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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Eye and HandDouble Take

Practical Art for Paddlers — 
Pencils or Pixels? Or Both?

By Tamia Nelson

December 7, 2010

If you've been following this series, you'll already know that I think most paddlers would benefit from mastering the rudiments of field sketching. Drawing isn't just a practical skill. It's also one of the best ways to learn the art of observation, and it has no equal when it comes to fixing images on the "emulsion of memory." But the familiar lead pencil has its limits. For one thing, it doesn't do color, and color is an important part of the paddler's world. Of course, colored pencils and watercolors help to bridge the gap between what's seen and what's recorded. But as useful as they are, these additions to the artist's toolbox come at a price. Every new tool takes time to master, and time is precious. Most of us would rather paddle than scribble, after all. Which is where photography comes in. Not only is it a lot of fun, with a comparatively gentle learning curve, but it's a form of artistic expression in its own right. In other words, field sketching and photography are complements. They're not competitors. And that's why I'm inviting you to join me in exploring…

The Synergy! The Synergy!

Except for those times when my pack is already full to bursting, I carry both a camera and a sketchpad, along with my trip journal. And sometimes I bring my watercolors with me, too. This is true whether I'm just going out for the day, taking a weekend break, or leaving on a Big Trip. Each item in my kit has its uses. My camera excels at…

  • Reproducing the landscape's full palette of colors

  • Freezing the action when things are happening fast

  • Seizing the moment at times when speed is of the essence — when, for example, a moose is about to vanish into the forest, or a cloud‑wreathed sun is poised just above the treetops

On the other hand, a pencil…

  • Trains your eye to see and fixes a subject in memory as nothing else can

  • Makes it easy to add explanatory notes, a map key, or a compass rose

  • Allows you to reduce a scene to its most important elements, uncluttered by distractions like overhanging limbs or power lines, and to do it easily and quickly

  • Works as well in poor light and driving rain as in full sun

  • Doesn't require batteries

  • Can be used to reconstruct a scene after the fact. Now you have no excuse for "missing the shot"!

  • Permits you to seize the moment at times when speed is of the essence

The last point requires some explanation. Do I contradict myself when I list this advantage under both heads? Not really. While no sketch‑artist can match the speed of a camera in ideal conditions — the right lens already mounted, camera at the ready, adequate light — what if your camera is buried deep in your pack or snugged down in a dry box at the critical moment? If you have notebook and pencil in your pocket, you're good to go — right now! Even when you have your camera hanging around your neck, it sometimes comes up short, as I learned in a recent encounter with a family of otters. Of course, you can always grab a shot and then follow up with a quick sketch to capture whatever the camera missed. At times like these…

Camera and Sketchbook Work Together

A case in point: September found me trudging along a portage trail near The River, where I stopped to shoot some photos of a placid backwater. The play of light on the still pool in the late‑morning sun captivated me, and I poked about till I came to a place where the shore was littered with wrack left by the spring floods. Then the metal roof of a wood duck nest box on the far side of the pool arrested my eye. It caught the sunlight from time to time, winking out a sort of semaphore code. So I shot a photo, hoping to show the nest box in its setting. But the photo wasn't a success:

Pause for Reflection

The nest box is the small, dark blob under the dot of light in the middle distance, to the right of center. And don't think you need new glasses if you can't see it. In situations like this, where sunlight and shadow intermingle, it's often very difficult to get the exposure just right. I didn't. As a consequence, the nest box is all but invisible. But I made a quick sketch of the scene, too:

Out of the Shadows

My eye can discern subtle gradations in ambient light that elude the camera, and my sketch reflects this. The nest box is no longer lost in a pool of shadow, with only the shiny roof visible. It's still just a small part of the picture, to be sure, easily missed in a hurried glance. But it's there to be seen by anyone who takes the time to look. Neither the photo nor the sketch tells the whole story, of course. When they're taken together, however, they come close.

