to observation in nature.

Frank himself was interested in Amphibians and Reptiles, but he told me about Wayne Grimm, a malacologist he had met at the National Museum in Ottawa, who had sparked his interest in snails, telling him how little is known about them, and how much there is to find out. So I thought snails would suit my interest in small things, and it intrigued me to be told that here was a field to which an amateur could contribute valuable observations. Two years later, Wayne recommended me for a job as illustrator in Design and Display at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, on the basis of my life-sized watercolour of an Arion slug, which showed important but hard-to-see details used in identification. I had been entirely ignorant of these details, but had noted them faithfully and precisely, through curiosity and respect. I worked on contract for Design and Display, Malacology, and Herpetology over the next few years, and Wayne often advised and encouraged me in my study of land snails.

I had always been interested in small creeping things, and before I was out of art school, had painted a series of life-sized watercolours of insects, which were purchased by one of my art teachers. I often would draw a snail or an insect, or a scrap of alga or lichen in my journal in order to identify them later. I would keep aquatic snails alive to observe and describe their behaviour. I was driven by the idea that anything I observed might not be known by anyone else. A lot of what gets published in popular nature writing is just copied from one text to another; there can be a lot of variation in species and behaviour which might not be known or noticed by anyone except yourself. The amateur naturalist can notice such things if the subject is given time, rather than just a passing reference.

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With each successive hardbound journal volume, I moved toward durability and permanence, and from lined paper to blank. During the field research for Canadian Nature Notebook I jotted on-the-spot journal notes on cards, and departed from working in my hardcover journal book for the illustrations, as the scanning technology of the late 1970's required artwork to be on separate pieces of paper. After two of my journal volumes had to be unbound for the publishing of Wild Season's Daybookin 1985, I began to keep my nature journal looseleaf, on horizontal pages of Arches 90 lb smooth watercolour paper, and this convenient format continues until the present. I now have over 200 journal pages, which I keep in binders, in archivally stable plastic sleeves, in addition to five hardbound early volumes. While living, hiking, and journalling in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) in 1990, Western Canada Wilderness Committee published a series of my journal pages from three hikes on the trail to Cumshewa Head, North Moresby Island, entitled Queen Charlotte Islands' Cumshewa Head Trail, the first and only time the journal has been reproduced in facsimile. In 1994, three months of hiking, bicycling and canoeing went into the journal writing research for the book A Place To Walk, a Naturalists Journal of Lake Ontario's Waterfront Trail, published by Natural Heritage in 1995. The drawings and paintings for this book were reproduced from my original journal pages, but the hand lettering was replaced with type. This was a result of computer-editing to enrich the text, including observations by field companions.

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Methods and Advice

Writing in the Field:

Nature Journalling is a solitary occupation, and not easy to do on a group hike. The journalist is often left behind, jotting notes or making sketches. One's companions must be respectful and understanding of the time it takes to study and record. Compromises must be made for the sake of a journal page, which can afterward be valued and admired by everyone. On a few occasions I have carried a small tape recorder in order to keep up with a group, or in attempt to keep moving away from biting insects, but the results are usually unsatisfactory, as the best descriptive phrases still take time to compose, and hurriedly-taken notes leave much to be guessed in time-consuming reconstruction. I try to make a complete word picture of a scene in time and place, including weather, sounds, smells, colours, topography, and surrounding vegetation so that the plant or animal that is the focus of my attention is provided with a setting, for nothing is an island unto itself. I sometimes bracket an unsuitable word in my rough notes, so that I can search for a better term later as I hand-letter text around the sketch on my journal page. Field notes can be jottted on a 3x5 card, pocket notebook, or handheld computer for later transcription, as it's nice to have elbow room and just the right slope under the page for careful hand-lettering. Also, when the sketch or painting is done, it's often time to head on down the trail, or go in for supper!

The Journal Page

My current journal page style is both formal and flexible, with strictly consistent top and side margins for hand-lettered text, variable columns, and no restrictions on size or placement of sketches. In this way, whether a sketch has been made in five minutes of fun, or five hours of intense concentration, it is framed by the text in a formal way, flowing into and belonging with the other pages. When a journal account continues beyond the illustrated page it began on, I like to accent following pages by designing initial capital letters that playfully express the subject at hand, which I call, in the calligrapher's tradition, "decorated versals". Check examples of a few of my pages.

