Living a great life is more important than producing a single great work

Last week I shared a study that said being permanently busy fractures our brains and may cause irreparable damage to our ability to be creative. []

This had me thinking about focus, and about quality time devoted to art. Ah, to just zero in on one creative endeavor only. Something to devote one’s life to. Sounds wonderful.

But can one be too focused?

In a July 2019 New York Times column, David Brooks wrote about what it takes to accomplish great things in a life. He referenced Auguste Rodin and his protégé Ranier Maria Rilke, who were both monomaniacal, obsessively focused thinkers and creators—to the detriment of both their personal lives (they were both, apparently, real jerks to their friends and families) and any other creative endeavors. Single-track geniuses.

One of my five great life’s passions: my partner for life.

One of my five great life’s passions: my partner for life.

There has to be a balance. Indeed, Brooks went on to make the argument that generalists—people who achieve excellence or proficiency in multiple creative endeavors—perform much better than specialists. [Reference: “Range,” by David Epstein]

“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.

Furthermore, Brooks wrote that “people who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.”

Interesting, because I’ve spent my life doing so many different things that 1) my Mom has said she has given up trying to explain to people what Jonathan and I do for a living and just says we’re “professional adventurers;” and 2) an acquaintance once quipped to me, possibly in jest but I’m afraid also serious: “Are you a polymath or do you just have a short attention span?” For the record, a polymath is “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning” so I prefer the former, of course. But then I start to fret again about “focus” and producing great work . . .

As creative people, we angst a lot about “focus” and application to our craft. We fret when we’re too busy or scattered, we worry what it does to us, and we feel guilty when we put too many oars in the water: I paddle around with nature journaling; writing books; teaching classes; leading trips as a naturalist; and getting interested in new art media (printmaking with plants, grinding my own pigments and making paint, lapidary and silversmithing, among many others). The sea of my life is almost always churned up by all these oar strokes.

Going back to Brooks, his final take-home message gives us permission to nurture all those passions. In fact, a better life may be had by embracing them: 

“A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say, family, vocation, friends, community, faith — and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.

You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.”

I would say as of this point in my life my five big passions are:

art (writing and field sketching)

conservation work

being a naturalist

succeeding as a business owner

my marriage

I don’t need, or want, to focus on only one—I agree with Mr. Brooks. Although I am still committed to being less frenetically busy and to having more truly lazy down-time, I will stop beating myself up for having multiple passions and interests.

I would like to live a great life, at the intersections of my chosen passions.

What is your pentagram of a great life?

Learning creates skill via brain growth (or, talent is not innate)

Practice really does make perfect (a glass of wine helps, too).

Practice really does make perfect (a glass of wine helps, too).

A few weeks ago I shared an article on Facebook from (here) that made the case to praise effort, not talent. “The Psychology of Success: Praising People for Effort vs. Ability” shares the results of research by Carol Dweck. Essentially, Dweck found that praising people for their “natural ability” can be destructive because if you think that skills and talents are things you either have or don’t have, when you struggle, it’s that much harder. The study showed that focusing on effort and determination makes you better at overcoming future obstacles.

I’d like to go a step farther here and share something I heard this weekend at the first annual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference in Pacific Grove, California. In his inspiring keynote address, John Muir Laws shared that practicing a skill actually makes your brain grow. Laws said that if you consistently put in the “pencil miles” you will get better.

That’s right: skill is earned not innate. Brains are hungry for exercise and like other muscles respond to input and use.

An article in Science News for Students (here— “Learning rewires the brain”) explains that while neurons are the best-known cells in the brain, another type, called glia, actually makes up a whopping 85 percent of brain cells. For a long time, scientists thought that glia simply held neurons together. But recent research by Doug Fields at the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, reveals that glial cells not only become active during learning, they increase (while also creating an important sheath-forming protein called myelin that helps transmit brain signals). These changes in the brain allow for faster, stronger signaling between neurons as the brain gains new skills.

And, the gist of the study showed that the best way to speed up those signals is to introduce new information slowly. Pencil miles! The more you challenge your brain (not just repeating the same thing over and over, but introducing new things to make it work hard) the more likely you are to improve.

A reader of this blog also recommended Angela Duckworth’s book Grit. A psychologist, Duckworth shows that for anyone striving to succeed—students, educators, athletes, artists—the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

So practice really does make perfect.

Get out the pencil and challenge yourself, every day.

Minimalist paint kit $28— small, light, simple


I’ve just returned to Tucson from Pacific Grove, California, from the first annual Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference, where I was both co-organizer and instructor. My “Minimalist On-the-Go Sketch Kit: Simplifying Your Gear and Paints” class was full with a waiting list, and judging by the comments, well-received!

A number of people enquired about purchasing the mini kits that I assembled for students to test sim[;e, triad-based painting while standing up. So here they are!

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The kit includes:

  • Paint tin with six half-pans and five sample colors from Daniel Smith Paints (a transparent, lifting triad comprising Cerulean, for cyan; Quinacrodone Rose, for magenta; Cobalt Yellow, for a neutral yellow; and two “extras” —Burnt Sienna, and Indanthrone Blue, a warm very dark blue).

  • Mini spray bottle to wet paints.

  • Mini water container with a steel washer on the bottom.

  • Coroplast palette that slides into the back of your journal and has a magnet strip on which to place your paint tin and the water container.

  • Binder clip to hold your cloth and acts as a paint brush holder.

  • Micro-fibre cloth strip.