This trick isn't limited to backcountry still lifes, either. Not long after I made the photo of the wood duck nesting box, I was standing among hemlocks atop a rocky promontory when a creeker lined up for the drop over a falls. I was in deep shadow; the kayaker was in full sun. And just as in the case of the nest‑box photo, my shot was washed out. To compound the problem, I also used too slow a shutter speed, blurring the image of the kayaker:

Over the Top

Still — and despite its manifold shortcomings — this shot caught the creeker in mid‑plunge. I couldn't have done that with my sketchpad. But I could "revisit" the scene later, pencil in hand. And I did:

Take #2

The resulting sketch develops the detail that the camera missed. I'll probably use it as a preliminary study for a painting or a pen‑and‑ink drawing. Between the photo and the sketch, I'll have all the information I need for every element in the scene: color, texture, shape, and proportion. Moreover, if I'm not satisfied with the final composition when I rough out the scene on my drawing board, I can "pan" to the right or left at will, something I couldn't do on the spot — not without sprouting wings, at any rate!

There's another kind of action scene that lends itself to a combination of photography and sketching, and this one involves off‑stage action, events visible only in the mind's eye. My reconstruction of an encounter between a fisher and a fox is one example. I've described it before, so I'll just give you the executive summary here. First, though, take a look at this photo:

Pas de Deux

White‑on‑white isn't an ideal medium for recording images. So it's not surprising that my photos of the scene failed to capture all the evidence of the tense, though bloodless, pas de deux between the two predators, a skirmish that also startled three white‑tailed deer from their slumbers and sent them skittering off in panic. But my pencil supplied what the camera missed. Here's the sketch I made at the time:

Pas de Deus, Take #2

The colored arrows were added after the fact, using the same post‑processing software I use to get the most from my photos. The result? My memory of that day in the winter woods may fade with the passage of the years, but my photos and sketches will insure that nothing of importance is lost forever.


All of which goes to emphasize one very important point: The process of remembering is fraught with pitfalls — and memories are fleeting. Even though the discipline of sketching fixes recollections on…wait for it…the emulsion of memory better than anything else I know of, memories dim with every passing hour. So…

There's Not a Moment to Be Lost

Don't put off organizing and annotating your photos and field sketches. Get to work as soon as possible after you snap a shot or draw a scene: during your lunch break on the river, say, or in camp at day's end, or as soon as you return home from an afternoon paddle. Add any notes you didn't have time to make initially. Correct any obvious errors. It's not unusual to swap right for left in the heat of the moment, for instance, or to confuse compass directions. This is also the time to make supplementary sketches from memory, while the memory is still fresh.

Later, if you use a film camera, or if you print out digital photos, you can tip prints right into your journal alongside your field sketches, bringing the process full circle. (Prints sometimes fall out. So be sure you label them on the back with the date and location.) You can also add notes to the Exif metadata associated with each digital photo, if you want — and if your post‑processing software allows you to. Be aware that this information can be read by others, however. That's particularly important if you publish your photos online, and you don't want to share your annotations with the world at large. The remedy? The same software that allows you to annotate Exifs can be used to edit or delete metadata. But work only with COPIES of your originals. You don't want to lose your notes, do you?


Pixels or pencils? Which is it to be? Well, you really don't have to choose. When you sample Nature's festive and ever‑changing banquet of images, you can have your cake and eat it, too. And more besides. Your camera will capture the lightning‑fast action that eludes your pencil, while your pencil can fill in the details that your camera missed. Then both photos and field sketches can be used as the basis for later creative efforts. I often prop my drawing board against the desk where I keep my computer. You can, as well.


Double Take Redux


Many (or is it most?) paddlers keep journals, and well‑executed sketches certainly enhance the written record of any trip. But does this mean you should leave your camera at home? No way! Drawing and photography are natural complements. So instead of trying to decide between pencils and pixels, exercise a little lateral thinking and opt for the third way: go prepared to use both. When that once‑in‑lifetime scene presents itself — as you know it will — you'll be mighty glad you did.

Baby, it's cold outside! So next month we'll head indoors and spend a few minutes reliving the past year's adventures in the warmth of the studio. And while we're at it, we'll explore some ways to build on the work we did in the field. In the meantime, though, if you have any sketches or paintings you'd like to share, photograph them and send the shots along to me. I'd love to see what you've been doing.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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