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.

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.


Darwin's notebook

Darwin's notebook by ConserVentures
Darwin's notebook, a photo by ConserVentures on Flickr.
This image of page 36 of one of Charles Darwin's 1837 journals gives us chills.

There is a tree with branches depicting a postulation on how related genera would be formed, main text reads:

Case must be that one generation then should be as many living as now. To do this & to have many species in same genus (as is) requires extinction.
"Thus between A & B immense gap of relation. C & B the finest gradation, B & D rather greater distinction. Thus genera would be formed. — bearing relation

But the most evocative part is the small note in the upper left:

I think

Darwin's notebooks are available online through You can open a notebook and browse the pages as though flipping through them in person.

In early June, the New York Times published a story on the Open Tree of Life Project, the goal of which is to draw "a tree of life that includes every known species. A tree, in other words, with about two million branches."

[Source:  New York Times, June 5, 2012 "Open Tree of Life Project ]

Making pigments from local materials (3): cochineal beetle

In the deserts of the Americas you might notice that the prickly pear cactus plants (genus Opuntia) sometimes are covered with what looks like white spit-wads. If you look closely, or touch one of the deposits, it's silky white web-like material. This is actually a protective covering of a little insect called a cochineal (Dactylopius sp.), which is a parasitic scale insect. The insect itself is tiny, about 3-4 mm across; their bodies contain carminic acid, which is a vivid purple-red color - presumably nasty-tasting to discourage predation. If you even gently bump one of them, they ooze this red liquid, which instantly will dye your finger.

I had read that cochineal was one of the earliest and most valuable sources of red dye. Aztecs and Mayas cultivated them; and during the time of the Conquistadores, cochineal dye powder was the second most important economic export after silver - that is a lot of insects!

Because of my interest in natural dyes and inks (see labels for those subjects), I have been looking for a colony of cochineal so I could experiment with using their pigment for coloring in my journal. Earlier in August, visiting my parents in southwestern New Mexico, I was delighted to find some infestations by this sessile parasite. I collected about 20 of them in a margarine tub:
You can see the bright magenta color. I did some research, because I had initially read that the color they produced was red-red, as in the British redcoats, and in Betsy Ross' flag. The original dye preparation involved adding an acid, so I added a little vinegar to a bit of cochineal liquid, and voila, it turned a rich red.

Right now my insect bodies are drying, and I will grind them and add an acid - either vinegar or lemon juice - and see how it goes with use as a pigment in my journaling.

iPhone as a journal tool

I caved in to the urge and got an iPhone 3G . . . and have been amazed. It's not 'just' a phone, it's a tiny computer and a GPS. It instantly replaced five 'gadgets' I usually have with me: phone, iPod, computer, camera, and GPS. An unexpected bonus is that I have found it a perfect journaling tool.
What bird was that? The other day we drove down to a pond south of us, and were astonished to find hundreds of birds enjoying the bounty of water in the desert. I didn't have my full field guide set with me, but I was able to confirm Common Ground Dove calling with National Geographic's Handheld Birds app - most every entry includes sound as well as images and data.

I have a real ineptitude for remembering astronomy. My all-time-favorite app thus far is StarWalk. Like having a mini planetarium and personal starguide in your pocket. It's difficult to describe just how cool this app is - you can zoom in and out, scroll 360 degrees around the dome of the sky, including what's below the horizon . . . click on a planet or star or cluster and get full data on it . . . and search for the name of a celestial object and it will show you where it is - all in exact relation to your current location. So when I note in my journal the arresting moonscape-and-planet I saw at 4 am, I can look up exactly which planet.

I always note the times of sun and moon rising and setting, as well as the moon phase. This great app, called Sun and Moon, always keeps it at my fingertips.

With the GPS and two very useful apps, I am always able to follow our route on topographical maps in the U.S., or using Google maps elsewhere. Topo Maps has a full set of USGS maps for download, and GPS MotionX turns the iPhone GPS into a fully functional track and waypoint tool and then some. I no longer need my Garmin, and furthermore it's much easier to use, download maps, and export and share data.

Finally, I am always using the built-in iPhone camera to take snapshots of things I want to sketch, like beetles or a nice sunset. And I can use All-in Notes to take quick voice memos or combined photo / note / memos and email them to my main computer.