The price is $28, plus $8 Priority Mail shipping. You may order a mini kit here: MINIMALIST PAINT KIT

You may download and print my PDFs from the class; these include color information, mixing example, and a template for printing your own triad-mixing sheet (laser printer required; if you load with watercolor paper, you will want no heavier than 90-pound paper). Click below:

Color information and mixing example

Triad-mixing template to print on watercolor paper

Fall workshops — Nature Journaling and Nature Writing

Have you ever wanted to start a nature journal, or take the leap into nature writing? I’m offering two workshops on those subjects this fall at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, just west of downtown Tucson.

Nature Journaling: Learn the art of seeing and recording the world around you

Friday, November 15 – 5 pm to 7 pm in the Tumamoc Library

Saturday, November 16 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

Sunday, November 17 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

$145 per person

Keeping a nature journal can both deepen your connections to the natural world and help you learn more about it. Neither science education nor art training is needed—you will develop the skills of a naturalist and a field sketch-artist along the way.

This 3-session class will introduce the tools and processes of keeping a nature journal, with instructor Roseann Hanson and guest instructor Paul Mirocha.

“Your observations, questions, and reflections will enrich your experiences and develop gratitude, reverence, and the skills of a naturalist . . . If you train your mind to see deeply and with intentional curiosity . . . the world will open before you.” - John Muir Laws, artist, naturalist, and author

In this class we will learn how to practice “intentional curiosity” as the core of nature journaling: to ask questions, to dig deeper, to focus our minds both intently and intentionally.

The class will include:

The nuts-and-bolts of journal-keeping (paper and ink types, archival systems, how to make entries that you can refer to later, laying out pages, prompts to jump-start observations, and tips on researching science questions sparked by your observations).

Easy tips that enable anyone to get started sketching and painting. Roseann will help free you from your inner critic and start sketching and painting. Art in a nature journal is not only lovely to see, but an important component of your skillset because the very act of drawing and painting something from life involves incredibly intense observation. Your brain is wholly occupied by only that thing you are observing and drawing—it is a kind of meditation that results in new insights, deeper understanding, and even reverence and gratitude.

Instructor Roseann Hanson, who has been keeping a nature journal for more than 30 years, will be your guide on the journey to becoming a naturalist, nature journalist, and artist.



Writing the Lives of the Sonoran Desert: Exploring nature with words

Friday, December 13 – 5 pm to 7 pm in the Tumamoc Library

Saturday, December 14 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

Sunday, December 15 – 9 am to 3 pm at Tumamoc Hill

$145 per person

In this class you will learn to explore nature with words, from poetry to fiction to science writing. You will learn to participate in nature fully and honestly, as well as to observe, record, and express nature in writing, without “purple prose.”

Nature writers Jonathan and Roseann Hanson will share with you their “secret” for a daily dose of wildness, along with a simple process of recording what you observe accurately, of researching facts and details, and then potentially producing an article or essay for personal enjoyment or publication.

The class will include:

Prior to the workshop: The Hansons will share a suggested reading list and a few easy assignments to give you content to bring to the first class.

On Friday evening in the beautiful Desert Laboratory library, which resonates with over a century of powerful words about nature (it is the birthplace of the field of ecology and the venerable journal Ecology), Jonathan and Roseann will introduce types of writing and share samples to discuss:

- Nature writing (more poetic writing; examples of writers: Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder)

- Natural history writing (combining science with creative prose; examples of writers: Gary Paul Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Ann Zwinger, Pete Dunne)

- Interpretive writing (careful interpretation of science-based facts into interesting writing for very general use)

- Or a combination of all three, such as Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses.

On Saturday and Sunday the class will spend time exploring Tumamoc Hill and engaging with its wildness through writing exercises. Bring a lunch each day to enjoy in the Sonoran Plant garden courtyard. Throughout the weekend we’ll share writing, and discuss ways to overcome common challenges such as overly “purple” prose or writer’s block.

By the end of class, you will come away with a new outlook on nature writing, along with new skills. Along the way the Hansons will challenge your perception of nature and your role in it—and spark your creative process.


The voices in your head . . .

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“That’s terrible.”

“Ugh, that’s a horrible sketch.”

“I can’t draw.”

“I’ll never be able to write beautifully . . .”

Those voices in our heads. They are like the noise of a river rushing at us, drowning out all other thoughts and artistic urges.

Those voices are: the inner critic who convinces you people will judge your art; the mean left-brain demon who will never leave your right-brain-artist alone, convincing the sensitive right brain that it is frivolous, selfish, and talentless; and the nag who keeps telling you there are “more important” things to do than draw, paint, or write—like cleaning the house or painting the window trim.

And then there are the voices of others—the noise of the digital world and the cacophony of our urban life.

How do we learn to turn off the voices and embrace a creative life? It seems so daunting and yet it’s more important than ever before—in the face of all the digital noise and criticism—to unplug and reconnect with nature and feed our artistic souls. We need nature to ground us, and nature needs us to help save it, through the attention and love that art and writing can provide.

I find these tips really do help quash the voices in our heads:

  • Dedicate 30 minutes to an hour per day, around the same time—mine is between 5 and 6 pm—to write in a journal, complete one sketch, or just meditate (if you are good at that; I find that sketching is a great form of meditation in itself). Be absolutely sure to turn off your phone and devices during this special creative time. If you have serious digital FOMO (fear of missing out), then seek help before you try anything artistic; I’m not kidding, I see too many people unable to disconnect from their phones for more than a few minutes . . . it’s an addiction that needs to be addressed if you cannot turn off your phone and forget it for a few hours.)

