Field Journaling: A New Class

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This month, I’m offering a new class: Field Journaling. While nature journals often reflect the inclinations of the journalist in response to the natural world (by incorporating poems, quotes, art, etc.), Field Journals narrow the focus to more of the qualitative and quantitative observations in an orderly way that invites additional inquiry. By noting patterns and connections, journalists can explore, ask great questions and devise ways to answer those questions. Whether you are a science major, citizen scientist, serious birder or curious person, Field Journaling is a time-honored way to hone your observation skills and record your personal discoveries.

In this class, we will jump right into the fun of exploration and notation. For inspiration, we will also look at some notable Field Journals that have been left by past biologists, archeologists and explorers in a variety of fields, as well as the methods they employed.

If you are interested in taking the class, here is the information for the first time it is being offered:

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Field Journaling Workshop
Instructor, Kelli Hertzler
Wednesday March 30, 1:00 – 3:00 pm
Frances Plecker Education Center & EJC Arboretum in Harrisonburg, VA

Register here.

Please direct any questions about registration to the Arboretum. I am happy to answer questions about the content of the class.


Starting a Nature Journal

–OR– What to do with these kids while they are not in school?

All over the country, kids will be at home in the coming weeks. No new Christmas presents to keep them busy. Too cold for swimming. Sporting events have been canceled. What to do when they have had enough screeNJ_mother_sonn time? Start a new hobby/activity that will engage their minds, help them connect with nature and nature’s Creator, uses supplies you already have on hand and – timely bonus – does not need to involve gathering in large groups. One more great thing: parents and caregivers can do this with children and receive the same benefits.

Nature Journaling


Nature journaling is a simple, open-ended activity. We deliberately take time to notice the details and rhythms that happen around us every day in the physical world. Then we write, diagram, quantify or sketch what we notice. The goal is not to make a pretty picture (although sometimes that happens!); the goal is to learn what we don’t know. There are no set objectives. Each learner’s path is determined by the leading of their own curiosity. It is very much a choose-your-own-adventure. You might also include quotes or verses, rubbings or taping in actual objects like leaves.

By putting on paper what we observe, we can begin to understand the limit of our knowledge. For example: trying to draw a leaf but realizing you don’t know the pattern of the veins for this particular leaf. So you look again at the primary source and fill in the gaps of your knowledge.

Quick How-to

Nature journaling is best done outside, immersed in nature. Even from a porch or stoop. But it can also be done from a window seat. Or after a short walk outside while gathering items to study at the kitchen table.

nj_myhandsMaterials needed are minimal. A pencil and a notebook or loose paper are all that is necessary. If desired, you can add pens, colored pencils or a portable watercolor kit. Just make it all fit into a portable bag or container so you can tote it all to where ever your feet lead you.

Sharing your journaling

Journaling together or showing one another what you have done is a great way to connect with your family and encourage each other. Comments that you make to children (and adults) can change how they view their journaling. Do say:

  • That is a great observation!
  • I  never noticed ______ before. Your drawing/writing explains that well.
  • Tell me more about this.
  • What do you learn about _______ while journaling?
  • What questions do have about ______ now?
  • That reminds me of…
  • I like that you added a blue background because…
  • The measurements help me understand the scale.

sketchbook turtle

It isn’t wrong to tell someone their page is pretty, but that comment should be combined with more constructive statements from the “do say” list. Focusing on the finished product with a judgement of how good it is (or is not) takes the emphasis off of the process, and the process is really the important part of this activity. Also, remember that drawing and writing are skills that improve over time. Declaring that someone is a “good” artist or writer makes it seems that we belong in one category: good or bad. That’s just false. Our skill levels vary but we can all improve with practice. And nature journaling will give you that practice.

Learning more about Nature Journaling

I have several posts about nature journaling on this blog.  There are two helpful resources below. But don’t spend all day reading! The only wrong way to do nature journaling is to not start. Please come back and share your experiences in the comments or on my Facebook page.

This is very much a “get out there and do it” post. I would love to do a follow-up post with more information for those who are struggling with how to get started. What questions do you have?