All the apps are available at the App store; just use the Search function to find.

Making pigments from local materials (2): oak galls

On Friday we drove the southwestern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains to the hamlet of Patagonia ~ we stayed roughly above 4,000 feet elevation, and I had plenty of opportunity to look for oak galls to try the recipe for oak gall pigment in Gwen Diehn's Decorated Journal. Oak galls are the leftover baby wasp 'housings'; worldwide there are thousands of tiny wasp species (some no bigger than the nib on a pen), which are obligate to one species of oak. On this oak they inject a hormone that triggers the oak to form this structure . . . in which the wasp lays its eggs, which then develop, nicely protected, in the gall. Some are tiny, some are large. All are produced entirely by the plant, and are tannin-rich (and thus can produce nice inks and pigments; galls in Europe have been used for centuries as inks; tannins also are used for curing leather ~ the origin of "tanning"). The holes in the galls indicate where the young wasps emerge.

I finally found some nice big ones, on a Mexican gray oak (Quercus grisea), and collected five.

Back home, I followed the Medieval recipe: 

Grind the galls to powder ~

Boil them in rainwater for as long as it takes to recite the Pater Noster three times ~

Add drops of a mild acid (vinegar or lemon juice) until the liquid turns from rich brown to deep black.

Results are inconclusive as well as enticing. While the majority of the liquid never turned beyond a rich, reddish brown (see the leaves in the drawing above, of the oak galls ~ these are painted with the gall pigment; the oaks there were very stressed, with dried leaves; did this contribute to tannin-poor galls?), I laid down a silver-plated spoon, on which were bits of the ground gall and liquid, on the counter; half an hour later, a tiny puddle under the spoon was a rich, dark black. I tried many other experiments - boiling further (to reduce), adding more lemon, adding vinegar, but was never able to reproduce that one teeny black smudge.

So, my experiments will continue  . . .

Making pigments from local materials

In the past few weeks I have been spending more and more time on my nature journal, which I have been keeping for nearly 20 years. I made the leather cover and a simple page-attachment system (tied with a leather strip) so I can use any paper I like, cut and drilled to fit. There are loops inside for pens. It's been with me all over the world, recording what I see and experience.

I started adding sketches in the mid-1990s, working from the Clare Walker Leslie's books on nature journals and the excellent Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. The latter is excellent for those of us who have both a strong science leaning as well as an artistic side, but the science side gets in the way of free-flowing art and sketching especially.

Now I've been adding watercolor and a few more collages to my journal, switching to archival watercolor paper and handmade art papers.

In the Decorated Page, Gwen Diehn describes making pigments from local minerals and organic matter - and I had to try it. First, I made ink with charcoal from local mesquite, and then a beautiful ochre pigment from clay collected on a nearby road. I will post tutorials soon. And I can't wait to try other minerals and materials - oak gall ink, turquoise, fluorite, and chrysocolla pigment . . . 

Journal page ~ Fire on Elkhorn Ridge

There has been a fire on a ridge in the Baboquivari Mountains west and south of us . . . we watched it grow in the night, an eerie string of fire-pearls creeping up the mountain ridge. Now it is threatening Brown Canyon and the house where we used to live . . . and Elkhorn Ranch, owned by Mary and Charlie Miller . . . the fire was started by an illegal immigrant, trying to signal for help. We are in California right now and are watching and hearing the news from afar . . . 

Keeping a journal

A Mini Workshop ~ Getting Started

What is a journal?

In the simplest sense, a journal is a record.
A journal can be:

•  a chronicle of your daily activities - factual, or
• ephemeral - thoughts, impressions, dreams
• descriptions of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells
• it can be just words, or
• images or 
• things - ticket stubs, restaurant napkins, bottle labels, stamps, feathers, leaves
• or a combination of all of the above.

There are no hard and fast rules. Rules choke you. Throw them out the window.

In this mini workshop I focus on the creativity - whether you are using traditional or electronic methods of recording. 