  • When you open a journal to start a sketch, start with a few simple things each time that warm up your drawing hand and artistic eye. For me, this is drawing the simple grid and symbols of sunrise / sunset, weather data, and latitude longitude (see journal page, below). The lines loosen up my hand, and the recording of data is the beginning of tearing myself away from the noise of everyday life.

  • This is the hardest part for me, but it works: when you start to sketch—let’s say I’ve gone out to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in the early morning to draw the active coyotes—you absolutely have to just start, to commit to just putting an impression to paper, and to hell with the voices in your head (or the people who stop by to watch). Actually, the latter can be very empowering if you can get over the fear of others watching. Because—and I swear to this—no matter how bad my drawings are, whoever stops by to peer over my shoulder and see what I’m drawing (and they always do, like I’m part of the displays at the museum!), they always, and I mean always, say something nice. Soak it up. Smile. Say “thank you!” Don’t demure, don’t say it’s terrible. DO NOT GIVE IN TO THE INNER CRITIC. This will boost your confidence hugely and it is a very effective way to shut up your inner critic. Trust me.

  • Choose simple things to start. Don’t start with live coyotes running back and forth in their huge enclosure, like I did. Start with a leaf or a beautiful rock. They aren’t going anywhere. Just study, study, study their form and color, and then slowly draw that one simple thing. It’s instant gratification, and it works wonders to shut the critics up.

  • And lastly, join an online community such as The Nature Journal Club on Facebook, or post your pages on Instagram, which is a very lovely, giving, supportive community. The people in these communities are endlessly supportive and helpful. There won’t be any critics, only supporters. Soak it up.

    Do these things regularly, and you will soon be able to tell the voices in your head to go to hell.


Finding wild where you are

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I recently returned from a six-week exploration by Land Cruiser across Botswana and Namibia. I was afforded the luxury of writing, sketching, and painting every day in my nature journal with live—as in just feet from me, in most cases—elephants, zebras, giraffes, leopards, hundreds of birds, as well as discovering dozens of new-to-me plant species. I was in naturalist and sketch-artist heaven.

At home now, my surroundings suddenly became . . . well, mundane. I won’t lie. A bunny in the backyard just wasn’t the same as 65 elephants drinking, bathing, and play-fighting deep in the African bush.

It has been hard to keep up the daily sketching, and I struggled with withdrawal from intense nature experiences.

But the day after the bunny-you-are-not-an-elephant episode, I went for my usual 5K run and re-learned the joy of finding mysterious things in the familiar:

  • Two coyotes slipped across the road just 20 feet from me and circled a privet hedge . . . out of which shot at least three rabbits . . .

  • The coyotes then trotted down to Campbell Avenue, one of the busiest in Tucson even at 6 am, and I watched in horror and fascination as they stopped, watched traffic (literally surveying all the cars as they went by), then when a break came trotted to the median, where they waited, watching the correct and opposite direction, then proceeded across at the next break. Do they learn this from parents / grandparents / great-grandparents?

  • Turning back to my run, a Cooper’s hawk swooped across my path, with a mockingbird literally on its tail and back, bombarding, pecking, and scolding . . . Why does the hawk not swoop up and grab its attacker from the sky, instead of “scree-ing” in annoyance and fleeing?

  • And finally, as I rounded the third kilometer, I stopped to watch another Cooper’s hawk bathing in a rain puddle at the side of a quiet residential street.

Proof that one does not need to cross the globe to Africa—you can find the Wild where you are.

And so I give you, Yard Bunny, restored and appreciated:


Postscript: My husband Jonathan Hanson has long been writing about what he calls “Fractal Exploration”—you take smaller bites of the world, and examine them more closely. Here is an essay he wrote within the last few years about slow and deep travel: Fractal exploration …

The art of seeing instead of looking: reasons to keep a nature journal

A nature journal is about observing–questioning–reflecting. My pages often contain circled question marks, to remind me to research into a question sparked by close observation. They also contain ink sketches and watercolor paintings, not just because they are attractive to me and a great source of relaxation, but because the very act of drawing and painting something from life involves incredibly intense observation. The whole world of stress and deadlines and discord slips away and my brain is wholly occupied by only that thing I’m observing and drawing—a kind of meditation that results in deeper understanding and even reverence and gratitude.

A nature journal is about observing–questioning–reflecting. My pages often contain circled question marks, to remind me to research into a question sparked by close observation. They also contain ink sketches and watercolor paintings, not just because they are attractive to me and a great source of relaxation, but because the very act of drawing and painting something from life involves incredibly intense observation. The whole world of stress and deadlines and discord slips away and my brain is wholly occupied by only that thing I’m observing and drawing—a kind of meditation that results in deeper understanding and even reverence and gratitude.

I’ve been keeping journals for over 45 years, since I was 8 or 9 years old, and they became nature-oriented about 35 years ago, when I started studying ecology and evolutionary biology in college and began publishing books and articles about natural history. Data and sketches from my journals have been used in several books written by me and my husband, Jonathan Hanson.

This year I was fortunate to join the team at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill as Art & Science Program coordinator—where helping put together classes on field sketching and science notebooks is part of my job.

In the process of working up some new courses for fall 2019 and spring 2020, I’ve been delving into the question:

Why keep a nature journal?

Is it just to make a collection of pretty pictures?

Is it simply a list of places and plants and animals?

Does it accomplish anything of value beyond a record?

With the passion of a crusader, naturalist, artist, and author John Muir Laws (The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling) describes the value of nature journaling beyond being a mere record:

If you “train your mind to see deeply and with intentional curiosity . . . the world will open before you;”


“Keeping a journal of your observations, questions, and reflections will enrich your experiences and develop gratitude, reverence, and the skills of a naturalist.”

