Eye and Hand
Practical Art for Paddlers —
Tools of the Trade
By Tamia Nelson
April 6, 2010
Twelve students lined up along the edge of the state highway in a soft drizzle, facing the weathered rock face exposed by an old roadcut. Their professor hopped over the guide rail and waded through waist‑high weeds until he stood before them. Then he spoke, straining his voice to make himself heard over the ceaseless roar of traffic: "You'll be writing up a full report on this outcrop, and today is the only time we'll come out here. I expect your report to include a complete and accurate field sketch. Add photos if you want — I know that some of you have brought your cameras — but your grade on this project will depend on the quality of the sketch. It will make or break your report. So don't waste any time, and don't omit even the smallest detail. Take notes as if you'll never come back here, because you probably won't get a chance."
I was one of those students standing by the roadside in the rain, and I knew I wouldn't be coming back. I didn't have a car or a bike in those years, and the outcrop was thirty miles from my college dorm. I wasn't worried, though. The prof had been giving us these assignments since the semester began. I knew what to look for — form, proportion, contrast, distinguishing features. My classmates did, too. So for two hours we scrambled over the roadcut, scribbling furiously. By the time we piled into the van for the trip back to the campus our rucksacks were weighed down with rock samples, and stone dust was ground deep into the knees of our jeans. But everyone had a carefully executed sketch of the outcrop in his (or her) journal.
My prof's voice still rings in my ears today. "Take notes as if you'll never come back" is also good advice for paddlers, even if we're not going to be graded on our reports. The prof was trying to get a class of fledgling geologists to understand the difference between seeing and observing. Paddlers need to understand this, too. Reading water is all about observing. We can only see what's happening on the surface, but we have to look deeper than that to make sense of the hydraulics of a whitewater river, and we need to do more than eyeball the scenery if we want to read the story in the clouds during the buildup to a storm over a big lake. And that's not all. A paddler who can't speak the language of the landscape will never succeed in staying found when the batteries in his GPS go dead, even if he did remember to bring a map and compass.
You see where I'm coming from, I'm sure: Observation is key, for both paddlers and geologists. But where am I going? Here's where…
There's More to Sketching Than Making Pretty Pictures
One of the best ways to make connections between eye and hand — and that phrase highlights the difference between seeing and observing — is to pick up a pencil, pen, or paintbrush. You have to look at something mighty carefully before you can capture it on paper, and "looking carefully" is yet another way of saying "observing." Drawing can also be a pleasure in its own right. Moreover, it helps you recall what you've seen. To borrow Colin Fletcher's words, the very act of sketching fixes images "on the emulsion of memory." Want a for‑instance? OK. Three weeks ago I walked down to The River to see if it and the portage trail were free of ice. Just before entering the woods, I spied a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead. But my camera was buried deep in my rucksack, and I didn't have time to dig it out and fit the telephoto lens. End of story? Nope. I simply transfixed the big birds in my eagle eye, watching the pair intently as they wheeled and soared over The River, right up till the moment when they dropped out of sight behind the ridge. And five minutes later I sat down to dash off a quick pencil sketch of the scene:
Not much to it, is there? Just a silhouette of a lone individual, coupled with a rudimentary portrait of the high‑flying pair. But it serves its purpose. I have only to look at it and I'm transported back to that very time and place, with every detail still firmly fixed in the emulsion of my memory. No photo could do more.
This sort of thing is a common occurrence, both on and off the water. As I've already mentioned (in the first article in this series), there are plenty of times when it's just not possible to snap a picture. Often you need both hands to keep you and your boat out of trouble, for instance. Of course I'm not suggesting that you leave your camera at home. Canoeists and kayakers get great shots every day, and even a not‑so‑great shot can be worth taking. But it's good to have a choice, and you can sometimes capture the fleeting moment better with a pencil than by any other means.
There are other reasons to nurture your Inner Scribbler, as well. I keep a field journal, and it's easier to illustrate an entry in my journal with a quick sketch than it is to print out a photo to tip in at a later date. I also like to add sketch maps to entries, amplifying or correcting the information on the local quad. Here's an example:
This sketch of a remote mountain pond takes up just one page in an eight‑inch by five‑inch notebook, but it contains a wealth of information, from the steepness and general condition of the portage trail to the presence of an osprey's nest in the top of a towering white pine. I scribbled it all down years ago, but a single glance puts me right back in the picture. I can smell the resin‑rich smoke from the campfire and feel the cool evening mist rising from the water. I can even hear the ominous muttering of hundreds of blackflies as they mass for their next attack.