Choosing the Format: Paper or Electronic
Advantages of a paper journal:
  • portability, convenience, immediacy, reliability: jot in it whenever the mood strikes
  • romantic, historical
  • tactile, 3-dimensional; vehicle for saving objects
  • inexpensive
Disadvantages of a paper journal: 
  • length is finite or limited by nature
  • hard to reproduce or share or protect (back up)
  • secondary steps needed to combine images
Advantages of electronic journaling (self-contained on the computer, or on the internet, like this blog):
  • fast, good for words
  • theoretically infinite space
  • easy to combine with digital images
  • easy to add sounds and video - especially with new technology like FlipVideo
  • easy to back up and share
Disadvantages of electronic journaling:
  • not tactile
  • skills needed
  • expense (computer, software, hardware)

Tools for Journaling

Traditional Notebook Journal
Choose a journal with acid- and lignin-free paper. That will keep the pages from yellowing and the writing from fading, which will make your journal last even longer.
• Custom one (mine) - paper bought bulk, cut and drilled
• Commercial - Moleskine, Clairefontaine 
Make a little tool kit.  Watercolor pencils and "water brush" (a brush with a water reservoir - perfect for quick painting), pigments, glue sticks, double-tape, scissors, envelopes, Moleskine accordion file, good pens (I like Micron 02 permanent / archival black ink) as well as fountain pens and more creative ink.

Electronic Notebook Journal
Choose a product for recording your journal in your computer.
• Microsoft Word or Apple's Pages
• MacJournal and WindowsJournal by Mariner Software
• Notebook by
Notebook and Mariner products allow you to publish online but work offline.
In the case of online journals, you can buy a membership in one with many tools and design options or use more basic ones for free. Here are some of the free ones:
• myspace and facebook

With these sites, you have the option of making entries public, private, or friends only. The friends-only option is readable only to other people who subscribe to the site and have you listed as a friend or who have the password that you created to protect your entries. 
Just make certain that these companies do not try to 'steal' the rights to your work, that you own your material and are not giving away your ownership by 'agreeing' to their terms and conditions (Facebook famously tried to steal all rights to all words and images posted on their pages . . . )
  • Hybrid: you can create your work electronically and then use that media to publish a book. 
  • You can combine traditional journaling - objects, receipts, labels, etc. - and affix them into the printed book., Mac books (iPhoto) are examples of sites and services that do this.


There are two types of people - when confronted by a blank journal.
• is excited, sees open possibilities, and creative juices start flowing
• is stricken by the terror of the blank page

"Lower your standards." - William Stafford's cure for writer's block

Open that blank journal or open a new document and just begin.

But how?! Here is some advice.

First, Have a Routine
Chances are that if you are here, you yearn to be more creative in your life.
One of the best tips to focus on that is to make quiet time in your life. An hour in the morning with coffee or tea and sunrise and birdsong, writing in your journal. Or in the evening, a glass of wine and sunset.
I can’t stress enough how important that is. Even if you still are strangled or don’t know what to write - just open the pages, and record empirical things - weather, mileage, a list of wildlife or plants, names of places or people.
Use All Your Senses
If you’re really not sure how to begin recording your trip, think about what really matters to you.

  • Did the Muslim call to prayer you heard in Istanbul five times a day move you? Describe its sound.
  • Did you have an unforgettable meal in Bahia de los Angeles? Tell what you ate and describe the taste, texture, and smell of the food.
  • Each of us remembers or is moved by different things. For some of us it’s people - for others, animals. Ornament. Color. Light. Smells. Simply record them.
  • Even if all you record are the names of restaurants where you ate, the hotel where you stayed, or the people that you met, and any snippets of the language you picked up - it makes the accounts of your travel experiences much more complete.
  • Quotes - if you know a quote that makes you think of your destination, include that in your journal. If quotes seem beyond you, then record favorite local slang.
"Too many people delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well. The mind is dangerous and must be left in." - Robert Frost

"Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Art is a big mistake." - Allen Ginsberg

Suggested Writing Exercises

Sometimes exercise is good for you. Here are some good ones to try if writing is tough for you and you need to break free of the Terror.

30 minutes alone: 

Watch the behavior of an animal (bird, insect, squirrel...) or flowering plant or tree and write field-note style on everything you observe about that animal, without any interpretation. Fill the pages with as much "thick description" as possible. Alternatively, you could do this for a particular site, and describe the vegetation, topography, birdlife, etc., in as much detail as possible. (Knowing names of things are not so important as describing the details of what your senses take in.) 