If the foundation of science is the ability to “observe-reflect-deduct,” then field notes are the key to the process. The primary skills of a naturalist—a natural scientist—include not just knowledge of the natural world, but more importantly the ability to observe carefully. A naturalist records field notes, which are about observing, questioning, and reflecting. And “observing-questioning-reflecting” = truly seeing, not just looking.

“Intentional curiosity” is a wonderful phrase, full of deeper meaning about the art of seeing. To be curious is to ask questions, to dig deeper, to learn something. When you make the commitment to take down an entry in your nature journal, you are focusing your mind both intently and intentionally. So even if I’m “only” sitting in my backyard, if I focus and pay attention with intention, I almost always learn something new. Just a few weeks ago I was drawing and taking notes on the flowers of a Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata), which I’ve seen 100 times. But by intentionally studying it, by observing-questioning-reflecting, I learned something new: the flowers have three color phases. Why, I asked? I learned that the top flower petals change color to red after pollination, to signal to bees that their nectar is no longer available and not waste their time on those flowers but to head to the yellow ones instead.


I believe that keeping a nature journal—field notes, or field notes with sketches—and developing the skills of a naturalist is more important than ever in this digital age of noise and interruptions. The digital generation is adept at multitasking, but they could be losing the ability to focus and see deeply, to slow down and see not just look.

And with this seeing, comes gratitude and reverence for the natural world, according to Laws. And only from this will we as a society be able to come together to conserve the world’s ever-dwindling wild places and plants and animals.

I’m currently re-reading John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’s 1941 The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, which is the acknowledged full and shared vision of their collecting expedition aboard the Western Flyer. The account is a supremely readable travel journal, philosophical essay, a nature journal, and a catalogue of species. Steinbeck described the purpose of the journey was:

to stir curiosity

And so we are back to the core of nature journaling.

Laws sums thusly: “The goal of nature journaling is not to create a portfolio of pretty pictures but to develop a tool to help you see, wonder, and remember your experiences.”

And Steinbeck concurs, in the manner of prose that made him justifiably one of our greatest writers (and a great naturalist and nature journaler):

It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars, and then back to the tide pool again.


Watercolor Basic Kit for Beginners

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In working with beginner nature journalers who want to add watercolor to their pages, I have noticed that whenever someone is struggling, if I talk with them about their supplies, they are almost invariably using inexpensive student-grade paints (either in pans or from tubes) and cheap brushes.

I’m a big fan of using good quality paints , brushes, and paper from the outset. The top reasons are:

  • Inexpensive or “student grade” paints are often boosted with filler (chalk) and they can sometimes be difficult to blend, nor do they flow or cover as well. Pure-pigment professional paints such as Daniel Smith’s Extra Fine Watercolors (there are many great brands: M. Graham, Winsor Newton, Schmincke) flow beautifully and have rich colors that blend well. Winsor Newton, Daniel Smith, and Holbein also make professional quality dry cake paints, available in half-pans (NOTE: Be aware that Winsor Newton "Cotman" products are student-grade. Look for the word "Professional" in the product description.)

  • I prefer tube paint that I dispense into half or full pans. It’s much more economical than buying pre-filled pans, but most of the top makers produce excellent pre-filled pans (see above). [A word of caution: sadly, avoid handmade paint makers on Etsy and similar unless you get a direct recommendation; I have bought from half a dozen, and all were poorly mixed or had a lot of chalk filler. Exception: Greenleaf & Blueberry paints are amazing, absolutely gorgeous. Email me if you know of other hand-makers who produce high quality.]

  • A good brush holds plenty of water, releases it with more control, and will have a nice, sharp tip.

    • You actually can paint anything in a nature journal with just one brush, a “round” style with a nice, sharp point. It can help to have one flat brush for a few things but it’s not necessary. I have a small flat travel brush but haven’t used it in over a year . . .

    • Look for a brush with natural bristles (squirrel is less expensive usually than sable) or a good combo such as those by Silver Brush Black Velvet; the #8 is only $20 and is a fantastic brush). You can cut the handle down for small field kits, if you like. My favorite is the Isabey squirrel mop travel brush (between $30 and $40).

    • In addition to a sharp tip, look for a good-sized “belly” for holding water.

    • Good brushes won’t shed hair onto your paper.

  • Good paper makes all the difference as it holds up to washes and is archival so it won’t yellow. Cheap paper will bleed through, saturate too quickly, and tear when wet. If it is really poorly made, it might have lignin, which will yellow and become brittle with age. Good paper isn’t necessarily expensive, either. For my journal, I buy 100% cotton (lignin- and acid-free), 90-pound, 9x6 watercolor paper from Bee Papers ($12 per 50 sheets). It also comes in 130-pound weight, which I find too thick for my journal, but would hold up to extensive water washes. However, I have not found the 90-pound to be an issue with washes. I add holes with a hole-punch.

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Beginners are also tempted to start with a bunch of colors. But I argue that keeping it simple is better and that learning to paint with a “triad” forces the beginner to learn about color relationships and value more quickly. With just five colors you can create any color you need, including blacks and grays.

A triad = cyan (blue), magenta (“red,” though red is not a primary because it is made from magenta+yellow); and yellow.