Is it great art? No. Of course not. My scribbles aren't going to vie for a place in the world's museums alongside Leonardo's Study of a Tuscan Landscape or Dürer's Pond in the Woods, but they're good enough for me. My aim isn't to produce a masterpieces. It's to record what I see, while at the same time fixing it firmly in my memory. And in this I invariably succeed.
You can do it, too. All you need are…
The Right Tools
The list is a short one. Begin with a pad of paper and a pencil. I sometimes make sketches in an inexpensive six‑inch by nine‑inch tablet of unlined, white notepaper that I picked up at the HyperMart for less than a dollar, and I use a #1 or #2 yellow pencil of the sort that could once be found in every schoolkid's desk. This is a bare‑bones kit, however, and it isn't exactly ideal. The paper is flimsy stuff, hard to erase, easily torn, and quick to soak up moisture. So I recommend spending a little more and getting a spiral‑bound, artist‑grade sketchbook or hardback field book for all but the most casual trips.
Of course, higher cost brings a wider range of choices. This is both good and bad. Good if you already know what you want. Bad if you're just starting out and not yet sure what works best for you. Artists' sketchbooks range widely in price and quality. The cheapest ones contain paper made from wood pulp. The most expensive, paper derived from cloth (so‑called rag paper, though rags are no longer used in its manufacture). Most fall in between. Paper made entirely from wood pulp is called 300‑type, while 400‑type contains a mix of pulp paper and rag paper. The pinnacle is reached with 500‑type paper. It's 100‑percent rag. Mostly, you get what you pay for. Rag paper is expensive, but it won't discolor or disintegrate with age. To further complicate things, paper is available in a range of weights. The higher the weight, expressed in pound units (and abbreviated "#"), the more durable the paper. Texture matters, too, since it determines how well paper absorbs ink or accepts graphite (the "lead" in lead pencils). It ranges from shiny and uniformly smooth to the variegated surface of artist's vellum.
Let's cut to the chase, shall we? In choosing a sketchbook, you won't go far wrong with 60‑ or 80‑pound 400‑type paper. All my artist‑grade sketchbooks are made by Strathmore. The line is widely available and reasonably priced. There's still the matter of size, though. Small sketchpads slip easily into pockets, while larger ones give you room to make more detailed sketches. How small is too small? How large, too large? That's up to you. You'll have to weigh convenience and cost (large‑format sketchbooks are more expensive than smaller ones) against your own needs. To get some idea of the state of the mart, check out the offerings of local office‑supply stores and art shops, or search online. Give thought to the binding, too. Sewn, hardback sketchbooks have a reassuring permanence, and the pages are less likely to go adrift, but spiral‑bound books are both cheaper and easier to use in the field. (Caution! Beware of the wire spiral when packing. It will snag small items. It can even put a hole in your new tent.)
Good as they are, though, artists' sketchbooks aren't really designed for the rough‑and‑tumble outdoor life. If you're heading off the beaten track, and if you won't be holing up at the first sign of rain, you may want something a little more robust. This is where the hardback journals called "field books" come in. You can buy them from companies like Forestry Suppliers and Ben Meadows. (Hint: They're often cheaper by the dozen.) Intended for pros whose work doesn't permit them to duck indoors whenever it rains — foresters, surveyors, geologists, and the like — these sturdy books typically contain 80 pages of high rag‑content, high wet‑strength paper, each page overlaid with one of several patterns of lines and grids. They also have high‑viz covers (you'll appreciate this the first time you drop one in a beaver meadow) and several pages of useful tables — though you'll have to decide just how important it is to have a table of natural sines at your fingertips during your paddling day. The bottom line? Field books aren't going to take the art world by storm, but they're my first choice for note‑taking and drawing under way. My sketch of the mountain pond in the photo above came from just such a field book. Here's the current volume in my collection, accompanied by two of its more effete companions:
The fabric pouch at the bottom of the photo is a tool roll — more about that soon. First, though, let's move on from the medium (paper) to the message (pencil). The most reliable drawing implement is the old‑fashioned lead pencil. I always carry two or three, sharpening them as needed with my pocketknife and a small strip of sandpaper. Don't make the mistake of assuming that old‑fashioned means ineffective. It doesn't. The comparatively thick lead makes it possible to produce several widths of line simply by varying the angle at which you hold the pencil. There's also a historical connection of sorts. Henry David Thoreau, the writer‑naturalist whose A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and The Maine Woods still lure paddlers to follow in his wake, is credited with inventing an improved technique for melding a clay binder to graphite, one of many innovations that made the lead pencil the ubiquitous object that it still is today.