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Field Equipment

You can travel as light as you want, but if you can make yourself a little camp where you sit to work, the comfort will result in greater ability to concentrate and do your best work. Be prepared to protect yourself and your work from sun, wind, rain, and cold. A folding stool is a good idea if you get too stiff sitting on the ground, but a simple closed cell foam pad is great for protection against damp, cold, and rough surfaces. I often carry a large beach umbrella if I don't have to walk too far (preferably blue and white, to neutralize the yellow colour of sunlight). Take warmer garments than you think you will need, as sitting still for a long time is very cold business. Always wear a hat - a brimed one is best. Sometimes I wear a toque ontop of the brimmed hat for extra warmth. In cold weather I sit in a sleeping bag on a ground sheet, and drink hot tea from a thermos. A light tarp can be rigged up to fend off wind and rain. Sometimes I have pitched a tent, just to be sure to get that watercolour done, whatever the weather, and it has proven a great screen against biting flies. Heat and mosquitoes are the worst conditions I have had to contend with, but these too can be overcome by the determined nature journalist. In hot weather, a wet towel across my back, and a wet hat, provide cool comfort. A little insect repellant dabbed behind the ears and around the back of the neck and on the backs of my hands keeps me from twitching and swatting, but the residue must be wiped from my fingers and the edge and heel of my hand or it will damage the paper. The best trick of all against mosquitoes when one is stationary in the woods, is a burning insect coil, smoking away upwind a bit. The mosquitoes just don't seem to be able to find me then.


The choice of archivally stable materials is important for anything that is to be done carefully and with the intention of making a permanent record. Choose non-lignin, neutral or non-acid papers and carbon-based (india) ink or permanent pigment felt-tip pens (all available at artist supply stores). Coloured pencils are a good choice, but graphite pencil should be sprayed with a fixative to keep it from smudging. Watercolour is considered archivally stable, provided it is kept in the dark, and away from wetness.
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  1. Before beginning your drawing, establish your margins by tracing them using a lined page behind, or a cut-out template ontop. Aleta's page is horizontal, and her template has three cutout spaces, each defining a column of text. Marking the margins with whisper-light pencil lines allows you to see how your sketch will relate to the eventual text.

  2. Place your drawing anywhere on the page - someplace different from where the drawing was on the previous page, and let it extend beyond the margin wherever it likes.

  3. After your drawing is finished, or when you feel ready to begin writing, shape your text spaces around the drawing - plan how many columns there should be, and how they (or it) should flow. Spaces between columns can be sloped or curved, to flow with or compliment the edges that surround the illustration. Mark all the inner margins lightly with pencil, and plan to abide strictly by the boundaries you have set for the beginning and ending of each line. Smooth, clean edges to your blocks of hand lettering will establish the formal elegance of your page, however unsteady the lettering may be, or however primitive the sketch.

  4. Either in the field, or back at camp or home, compose and edit your journal entry from the notes you have taken during your hike or throughout your sitting, adjusting the amount of text to fill the space you have designed.

  5. Hand-letter your journal entry in printing rather than writing, for easy legibility, and don't worry too much about the absolute straightness of lines, as the slope of a line can be compensated for by an adjustment in the next line. The texture, or "colour" of the block of text should average out as an even tone. If you make a spelling mistake, or change your mind about a word as you are writing, simply draw a single line through the letter or word, and continue. An asterisk and a footnote can be used for more involved changes or comments. Always indicate the date and place of your obsersvation at or near the top of each journal entry.

A Final Note

On our field trip West to write and illustrate the book Fragile Inheritance, we took a teenage apprentice from Ohio. She wrote weekly "Letters Home" for her local newspaper. Near Flin Flon, she saw the Aurora Borealis for the first time, but making a detailed description of its aspect was not easy for her, as the words she found described her own feelings rather than the Aurora. We encouraged her with questions: What did the Aurora look like? How was it moving? How much and which parts of the sky did it cover? Searching for just the right words on the spot is always a worthwhile endeavour, as you can never do better than when communing with your subject itself. Every thing you pause to notice deserves the most precise and thoughtful description, and your journal deserves your best. We need to push our limits in order to improve.

If you are drawing or painting, and you feel that your skills are inadequate - don't worry. Once the page is finished, the sketch will be framed and explained by the writing which attends it. Take Nature seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Anything that is done on location has value. You can't lose. It's an immediate process, like a relationship.

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Aleta Karstad

home at Pinicola

Writing and illustrations protected by Copyright. For permission to reproduce by any means,
contact Aleta Karstad:

[Redback Salamander]

[dragonfly and mayfly]

[memory sketch of groundhog]

[chipmunk and oatmeal]

[early sketches of land snail]

[ventral view]
[early sketches of Helisoma]

[versal from A Place to Walk]

[Running Strawberry Bush]
[skin of Dragonfly nymph]


[in the elements, Georgian Bay gull]

[Whorled Aster in Letrim]

[Okanagan Towhee]

[creekside True Fir]