My current mini “stand up” color palette comprises:

  1. Old Holland Manganese Blue Genuine (a true cyan blue; I used to use Cobalt Blue, and it works just great as a cyan)

  2. Daniel Smith Quinacridone Rose Permanent (a true magenta, or “red”; it’s a gorgeous rich rose and can become a very stunning red with the tiniest bit of yellow; I used to use Alizarin Crimson, but you can’t get a magenta-y rose out of a red, but you CAN get a red out of a magenta!)

  3. Daniel Smith Aureolin Yellow (okay, I won’t go into full detail here, because this is aimed at beginners, but there are paints that are called “fugitive” because they can fade over time if exposed to light . . . and Aureolin is one of them; I still have a tube to go through, and I love it, and since my journals are not exposed to light I’m okay with that, but I’ll be looking to switch to a yellow such as Nickel Azo).

  4. Daniel Smith Burnt Sienna

  5. Daniel Smith Indanthrone Blue (I used to go without a dark blue, but for fast, rich blacks and fascinating grays, nothing beats Indanthrone Blue + Burnt Sienna).

  6. Clearwell Caves Purple Ochre (I’m having a love affair with this offbeat, rich, highly granular earth pigment from a 6,000-year-old ochre mine in England; it makes the most amazing rocks and earths, especially perfect for me now, working as Art and Science Coordinator at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, which is volcanic).

This was sketched with the paint from the palette listed above, while hiking up Tumamoc Hill; the rocks were painted with my burnt Sienna, indanthrone blue, and my wild-card favorite purple ochre from Clearwell Caves in England. Eventually, as you become proficient with triad painting (cyan-magenta-yellow) you can add a few fun extras that suit your habitat.

This was sketched with the paint from the palette listed above, while hiking up Tumamoc Hill; the rocks were painted with my burnt Sienna, indanthrone blue, and my wild-card favorite purple ochre from Clearwell Caves in England. Eventually, as you become proficient with triad painting (cyan-magenta-yellow) you can add a few fun extras that suit your habitat.

Another benefit of mixing colors: you can create a puddle of variable green for example, which is sort of “marbled” (ie: not fully mixed) and when you use that to paint leaves it creates more natural variation and looks less “flat.” Painting something monotone is a beginner’s mistake, since rarely is something one pure color in nature.

I suggest starting with transparent colors because they blend beautifully into bright, clear colors and you don’t have to fuss with accidentally creating “mud” by blending too many opaque colors. I also tend to default (for rapid field sketching) to easily lifted colors, avoiding staining colors such as the pthalos.

Tip: watercolors come in different transparency levels, they come in different “sticking” levels, and are also rated for “granulation.”

  • Transparent watercolors do not blot out or cover other colors or lines already on the paper, and you can paint them over each other to create new colors (called “glazing”; you can paint a transparent blue over a yellow and it shows green, for example).

  • Non-staining watercolors can be “lifted” off the paper especially when wet and to some degree when dry and you re-wet them. If I blork out of an area into a spot I didn’t want paint, I can quickly swipe it off with a tissue or finger. (Staining paint like Pthalo Blue once it hits the paper is there forever and ever.)

  • Granulating paints are cool, they have a “texture” that is interesting. Ultramarine blue is one such color that is quite popular. I have tended away from it recently because I’m liking my current setup too much, but loads of people love it. Using granulating colors takes practice and so is not recommended for beginners. Also, different paint brands have different levels of granularity, and it takes some experimentation to find the level that suits you.

I hope these tips are helpful. A parting thought, as always, is:

KEEP IT SIMPLE in your kit, and focus on drawing and painting every single day. No amount of fancy brushes and expensive paint and colors will make you a better sketch artist. Only practice will do that!

Please email me via the Contact menu item above if you would like to join free nature journaling meet-ups in southern Arizona.

[Special thanks to reader and fellow nature journaler and artist Tom W. for input on this post.]

Field Sketching Kit 2: Gurney-style

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Reader and fellow nature journaler / field sketcher Tom W. has made a really elegant field easel for stand-up sketching. I’m sharing his explanation below, along with images.

Hi, after seeing your great set up for sketching while standing, with no tripod, I realized I could adapt something I'd already made for myself, based on the light-weight sketch easel designed by James Gurney. Here is a link to the You Tube video that summarizes his  process for building the easel, which can be attached to a tripod via a quick release gizmo:

 As I remember, that video also contains a link to the more complete video he made, for purchase.

I've built that tripod sketch easel, and really like it . . . but also wanted something that would work both for sitting with a small sketchbook on my knees (like the 5X8 Pentalic that James uses) or standing, as you do (tripod-free), using a minimal palette and the leather covered journal you'd already inspired (and helped) me to assemble.

This is the outcome: the sketch easel is made of 1/4" hardwood plywood. The longer panel is 11" (I made it just long enough so that the bottom can be clipped to the back of the journal, for stability, and the top  can clear the top of the journal), and the smaller panel is about 3 and 7/8". Both are 5 and 3/4 inches wide. While not as light as Coroplast, it's still very light. 

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The small silver circle in the middle of the small panel is one of eight or nine 3/8" neodymium magnets (hardware stores have them), and the hinge is  the same Southco Torque Position Control Hinge  (available from Amazon) that James Gurney recommends.  I've built this one so it stretches out flat; if standing, I can hold the journal and all in my left hand at a slight angle, draw and paint, and when done, can loosen the hinge set screw and fold the small section back. It works fine...there's enough room for a little Nomad 6 half-pan palette or even the either the slightly larger small Whiskey Painters or Cornelisson small palette box—as well as the 2 oz. Nalgene water cup (with magnets attached to the bottom) per James Gurney's design.  If sitting and using the rig instead with a 5 X 8 sketchbook, there's just enough room to clip that to the long panel—although if I'm sitting, I'd rather put the water beside me, on a small metal tray . . .