But nothing lasts forever, and mechanical pencils have now replaced the familiar yellow cylinder in many a pocket. These have their advantages, too. They produce precise, consistent lines. At least the good ones do. My advice? Give the HyperMart's offerings a wide berth, and buy your mechanical wonder from an art shop or office‑supply store. I suggest choosing one with a 0.7mm‑diameter lead, though you could go to 0.5mm to get a finer line. Stop there. Anything smaller than that won't be up to the hard knocks of life in the wild. Don't forget plenty of spare leads. And be sure to get the proper hardness. Pencil leads are graded. (Thoreau's father, a professional pencil‑maker, devised a numeric system of grading that's still used today.) A #2 (or HB) lead is a good compromise for most field sketching, neither too hard nor too soft — though if you want darker lines, you can go down to a #1 (or B). Harder grades produce wonderfully fine lines, but they're also perfect for tearing damp paper. That said, many pros carry leads in several grades. Then they're ready for anything.
You'll also need an eraser, of course. We all make mistakes. Get a separate eraser even if your pencil has a small one on the end, because these rubber pimples quickly become useless. Pick up a pink erasure or gum eraser at an office‑supply or art store, or go the whole hog and use a Staedtler Mars white plastic eraser (my favorite in the studio). Then, whichever type you choose, keep it in a small sealed plastic bag. A dirty erasure is worse than useless.
By now you may be wondering where pen‑and‑ink enters the picture. That's easy. It doesn't. Don't get me wrong. I love working with pen and ink, and, yes, it can be done in the field. But I find it more trouble than it's worth. The technical pens I use at my drawing table at home are temperamental creatures, requiring smooth, dry paper and frequent cleaning. Neither of these conditions is easily met in a riverside camp. Moreover, you can't erase ink. The clincher? Pencil lines don't run when they get wet. Ink does. So I do my field sketches in pencil and leave the pen‑and‑ink work till I get back.
Sketchbook. Pencils. Erasure. That's not much to carry, but you still need a place to put it. I use a tool roll that I bought to carry my streamside fly‑tying kit. It holds all my gear except for my sketchbook, with room to spare for a tiny sharpener, a six‑inch ruler, and a strip of sandpaper, along with any other odds and ends that I can't bear to leave behind. (A recent tidying up revealed that I'd been carrying around a small plastic vernier caliper. Go figure!) How much will all this stuff cost? Not much. You can outfit yourself for USD10‑15, including the cost of a field book, though if you buy top‑of‑the‑line artist‑grade materials, the price will be a bit higher. That's not much, is it? But cheap as the kit is, you'll want to…
Protect Your Supplies From the Elements
Unless you're using ink, there's no reason why you can't make sketches in fog, mist, or light rain. You can even buy field books made with waterproof plasticized "paper" and pens guaranteed to write under water, but these aren't cheap, and I've never felt the need. Instead, when a drizzle becomes a downpour, I take shelter under a hastily erected tarp or poncho shelter, or I use an umbrella. A couple of cautions: You may have a fabric roof over you head, but your wet clothes will drip. It pays to shed your hat and roll up your sleeves before starting work. On the other hand, if your field book does get wet despite your precautions, don't panic. Pencil doesn't run, and good‑quality paper will dry with just a slight ripple in the surface to remind you to be more careful next time. You can hasten the process with a fire in camp, but (if the weather relents) air‑drying on a clothesline is a safer bet. And don't worry about the odd dirt stain or the occasional smear of blood from an unlucky mosquito or blackfly. These just add character to your journal. And they all help to fix the image in the emulsion of memory.
Doubled Ziploc bags (or their equivalent) will protect your field book and drawing kit from total immersion while under way, though cautious boaters may want the additional security afforded by a (tested) dry bag or even an ammo can. I mostly carry a bagged, pocket‑sized sketchbook in the side pocket of my getaway pack, along with a pencil or two, while larger sketchbooks and my tool roll go inside the pack proper. Back home, I fan out the pages of my field book and sketchbooks, and leave them in the warm until the last bit of damp is gone — though I avoid placing them in direct sunlight or right next to a radiator. I also air my tool roll. Then I pack everything up in readiness for the next trip.
A sketchbook and pencil are all you need to capture the passing scene. You don't even have to put down your paddle. Forging the link between eye and hand is easy. Let your brain be your memory card. Then "download" the remembered images into your sketchbook at the end of the day, while you're relaxing in camp. You don't need batteries, and it won't matter if the sun's gone behind a cloud. You don't even have to have a pricey dry box to carry your stuff. A couple of Ziploc bags will usually do just fine. The necessary tools are few in number and cheap to buy. And don't worry if you're not "artistic." Anyone can learn to make a pencil do his bidding. It just takes a little practice. What are you waiting for? Get scribbling!
What's next? We've done the Why and the What. Now it's time for the How. So next time I'll begin with a brief introduction to the techniques of field sketching. See you then!
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