Drawing Skills by Nature Journaling

KHertzler_NJ013Each autumn at the large homeschool co-operative where my children attended, I request to teach the Advanced Drawing class for fifth grade. Students at this age are ready for the challenge of accurately drawing what they see. Parents might be disappointed with the lack of refrigerator-worthy pieces as the focus is on skill work that will remain long after the class ends. I’ve tinkered a bit with the curriculum over the last ten or twelve years, always including elements of natural study. This year, I went full-scale Nature Journaling. And the results were fantastic!

KHertzler_NJ011I purchased an inexpensive journal for each of my eleven students. It has 8.5″ x 5.5″ pages of toothy drawing paper with a heavy craft paper cover. The students glued paper rulers to the edges of inside covers and personalized the outside with stamps or drawings. (A photo at the bottom of this post shows the inside cover with paper ruler.)

The class jumped into making intentional observations of the natural world and a record of those observations. Pretty pictures were not the goal. Each study needed to include a drawing based on what could be seen, some description with words, a number or measurement and basic metadata (i.e., date and also weather if we were outside). Most weeks, I would introduce a new item to observe, a new medium and/or a new art technique. We explored graded pencils, pen, watercolor pencils, and charcoal. We learned about proportions, overlapping, shading techniques and texture. But we focused on getting to know the plant or animal in front of us.


It is important to note that I never provide photos. These kids are working with three-dimensional objects. Their brains have to do the hard work of translating that into a drawing on a two-dimensional plane while taking in the smells, changing highlights, shadows and colors, prickly or smooth textures, insects or spiders crawling on their samples and bits falling off onto their work surface. It’s very tactile and the students quickly become immersed in their work.

The usual “I can’t draw” comments were not spoken. Each class typically has a few art-reluctant kids who need to be convinced that drawing is a communication skill that everyone can learn – like writing or math. But we avoided that obstacle altogether this time. We were too busy exploring, investigating, discovering. And as a byproduct, making some very fine drawings.


What’s Newt?

I’m working on an exciting new project! A friend has asked me to illustrate a book she has written. I don’t want to give too much away before it is published, but I will say that I need to learn to render Eastern Newts well. This little critter is a favorite of mine. It has been spotted frequently on our family vacations because in our homeschooling years, “vacation rental” was synonymous with “Virginia state park cabin” and those were tucked into protected forests.

The Eastern Newt is called a Red Eft while in its terrestrial stage, shown here. The brilliant color warns predators of toxins in the skin. Photo by Kelli Hertzler.

Salamander Safari

I contacted James Madison University biology professor William Flint, who researches salamanders, to ask if there were any opportunities coming up for the author and me to learn more. He invited us to tag along on a nighttime field trip with students to an area in the George Washington National Forest that has multiple ponds. He assured me newts would be there and maybe some other things, too. There was plenty to see! The salamanders had begun their migration into the ponds. The amphibian/reptile species list for the night included Spotted Salamander, Redbacked Salamander, Cricket Frog, Snapping Turtle and more newts than you could shake a stick at.  Between ponds, I got to ask the experts questions about newts. I hope to go back later this year to look for larvae.

Adding to the adventure, my friend and I managed to get lost in the national forest trying to find the rendezvous point. We were blessed by a young man who went out of his way late at night to help us find the ponds after we asked him for directions. And I left my backpack (with car key inside) at the last pond, requiring another trek into the forest to find it. (Sorry, Billy! You were a good guide to take us back there!) It was past midnight by the time we made it back to our Burg. By then, we were both really hungry so we came back to my house and devoured pork and apples that had been slow cooking in a Crock Pot all day.

Learning about the Eastern Newt

These little guys have such a wide geographical range and are so adaptable to environmental pressures, it is difficult to describe their life cycle. Accounts I read based on small populations contradict each other to the point that I have needed to reread to verify the authors are observing the same species. The basic life plan is egg> aquatic larva> terrestrial eft> aquatic adult. But they pick and choose their way through that flow chart like a choose-your-own-adventure. Skipping stages, bouncing back and forth between eft and adult, keeping their gills from the larval stage while reproducing as adults. Rebels who thumbed their little noses at the neat diagrams in the salamander science book.

Quick nature journal sketches by flashlight. Color added later.

If I have whet your appetite to learn more about this tiny wonder, do a search for the scientific name:  Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens.  This is the subspecies that is found in my neck of the woods. It’s also call the Red Spotted Newt and the Red Eft, which refers specifically to the terrestrial stage.