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Thanks for the great ideas!!!!!

Field Sketching Kit


Fellow nature journalers and plein air painters frequently ask about my “stand-up” field sketching kit. The evolution of my kit has been driven by:

  • Light weight (not getting any younger!);

  • Low volume (everything fits in my shoulder satchel); and most importantly,

  • Quick access—this is the key for me, since when I’m wandering around with the intent to take notes and sketch, if I have to get everything out every time I see something interesting, I’m likely to be lazy and skip it.

So my kit comprises the following:

  • Leather journal (see this post here for a description of this simple handmade journal and its paper and archival system);

  • A simple ultralight mini-easel cut from a coroplast sheet (this is corrugated signage plastic, available at office stores or Amazon) to fit inside the back of my journal.

    • I added flat tape-style magnets to hold the paint tin and the lid of my water bottle (glue a steel washer to the lid), to keep it from getting lost.

    • Cut a hole to hold the water bottle; make sure the fit is snug.

    • Water bottle is a container from a contact-lens-cleaning kit that uses peroxide solution. Pull or cut out the lens holder framework.

  • The paints are professional-grade watercolor from tubes, squeezed into full or half-pans. They fit into a mini mint tin and include three transparent primary colors (magenta, manganese blue genuine, and aureolin yellow) and a tint (shadow violet). I covered the lid of the tin with waterproof white stick-on label (Avery) and made separate wells with white caulking. [Update: I have since removed the shadow violet, switched to all half-pan sizes, and added a purple ochre, indanthrone blue, and burnt sienna, the latter two useful for more interesting and deeper blacks and grays; and the two earth pigments for ready-to-go dirt and rock colors—useful for my new work at Tumamoc Hill, which is very volcanic—see final image below.]

  • A lovely Isabey squirrel travel brush, which has a nice pointy tip and a decent-sized belly, so you can actually do washes even on a 9x6 page.

This setup has been working very well for me for a year now, and has increased my sketching time considerably, which of course also has meant an improvement in sketching skills.

If any readers have any of their mini / ultralight kits to share, please send them along!

My notebook and mini paint kit in its bag. The coroplast sheet shows the flat magnet tape that holds the paint tin and lid of the water bottle (I glued a steel washer to the lid). A spring clip holds my paint brush and secures a microfiber cloth. The coroplast “easel” lives in the back of the journal.

My notebook and mini paint kit in its bag. The coroplast sheet shows the flat magnet tape that holds the paint tin and lid of the water bottle (I glued a steel washer to the lid). A spring clip holds my paint brush and secures a microfiber cloth. The coroplast “easel” lives in the back of the journal.

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Journal spread done with the mini kit while walking up to the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, Tucson, Arizona. The indanthrone blue + burnt sienna + purple ochre create the interest rock colors and textures quickly.

Journal spread done with the mini kit while walking up to the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, Tucson, Arizona. The indanthrone blue + burnt sienna + purple ochre create the interest rock colors and textures quickly.

Joining the team at the Desert Laboratory


This week I began working as the new coordinator for the trans-disciplinary Art & Science Program at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill.

The Desert Laboratory is an 860-acre ecological reserve at the edge of downtown Tucson, Arizona, owned and operated by the University of Arizona College of Science in partnership with Pima County. Tumamoc Hill, whose name derives from the Tohono O'odham place name Cemamagĭ Du’ag – Hill of the Horned Lizard – is a large swath of beautiful Sonoran Desert in the heart of the city with over a 115 years of intensive science.

Tumamoc is culture; ecology; a site of community gathering; conservation; art; archaeology; history; and much more. Tumamoc is an active research center where multiple approaches come together to better understand the Sonoran Desert and arid environments.

With over 2,500 years of human use, 115 years of science, and more visitation today than at any time of its history – Tumamoc Hill is a living laboratory, a refuge for exercise, health, and reflection.

I will be helping to create new ways to explore, document, and share the stories and richness of this treasure, “Cemamagĭ Du’ag.”

Please stop by Thursdays or Fridays and say hello, especially if you are “walking the hill!” Also stay in touch i f you would like to join free nature journaling sketch-ups and other programs.

Feral watercolor project: Brown Mountain purple


Update to adventures with Feral Watercolor: a few weeks ago I discovered a gorgeous purple outcrop of rock in the Tucson Mountains—Brown Mountain, to be specific.


I processed a few pieces (my equipment and techniques are described here), and it turns out to be remarkably similar to the famous Clearwell Caves' purple ochre (4500-year-old British pigment-mining area).

Recently I was able to make it back out to paint the site in my journal, with paint made from pigment collected onsite. A first in the Feral Watercolor project.

Next up: magnetite-and-mica pigment from the Santa Catalina Mountains—and some studio paintings of places made from site-collected pigment.

Feral watercolor: Painted Desert pigments

Google Earth captures the range of colors of northern Arizona’s Painted Desert.

Google Earth captures the range of colors of northern Arizona’s Painted Desert.

The idea took hold on our first trip into the red desert center of Australia. Surrounded by vast and glowing rusty-red sand seas awash in bright yellow flowers and sea-green eucalypts, I began to think about painting that iconic landscape with watercolors made from the place itself. I collected red sand from several places, sealed it in jars, and—because I hold a Trusted Traveler fast-lane pass from U.S. Border Protection and they most definitely frown upon carrying soil samples in one’s luggage (violate one rule and you lose your pass forever)—I posted them home (*see notes at end). A year later, surrounded by vast and glowing peach sand seas flanked by jagged black slashes of mountains in northern Mexico’s Gran Desierto de Altar, I was again inspired by the rich colors and dramatic landscapes—and this time I had some tools with me to do a little experimenting with the local magnetite to create paint (which I wrote up in this post HERE).