Could repeat this with different animal or plant. If you choose an animal, note something specific about its behavior, such as, record what it pays attention to that you normally do not.

Walk and Record

Walk for a few minutes (e.g. 10) in a nearby natural setting andconsider how that place connects you with someone significant in your life.Write on that connection for 20 minutes without lifting your pen from the page.

From Joan Logghe, amended by me:

1. List favorite words you like the SOUND of, first ones that flash into
your mind. 2 minutes. Go.

2. For each of these nouns, invent a simili or metaphor (is like, is)
writing the FIRST thing that flashes into your mind (this should go
rapidly, 10-15 seconds per word). You can preface this by explaining that
this is the perfect opportunity for cliches to rear their ugly heads, but
when you write _immediately_ from the senses and from the inner self (or
shadow self), our words connect with energy and power. Metaphor works at
both an intuitive and a logical level. (Eg. the lake is a potato pancake
gone cold.)

the river current
a mesa
my mother
the sky
my father
the desert
the pond
a mosquito
wild horses

Other ideas:

1. Write about the geography of your childhood - OR map it out with a marker on a large sheet of newsprint. 20 minutes.

2. Begin with "one true thing" and write for 15 minutes - see where it takes
you. (e.g. I wrote pieces starting with "I had an old scarf I picked up in Kathmandu," and "My father wore iddy-waddies." This can be amended to something nature-related, such as "Cottonwoods turn yellow in autumn" or "I
am in love with ravens.")

3. Write about your "fierce attachment" to a place. 20 minutes.

4. Tell who you are through landscape. "I am warm red sandstone in evening light. I am raven croaks and aspen leaves spinning on the wind. My
past is all whitewater plunging into mountain pools. My father was the moon, my mother a marsh filled with birdsong..."


If you are like me, you take many pictures and collect a lot of memorabilia - artifacts. By the time you arrive home, remembering everything you did each day can be almost impossible and organizing a pile of collected memorabilia can be daunting. With a little tool kit and pre-prep, it’s actually not all that hard to do it, even on the road.


  • Journal that will stand up to ‘stuff’ - Clairfontaine, Artist Sketchbook. Prepare pages with Gesso - every other or every third (to stand up to glue, etc).
  • Moleskine accordion file
  • Glassine or other envelopes
  • Simple glue sticks, tape, scissors
  • Pens, a few colored pencils (Prismacolor) or watercolor kit (mini)
  • Tins (old Altoid tins are perfect)

What are some items you might use?
  • ticket stubs
  • plane boarding passes
  • menus
  • food labels
  • information from travel brochures
  • coins
  • paper money
  • feathers (but remember, technically it is illegal to posses animal parts if from rare / endangered animals)
  • small stones
  • packaging
  • soil - for color
  • berries - for color

Keep it simple & everything goes.

Create pockets out of small bags you received when buying souvenirs for holding things that you don't want to cut up or adhere to the journal.

Keep the album in your bag and pull it out when ever you have some down time.

If you are traveling with others, ask them about their most memorable parts of the day; it can help you remember thing that you had forgotten about.

Artistic tips:
  • Use colored tissue paper to create layers - Golden Gel Medium (soft/gloss) for the adhesive, and apply the gel with a sponge brush. While the page dries, place a piece of waxed paper over it.
  • You can also highlight work with different types of leafing... gold, copper, etc. Adhere it with gel medium, too. 
  • Don't get caught up in using the most/only perfect adhesive for the job; gel medium works well for almost anything. When it won't hold, use Household Goop.
  • Source:
  • Reference: Visual Chronicles: The No-Fear Guide to Creating Art Journals, Creative Manifestos and Altered Books (Paperback) by Linda Woods (Author), Karen Dinino (Author) 


What can your journal become?

Books. Articles. Personal satisfaction.

Our books, San Pedro River: a Discovery Guide, and the Southern Arizona Nature Almanac were both created largely from my daily nature and travel journals.

Final thoughts

Words are powerful. The moment an ephemeral thought or observation is captured and applied to physical existence, that thought or idea or fact takes on another dimension. 

It has weight, can be used, passed on, accessed. Most good essays begin with a journal or field book entry.

Another good reason to keep a journal is that, by paying attention to and recording life’s events around you, you tie yourself more firmly to place—be it your back yard or a whole mountain range.