Drawing from Nature

Study nature, not books

There is great value in looking directly at the natural world rather than reading about it in books or copy images of images. I am surprised how often students will choose to copy a photograph of a flower rather than look at the real flower! Nature provides us with endless complex, beautiful and challenging forms in the round. Begin to collect from the natural world and build a resource in your studio to utilize for drawing studies. Any flower, leaf, shell, feather, pinecone, or insect makes an excellent drawing subject.

In the classroom/studio

Drawing from nature can be an enjoyable way of learning basic drawing skills such as contour line, shading, proportion and composition. I find having a collection of natural objects handy is particularly helpful for an uninspired student having trouble thinking of "what to do" or simply for when there is only a short block of time available, not enough to work on more involved projects. A well stocked nature shelf allows students to pick from a range of interesting things to draw, and this exploration may well lead to other bigger ideas.




You can of course draw outside, if this is possible in your school, it makes for an entirely different and wonderful experience. Explore the difference between drawing a plant in its natural context and drawing it removed from nature. I like to let students choose for themselves whatever they are drawn to, and with a pencil begin to investigate the form. For the unexperienced it is best to start with only one object, then progress to more complex compositions.

"The artist is the confidant of nature. Flowers carry on dialogues with him through the graceful bending of their stems and the harmoniously tinted nuances of their blossoms. Every flower has a cordial word which directs nature towards him"- Auguste Rodin

A Drawing from Nature Lesson

download Drawing from Nature

Choosing your subject
Choose a natural object: leaf, flower, shell, mushroom, insect, etc.  that you find beautiful or fascinating. Examine it from all angles. Study the texture, the surface, the negative space. To draw is to gain understanding and appreciation.
 Pencil on a smooth paper, (not thin printer paper, use a heavier gauge drawing paper such as bristol board or cartridge paper.) You could use a range of graded pencils. Colored pencil or watercolor are also options for a further study.
Make some quick contour drawings first just to get the general shape. Try out different scales and angles. When you feel ready to begin a more detailed drawing, think carefully about the composition, where you place it on the paper. Notice in Landy’s drawing how the leaf occupies the whole page. Composition is intentional, not random.
Use your graded pencils to render the range of tones (values) present in your object. Pay attention to the nuances of light and shadow.


Negative Space

In the drawing of the grasses on the left, the silhouette shapes are drawn without any internal details. Begin to focus equally on the negative space around things and let this become a study of composition as much as of form.

Contour and Shading

In the drawings of the shell below, a student with no prior drawing experience selected this conch shell to draw. The first drawing shows an exploration of the form from different angles. The second drawing begins to try out some shading and include the cast shadow. In making these drawings the student made discoveries about 3 dimensional form in space, foreshortening,  and how shadows help to anchor it to the ground.

Although these are to be considered studies, not "IB work", the careful scrutiny required and the learning to see that happens during these simple exercises in observational drawing is of infinite value when developing more personal, meaningful work.

Nature Studies

Creating greater challenges 

For the capable student, encourage them to take on more complex subjects and to explore the connotations and possibilities within.

Often a drawing leads to something else: This drawing of a birds nest is a study, but it could be developed into a larger composite drawing, bringing in elements from the imagination, or even evolved towards the construction of a man made birds nest.

It all begins with the intense, focused kind of looking that takes place when drawing from nature, synchronizing the mind and the eye.

Developing drawing as studio work

For the student who enjoys this kind of observational drawing, why not let the drawing become the work?

What is the difference between a sketch and a fully realized drawing? It's hard to define but you know it when you see it. Perhaps it has something to do with fully embracing the medium of drawing. 

In  artist Michael Landy's drawing of a leaf, on the left, not only is it a beautifully rendered drawing, he has added elements of his own imaginings, giving the leaf a unique personal interpretation.

Do you have a student who could develop an observational drawing to this stage of finished?


From nature one can learn the truth, so look at her diligently, be guided by her, and don’t be tempted to think you can do it better than she, for you will be wrong. Indeed, art is imbedded in nature, and he who can yank her out has won her. Once you have her under control she will spare you many a mistake in your work and by means of geometry your work will gain evidence. -Durer


 Drawing as the Study of Nature and Drawing as Artistic Process. This article recounts a brief history of drawing from nature, and how this helped to transform the craftsman into artist.


Regular drawing after nature began in Italy with Leonardo in the 1470s and in Northern Europe with Dürer in the 1490s. The artistic study of nature reflected the spread of Renaissance humanism which focused on the terrestrial sphere in religious thinking, science, politics, morality, and the arts. 

The study of nature also allowed the artist to claim a new humanist intellect as a practitioner of the liberal arts (in contrast to the “mechanical arts” of the medieval craftsman). The systematic study of nature helped transformed the craftsman into an artist who now worked as a scientific observer and thinker, probing beyond appearances, comparing, measuring, and investigating the hidden mathematical laws of nature. As Dürer put it in his notes for a book on painting, 

From nature one can learn the truth, so look at her diligently, be guided by her, and don’t be tempted to think you can do it better than she, for you will be wrong. Indeed, art is imbedded in nature, and he who can yank her out has won her. Once you have her under control she will spare you many a mistake in your work and by means of geometry your work will gain evidence.

If drawing from nature made artistic images more thoughtful, drawing itself became an important process in this new, more intellectual art. As with Leonardo, the final work emerged from a process of study – of drawings – where multiple sketches experimented with different solutions to a particular problem. By painstakingly developing a representational mastery over natural forms, drawing eventually allowed artists to work more freely, without a direct model, and to invent out of their god-like minds.

And once you have learned well how to measure and have overcome talent and tradition, then you can proceed freely and with assurance, and you will know what you are doing. It will then not always be necessary to measure every single thing, for your artistic sense will enable you to judge it with your eye, and your experienced hand will obey your eye. By these means the power of aft will expel all error from your work [1]



    Associate Professor of Art History Connecticut College
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