And so Feral Watercolor was born: to collect local pigments and ink-making materials with which to create place-based art.


With jars of material from several continents—including three gorgeous colors from northern Arizona’s Painted Desert—I invested in a small, high-quality hand-crank ore-crusher called The Crunch: 1/4-inch steel, cam-driven, and made in the U.S. (sold on eBay by “GoldMLode”).


The Crunch will process rocks as hard as quartz (it’s made for people who look for remnant gold in mine tailings) into powder fine enough to sieve down to 70 microns—small enough to make make traditional-style earth pigments for making watercolor (reference: Bruce MacEvoy’s exhaustive website Handprint; on particle size of pigments for making watercolor, modern and historical).

First through The Crunch were the yellow ochre-like rocks, part of the Chinle Formation that was laid down in the late Triassic (200 million years ago) as the seas around Pangaea retreated and alluvial plains were covered in silt, mud, and sand—with plenty of iron, manganese, and aluminum. Oxidation (either aerobic or anaerobic) created the reds, purples, yellows, greens, or grays. Would these gorgeously colored rocks result in similar paint hues?


After running through The Crunch a couple times, I put the sand-sized grains through four high-quality stainless steel sieves (made by Talisman in New Zealand; available on Amazon), starting with 40-mesh, then through 60, 100, and finally 200, which yields about 70-micron particle size.

In the 100-mesh sieve . . .

In the 100-mesh sieve . . .

. . . final yield of 200-mesh . . .

. . . final yield of 200-mesh . . .

. . . very fine and still bright.

. . . very fine and still bright.

Now at the mulling bench . . . I processed the 70-micron yellow pigment with gum arabic, Sonoran Desert honey, and oxgall to create watercolor paint (see my notes below, along with swatches of color from three stages of mulling, which takes about 30 minutes per stage.


On paper the yellow was not as bright as in pigment, but it has a lovely warm hue, and nice coverage. Almost between a yellow ochre and umbre.


Next up was the very dark red ochre-like pigment. Its hue on the mulling glass was eye-popping!


And on paper it did not disappoint:


Finally, I processed the rose—which had a lovely “ashes of rose” color in pigment form. Upon processing into paint, its hue on paper was more faded-red, though it’s growing on me!


In all a very satisfying first step in the Feral Watercolor project. I noted that I should have added slightly more binder to the paint, as it is drying too fast and cracking in the pan and the flow is not what I’d like. I have several other regions’ pigments to process and test, and then it will be time to create paintings.


Where to collect: I collect from roadsides or private land where I have permission. There are also state and local parks dedicated to "rockhounding" where it is legal to collect. Do not collect in any local, state, or national park. National forests and BLM may be a bit more open to collecting (since many allow firewood collecting), so you can contact your local office to find out

Travel and collecting: If when you travel you would like to collect raw pigments (rocks or soil) for processing, follow the same guidelines as above, and you should be aware of not only border restrictions for bringing soil back to your home country, but also environmental smarts: soil contains seeds and microbes, and if you are transporting them home, that can be detrimental to your home environment. I make sure I run my pigments through the microwave to semi-sterilize, and then always keep it in sealed containers and never, ever dispose of any of it outdoors or down the drain. I treat it like a toxic chemical.

Safety: always wear eye protection and a dust mask when handling and processing rocks and pigment into paint. Natural pigments are not “safe” because they are “natural”—remember that they contain metals such as manganese and aluminum (among many others) and you are grinding them into powder that easily goes airborne and is inhaled.

Feral watercolor & place-based art


I’ve been experimenting with making pigments from locally sourced minerals (and plant matter) for "extreme" place-based nature journaling and art. I call it "feral watercolor." 

Because the pigments come from the location being represented in the art, the colors can be strikingly true and the sense of place profound.

The pigment (and resin binder) below is from the Sierra El Rosario in Northern Mexico’s La Reserva Pinacate del Gran Desierto.


I collected magnetite and ground it into powder, then for a binder I added resin from a plant growing in a canyon in the Sierra — Bursera microphylla — and Sonoran Desert honey as a humectant. I also experimented with adding a little oxgall, although I’m not sure it made a difference in the adhesion.

The result is a paint that perfectly mimics the stark, nearly black mountains that rise out of the sand dunes (see the painting, top).


I have mineral soils from all over the world, and have quite a few projects planned—in addition to a workshop in the near future—email me if you are interested!

Adventures in making paint


In the past year I began making my own watercolor paint from pigments—both purchased and wild-found.

I was very excited about this rare pigment from one of London’s oldest and finest colorists, L. Cornelissen. This is genuine Lapis Lazuli, true Ultramarine Blue in a painter’s palette.


I used natural gum arabic as the binder, and the humectant is honey.

This is a WIP: I was not 100% happy with the flow or transparency—will have to mull another batch. Each takes about 2 hours so it’s quite a commitment!


Next up: grinding found ochres from Australia’s Great Victoria Desert into fine enough powder I can make paint.


Simple Leather Journal — 15 years on


My faithful companion now for 15 years, over five continents, tens of thousands of miles. Nothing fancy: It's a one-piece unstructured cover cut from simple vegetable-tanned cowhide, which was simply finished with olive oil. I incorporated the natural edge of the hide into the front cover. (Find a book about the size you want, cover it with plastic, get the leather wet, and shape it to the book and let dry; when the leather is wet, you can also score the cover with decorations—I added my initials.) As you can see, after 15 years of use it gets a nice patina but holds up well; it's been on five continents with me—tens of thousands of miles!

