3 steps to a Soundscape Nature Sketch
As an avid nature journaler, I love to go out into nature and draw things. Flowers! Trees! Rocks! Environments! Scenes! The richness of nature is asounding.
My latest obsession is figuring out how to document non-visual sensory information: sound, smell, touch and even taste. Adding multi-sensory observation deepens my attention and awakens new forms of curiosity: How do you capture sound? What marks can document temperature or wind? What will evoke the texture on that super-bumpy leaf? And THAT SMELL…what’s the visual language to communicate that?!?!?
Nature journaling is the art and craft of documented observation. Most observation happens through sight, which means we tend to over-index on the pictorial side of things. There’s an ongoing tension of the “pretty picture” running strongly through the community. Like bees to flowers, we’re attracted to bright colors and pretty things. But relying only on a pretty picture can override curiosity. We miss out on notes, words, measurements, numbers and lots of really interesting (and important) data. Even more concerning is the pressure. The pressure of the pretty creates a barrier; many beginners won’t share their work if they think it’s “ugly” or “wrong.”
But here’s the magic of the multi-sensory approach: with sound, smell, touch and taste, there’s no visual thing to observe. These senses are potent but invisible: you have to translate the sensory input into some visual form that’s not a picture. Wild! And this means we’re free! Free to invent new visual vocabularies to capture and communicate our observations.
I recently had the experience of capturing sound: an auditory investigation of the Pacific Ocean. This post walks through the progression of a Soundscape nature journal spread from raw capture to richly memorable. Each of the three stages served a different purpose. My intention is to show that even the most raw, “ugly” and basic beginnings can lead to something meaningful and communicative.
After a total bat-flip-crazy year, I finally had the opportunity to leave town and spend a weekend at a friend’s cottage in one of the most beautiful places on earth: the Monterey Peninsula in California. The weather was clear, warm, practically no fog and the moon was shiningly full. After a day of friendship and fellowship, I spent the last dusky hours of day in a little cove…the tide was coming in, the blue hour was approaching, and the waves were alive. It was glorious! I wanted to capture that experience…the sounds of the ocean, the seductive thrumm of the waves. The sound drew me in. Would I be able to capture that mesmerizing soundscape?
It’s important to note that every journal page has a simple (usually messy!) beginning. This one is no different. But the sensory experience is something I wanted to remember and revisit…the calming booming of the waves, the waning sun and rising moon, the feeling of calm and the rhythm of the ocean…dang, I get relaxed just thinking about it! And that’s the point.
This nature journal spread happened in two phases:
- Phase 1: Nature Journaling: Raw capture on site, in situ, with a focus on attention, noticing, and putting marks down to capture my observations. The raw capture was done with one pen (Uniball Vision black waterproof ink) on a simple journal (Leuchtturm 1917) using a 2-page spread (8″ x 11.25″ total.)
- Phase 2: Nurture Journaling: Enhancement through additional linework, written observations, simple imagery and watercolor washes. Done back at home in the studio.
Here are three stages…from raw, to revised, to rich memory. Each stage shows what changes were made and why.
Stage 1: Raw capture (Nature Journaling)
- Observational sketch, Mon May 24, Pacific Grove.
- 10 minutes (7 minutes listening, 3 minutes sketching)
I used a basic black waterproof pen to make a series of lines that evoked the sound of the waves as they rolled in and and broke onto the rocks, then shweeeshd back from the shore to prepare for the next wave. The upwells were higher in pitch, the small booms of the crests and falls. These horizontal lines (wavemarks) are the focus of the page…sound captured through intentional observation.
Okay. Um, right. Just look at that. It’s kind of a mess, right? The writing is hard to read. The attempt at lettering the word wave in a wave-like style seems perhaps misguided. Frankly, the spread doesn’t make much sense.
BUT…the lines forming the wave sounds are captured…as accurately as I could express them. And there’s metadata with the date, time and wind conditions. It’s a start! All the raw material is here.
Stage 2: Refinement (Nurture Journaling)
- Annotations, clarification, Tue Jun 01, @ home.
- 10 minutes
Just looking at the wavemarks means I can close my eyes and revisit that place, hear the rhythm of the water. That’s the feeling I want to expand and get onto the page. I want to keep the focus on the wavemarks.
My first challenge was to fix the legibility. I used a heavier pen (my trusty Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen) to reshape the strange wave-like letters of the title. Then I added words to the bottom of the page, picking a phrase that describe the sound of the waves (slooooowly boooooming), and using special lettering (faux calligraphy…so easy!) to balance the heavy title at the top of the layout. To give the center more focus, I drew a frame around the outside of the spread. Next, I went over the metadata to clean up the lettering best I could, and to fill in some missing metadata (location & attribution.)
Changing pens to a smaller nib (Micron Pigma .01,) I added a label on the right: Soundscape @ Sunset. Then I annotated the wave lines to describe the sounds as I remembered them. I wanted the words to have an atmospheric, dreamy quality, so I added dashed lines before and after each annotation.
Lastly, I summarized my memories on the left side to balance the composition and allow for a little more writing on my subjective memory. I used the dashed line motif to divide the writing from the wavemarks. This keeps the dividing edge soft and references the dashed lines in the center frame.
Stage 3: Rich Memory (Nurture Journaling)
- Color washes, Tue Jun 01, @ home.
- 10 minutes
It’s getting there, but the stark black and white lines didn’t communicate the calming feeling of the experience. And with so many open lines, the spread is busy and the eye doesn’t know where to focus. Color and washes to the rescue!
Using a limited palette of blue, gray, a touch of yellow and just a smidgen of red, I filled in color. First step was to “close up” the large lettering with color. This helped the words work as shapes instead of lines, which gives them more visual cohesion and makes them easier to read. To keep the focus on the soundmarks, I used a blue wash around all 4 edges to push the frame into the background. That was a lot of blue. All one color makes Jane a Dull Girl, so I added a touch of yellow to evoke the sand and sunset, and to highlight the joy of the full moon! This brought a little lightness and color contrast to the blue.
I though I was done. But then I did a distance look (this is where you prop the sketchbook up and look at it from 6 feet away.) This view revealed that the center wavemarks felt “thin”; they didn’t have the visual or emotional impact that I desired. I didn’t want to change the marks, as that is the observational data. I chose to fill in the “boom” marks (the loopy circles that indicate the waves crashing) with grey to allude to the lower pitch of the sounds and give the marks the overlapping feel that was important in the initial observation.
Now it felt “done.”
My goal was to have documented observation of the cadence and sounds of waves as they met the shore, and to remember the sensory auditory experience. Now, whenever I want to go back to that moment…to that place, I have a soundscape in my nature journal to guide me.
I’m leading a workshop on this topic at the Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference in June, 2021. The Sense-ational Nature Journal is a 90-minute workshop where we’ll explore inventive ways of capturing sensory experiences in your nature journal. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/wild-wonder-nature-journaling-conference-2021-a-global-online-gathering-tickets-147648718291.