It’s all fascinating stuff for the citizen scientist in me. But the artist side of me loves that they have striking colors and patterns, tiny little limbs that don’t seem like they should work and eyes that appear almost expressive. They are ADORABLE little critters in every stage of development and a joy to draw.

While the book really doesn’t require in-depth scientific information, I am enjoying a thorough study. I think the illustrations will benefit in unexpected ways if I have a good understanding of the newt’s life cycle, development and habitat.
These study pages were done from photo references; some of which are my own photos.

My work area. Where watercolor and microscopes go together like peas and carrots. The quart container, filled at one of the ponds we visited, contains moss, dead leaves and a whole world of tiny things waiting to be discovered.

Some of the discoveries the scope brings to light. I don’t even know what most of this is! (That’s the best part.) I call the process Micro-Nature Journaling. 

Back to Nature Journaling

Adding details onto today's journal page.
Adding details onto today’s journal page.

Autumn is such a great time to nature journal! Everything is changing, color is exploding and the long winter is looming just ahead. What a great time to soak in the last warm rays of the season by taking a walk with a few art supplies!

KHertzler_fallcolor2019Today, I was able to do that at a trail I haunt frequently because it is so close to home. The clouds broke while I was driving there and the weather could not have been more perfect. The drive in was golden from all the hickory trees growing in the forest near the entrance. Once a the parking area, though, I saw only brown. At first. Then, like when your eyes adjust to the dark, my eyes adjusted to the colors all around me. Sure, there were some hickories, but also yellow poplars, red oaks, maples that could show red, yellow or green – even all three colors on a single leaf. There was plenty of green around, too. Pines up high and a variety of grasses, vines, ferns and shrubs down low.

KHertzler_lakeanna2019Last weekend, I had a wonderful and rare opportunity to go camping with several women from my church. We took kayaks and lots of amazing food. The last morning we were there, it rained continually. We sat under the canopy with a hot breakfast and great conversation. I didn’t find much time for journaling, but I did manage this page. I really like including a small landscape on my journal pages to put my observations in the correct habitat and location. The birds were seen while kayaking and I didn’t take my journal on the water, so I had to draw the birds from memory.

I will be teaching a Nature Journaling class coming up next week (November 6, 2019) at the JMU arboretum. Come join the fun!

Pond Journal: Frogs and More

Our pond has quickly become my “happy place.” I steal away several times a day, when possible, to see what is happening above and beneath the surface of the water. It’s rare that I don’t observe something new or changing. My daughter claims the pond is my favorite child. Maybe just some days…

The lay of the land. And water.

This spring, I decided to start a journal dedicated to observations at this one spot in the world that facinates me so. I choose a large journal (8.5″ x 11″) that was a gift from a friend. I would not hike or travel with something so big and it sat empty for more than a year until I found this perfect use for it. I have a case of pencils and pens with it (a freebie from the Shenandoah Natural Journaling Club’s Christmas supply swap) and keep those handy for quick trips out to the pondside table. I can carry art supplies in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Bliss.

My wonderful husband spent a day and a half digging our pond. It’s 10 by 15 feet and averages 2 feet deep. And the pond wasn’t his idea. This is what love looks like!

My husband and I started digging the pond Memorial Day weekend 2016. (He did 90% of the digging. Love you, Tim!) The night he finished, it rained buckets. Next morning, a frog was in the puddle at the bottom of the pond. Who told the frog? We soon had several frogs move in, then frog eggs and very shortly after, tiny tadpoles. Spring 2018, we had  enormous tadpoles (I counted 47 all visible at one time. Biblical plague coming soon?). Each tadpole is about four inches long. I learned that some species can remain tadpoles for two years. (My best guess is that these are Green Frogs.) In the last few weeks, they have been putting on legs and climbing out of the water. What a miracle to watch!

I was curious about those leaf packages floating the pond and investigated! This deserves a post by itself. Fascinating stuff!

Pickerel Rush, damselfly and multiple dragonflies, and of course the tadpoles.

The developing tadpoles are getting a lot of my attention. But this iris in the bog could not be ignored!

A very wordy post describing an encounter with a Twelve-spotted Skimmer female. And frogs.

A grown-up frog (this one migrated, not a tadpole of ours.). Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure now that it is a green frog and not a pickerel, so the eraser must get to work. And our white lily is starting the show with a bang – three blooms at once.