I use Bee Paper 90-pound 9x6 sheets, which is inexpensive but good 100% cotton paper that is archival and holds up well to watercolor washes.

A couple of cheap leather bootlaces act as the sheet binder and the keeper (decorated with African trade beads).

When I fill up a journal, I unbind it and transfer the pages to inexpensive three-ring binders (last photo; I plan to cover these in nice leather eventually—I have 40 years' worth!). 

Advantages: inexpensive, customizable (can add fancy papers, insert memorabilia, maps, etc.), lays flat, durable. Disadvantages: double-page spread is not contiguous (but it works fine for journaling), it's self-made so it's not as easy as buying a new notebook off the shelf, threading the leather cord into the holes is a pain, and sometimes the flexible cover makes it hard to draw (but I found a plastic board to put behind it when I need).

[Related post: Field Sketching Kit — for stand-up sketching]

EDC Field Notebook

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Sometimes the world aligns in wonderful ways. 

Just before Overland Expo 2016 WEST, I was looking to replace my longtime EDC notebook (Every Day Carry). Since 2006, I've used a Moleskine Cahier notebook encased in a leather cover that I had designed myself and was stitched by Jonathan.

But over the years it became too small, and also I had lost track of so many notebooks — I had no system for managing them. 

I found the Midori notebooks (now called Traveler's Notebooks) and was looking at the Bullet Journal system for tracking multiple EDC journals (

) over time, using indexes and notes-journals as well as task-journals. 

I loved how the Midori notebooks and covers were so versatile: you can combine multiple journals with a clever elastic band system.

But I found the Midori sizing to be not quite right—they offer either passport-sized (too small) or much-larger sized journals (8.2 x 5.5) in leather covers. I waffled. 

To feed my journal lust while postponing the decision about the actual journal, I ordered a new fountain pen from, a lovely brown-iridescent swirled pen handmade by Brian Hall in Ohio (

), along with some Midori accessories—pockets, a pen clip, and ink.

Then, in Asheville this week while planning the upcoming new EAST show with our wonderful core staff, assistant director Alison DeLapp presented the whole team with Field Notes (

) journals encased in custom leather covers made by one of our favorite instructors, Andrew Pain of 

Based on the 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 size of the Field Notes (and Moleskine Cahier), it was perfect. And, it had a custom stamping on the cover: our tagline, "The World Is Waiting."

En route home from Asheville, I discovered it perfectly held two Field Notes insets plus my passport and my iPhone 6S in a Lifeproof case. 

Once home, I collected my new Midori accessories and pen, and put them together into what I think is going to be the perfect EDC field notebook:


Another addition I made was a center insert of watercolor paper (90-pound cold-press) I cut myself and added, about 10 pages total. With my Expeditionary Art watercolor set  and a little mini-field-palette I made from a folded coroplast board with a water-well cut to size for an old Bausch-and-Lomb contact cleaning reservoir (which has a water-tight gasket), I have a perfect mini-field-sketching kit right in my EDC. The little bulldog clip that holds the watercolor set acts as the perfect brush holder for my No. 3 Escoda sable traveler's brush.


Ultralight plein air painting kit

Finally got a chance to field test my ultralight plein air painting kit — love it. I saw a similar setup for sale at an art website for $200 and weighs 10 pounds (and does not include a chair). Being a cheap (and small of frame) Celt, I decided I could do that for under $45 and a whole lot lighter! The tripod, a terribly inexpensive aluminum Sunpak 2001UT ($15!) is just 2.3 pounds and 19.7 inches long folded up. The little chair is just over a pound ($18). I glued strong magnets (a couple bucks) to the base plate of the tripod and a 30-cent 3" steel washer to a piece of Coroplast. Even in a modest breeze it holds tight. Two pieces of the Coroplast ($8) clipped together with bulldog clips hold a paper assortment. This fits in my shoulder bag with my paints, brushes, and other supplies. The tripod and chair strap on top.

Learning watercolor

In September I took the leap and decided to get serious about learning to sketch and paint with watercolor and ink washes—with a plan to become good enough to use my own art in future book and conservation projects.

I started with books by Cathy Johnson and Clare Walker Leslie, two of the best nature illustrators and teacher-authors. But I need to see things demonstrated, just reading about watercolor was not enough. So I discovered both and Both have excellent, affordable tutorials you can buy individually, or in the case of, subscribe monthly for unlimited access.

I discovered I love color theory, and particularly love painting in triads, especially Daniel Smith watercolors (made in Washington). Right now favoring old-fashioned tint-like colors and pen-and-ink. And I rediscovered how much I love my old Montblanc, a gift 30 years ago from Jonathan. The Montblanc is charged with Platinum Carbon waterproof ink, and a Vintage Parker 75 has a soft, soluble black. Also experimenting with brush pens, with J.Herbin Lie de Thé, a sepia color.

Daniel Smith's Primatek Genuine mineral paints are particularly gorgeous; this hummingbird's gorget is Rhodonite Genuine and Amethyst Genuine, which sparkles in the light.

Working trip to the UK

We made a mad-dash across the Atlantic in July-August to meet up with a few colleagues and friends, including the dashing and lovely Tom Sheppard of Desert Winds Publishing and author of the venerable Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide (for which he recruited Jonathan as co-author in a massive new update released this spring.). Here we are at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. More images here.