Youth Nature Journaling Class

sketchbook turtle
A page from my sketchbook featuring turtles at JMU’s arboretum.

In June, I’ll be teaching a one-day nature journaling workshop for youth ages 12-18. And it’s at the perfect location for such a thing: the JMU Arboretum. The class is limited to just 12 students, but a parent (with sketchbook) can tag along for free.

Do you know someone who would enjoy this class? Please pass on the information!
Nature journaling is a great way to get closer to nature, bring together the disciplines of natural science, language arts, drawing and even a little math. Our focus will be on recording our observations – not necessarily making pretty pictures. Do not let a lack of confidence in your art skills keep you trying this amazing activity!
The class will start with practical helps and a few guided group observations, then we will head out to explore the amazing plants and animals of the arboretum and choose our own adventures.

Journal page of Deadnettle. All rights reserved.
Journal page of Deadnettle. I used a microscope for the tiny details.

The class is June 15 from 9-12. All necessary supplies will be provided. Cost is $25.

You can register online directly with the arboretum or see the Facebook event for more information.

A journaling page from my sketchbook featuring Lilacs. There is so much to learn when we look intentionally.


Nature Journaling: Birds

Bird Study results at the Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club, February 2018. Lesson led by Kelli Hertzler.
Two members of the Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club produced wonderful studies of the American Gold Finch. The color is a glorious representation of their winter plumage.

Last fall, I joined a relatively new art group, the Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club. The members come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are accomplished artists while others are just picking up the challenge to learn to draw.  All share a desire to learn more about the nature world. The people are encouraging, informing, welcoming and so friendly.  An active Facebook group keeps me engaged and sketching between monthly meetings.

The casual format means that members take turns presenting or planning a program. February was my turn and I led the group in a bird study. We began by looking at basic parts all birds share and discussed how variations/adaptations on those themes can inform about that animal’s behavior, diet and habitat.

Just the bones! An SNJC member making a beautiful skeletal study.
Just the bones! An SNJC member making a beautiful skeletal study.

Each person drew a gull as we learned exterior anatomy. Several bird skeletons were on hand (thanks to Kris from BRCC) to help visualize how the parts intersect beneath the feathers. “Quick draws” followed; participants sketched from photos within increasingly smaller time limits. This is good training for field studies of real birds who will not hold still while we make their likeness! Virginia Wildlife magazines provided reference material for longer, independent studies. Some really great bird studies were the result!

Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club drawing a bird study lesson. February 2018.
Shenandoah Nature Journaling Club during a bird study lesson. February 2018.

SNJC members examining a mallard drake up close.
SNJC members examining a mallard drake up close.

Interested in joining SNJC? Find the group on Facebook and request to join. Meeting information is posted there.

Scientists Can Draw, Too!

I’ve had a several wonderful opportunities to teach this winter. This post focuses on the one furthest from home.

In February, Virginia Working Landscapes at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal invited me to teach a Nature Journaling workshop for their volunteer Citizen Scientists. What a fantastic group of people! I thoroughly enjoyed the evening sharing journaling tips and techniques with people who already had a vast body of nature knowledge. Several people who said they could not draw made wonderful observational sketches – surprising themselves! One of the great things about studying nature is that we focus on observing and the drawing takes care of itself.

Kelli Hertzler teaching Nature Journaling.
Teaching Nature Journaling to Virginia Working Landscape’s volunteer Citizen Scientists at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Photo credit: Charlotte Lorick of Virginia Working Landscapes.

Nature study has always been part of my love of art. “Nature Journaling” is a term I first heard when homeschooling my children and it immediately resonated with me as a wonderful, immersive whole-brain learning activity. My Fine Art degree is coupled with a minor in Biology, so I feel that I am making a complete circle by teaching citizen scientists to sketch their observations.

This Smithsonian facility keeps a low profile. Its work focuses on research of endangered and threatened species around the globe. There are a number of exotic species on site, but the public is only allowed on the campus one weekend per year, in October, and none of the animals are on display. I took my children last fall and was amazed at the work that goes on there and also that we were talking with the actual researchers about the work they do. I whole-heartedly recommend this field trip for both adults and children. Best trivia learned for the day: animals in captivity have different colors of glitter added to their food so when the feces is analyzed, scientists can identify the individual  from whom it originated.