Today I have the great pleasure to share an interview with Jan Blencowe here at Raising Little Shoots. Jan is a prolific and experienced nature journal keeper who considers herself an amateur naturalist who’s always learning. After a long career painting she gradually began moving towards nature journaling as her primary focus, and it is with such joy that I have asked Jan to share some of her experience with us here today. Jan will be launching an online nature journaling course in spring of this year, so be sure to keep up with Jan via her social media so as not to miss out when that launches. (Links are at the end of the interview.) So without further ado, on to the interview:
~ Hello Jan, I am delighted to have you here on Raising Little Shoots! Please could you tell us a little about yourself.
I live along the southern shore of Connecticut, USA near the Long Island Sound, which is beautiful with water, marshes and woods all nearby. I love nature and I love making things. I’ve been a landscape painter for nearly twenty-five years. I’m an avid nature journaler, and consider myself an amateur naturalist who’s always learning. I studied art in college and earned my Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1988. For many years I pursued plein air landscape painting and then began creating large landscape works in the studio. I exhibited in galleries and shows and have work in private collections in half a dozen countries, as well as some major works in public and corporate spaces
After a long career painting I gradually began moving towards nature journaling as my primary focus, and delight in exploring many of the other art forms that always intrigued me like mono-printing, stamp carving and encaustic. I’ve come to realize the deep truth that just living authentically is an art form and that making personal art rather than art that is for exhibit or sale is far more satisfying than anything I’d ever done. I love to keep a sketchbook and make mixed media art journals. I dabble in book arts, candle making and herb craft. I have an organic vegetable garden and tend several native plant gardens on our property. I occasionally write poetry, and give poetry readings with a local group. I’m very fortunate to live on a beautiful, wooded piece of property which includes a large beaver pond, a magnet for wildlife. That’s important because it allows me to do the majority of my nature journaling right at home. Sinking your roots into the soil where you live and really getting to know what lives and grows around you is such an important part of sensing and settling into a relationship with the natural world. It’s how we begin to see ourselves as belonging and connected to the greater whole and not alienated and separate from it.
~ When did you first begin to keep your nature journal and what got you started?
I began back in 1999, sketching for a while then abandoning it for months at a time, then picking it back up again. I had no clear idea of what I was doing, I just knew that I wanted a creative outlet, something to nurture my inner life when my children were very young, but something that wasn’t overwhelming. I wanted to spend time outside in my gardens learning about plants, trees and birds. I was inspired by the book The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden, a book I still very much cherish and draw inspiration from. Beyond her stunning watercolor illustrations I was so impressed by her ability to recognize the common plants and wildlife all around her, and her knowledge of local folklore surrounding them. In 1999 we were four years into homeschooling, with my youngest of three children just five years old. I suddenly realized that one of my deepest desires was to gain a better knowledge of the natural world not just for myself, but so that I could pass it on to my children. One thing led to another and we came upon the Charlotte Mason Method and the adventure began.
~ Have your journals evolved from when you first began to keep them?
My goodness yes! After not having done much in the way of making art while my three children were young, my drawing skills were pretty rusty and my early journals had rather badly drawn sketches randomly placed on a page. They were usually done in smudgy pencil, (so I could easily erase mistakes) or colored pencil and occasionally weak, tentative watercolors. Often just one lonely sketch sat on a big page with no thought to layout or design. At first this was just a way to “practice drawing”, so I did a lot of sketches of my pets. After a while I began to improve and started using Faber-Castelle brush tip artist pens in a Moleskine, and then a fine liner and watercolors. I’d say about six years ago I really started keeping a nature journal regularly, making entries nearly every day. I love to experiment and my nature journal is always evolving. When I look back through several year’s worth of journals it’s like walking along a spiral path. There are some places that I veer off and explore a certain thing, there are some dead ends, things I tried but that didn’t resonate so I moved on, but there are always things I keep coming back to and certain threads that keep getting woven in. That may be driven by an interest in a subject or a certain kind of pen, or a certain stylistic look that I’d like my pages to have. I never know where the next turn of the spiral will lead me and I love that about experimentation
~ Please could you share with us your favourite journaling supplies?
I’m going to confess up front that I’m an art supply junkie. I absolutely love trying new things, and I have a lot of favorites, but I will try to narrow it down to my extra special, five star supplies.
I’m going to start with paper. Personally, I find the paper I’m working on to be the most crucial component of my nature journal kit. If my focus is going to be on watercolors, (most likely paired with a juicy brush pen filled with ink), and especially if I’m going to be making landscape sketches, then I’m going for the cream of the crop, my Garazapapel Handmade Watercolour Paper Notebook. This is an expensive journal and I fill it slowly over time. The paper is an absolute joy, especially if you’re experienced with watercolors. Having said that, for my usual, everyday nature journals I have a couple of brands I return to again and again. My most frequently used journal is a Stillman & Birn Zeta. It contains mixed media paper that is smooth, and very heavy weight. It takes any combination of media I choose to use, even when I’m ridiculously over the top with various combinations of media. I also like the Frisk Lay-Flat sketchbook, and the Handbook Paper Co. Field Journal Series for Watercolor made with Fluid Watercolor Paper. (I prefer the hot press version).
Pens are an ongoing fascination for me but here’s my “A” list, Lamy Joy fountain pen with a Fine nib, filled with De Atramentis Black Document Ink, Platinum Carbon Fountain Pen filled with either, black Platinum carbon ink or brown, De Atramentis Document Ink , and the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen for bold work. My favorite watercolor brands are QoR, Daniel Smith and Maimeri Blu. I also couldn’t imagine nature journaling without my Pentel Aquash water brushes, they are the ultimate in convenience. Any combination of the above materials could form the basis of a really versatile and serviceable nature journaling kit, and everything I listed I use practically everyday.
~ Would you share some of your favourite pages with us, and let us know what you like about them?
September is my favorite month, the heat of August has usually passed, the humidity and hazy skies have lessened, yet the temperatures stay very warm and pleasant. Plus, everything begins to stir in September as the season moves towards the autumnal equinox. This page spread is a favorite because it captures so much of the feel of September. The marsh grasses are turning from green to golden and red, something I look forward to every year. This page continues a project I began in early summer, and that is documenting as many of the wildflowers in my area as possible. The American Pokeweed is a plant that Henry David Thoreau extols in some of his writings and I love it too. It’s a great source of food for local birds, and has gorgeous, rich colors for us to admire. The Seaside Goldenrod is very common, and the Bulrush was very interesting both the draw and to research. I found out quite a few interesting things about it. I’m especially pleased with this spread because as it evolved everything locked into place nicely. I began with the macrocosm, that is, the large rectangle which gives an overview of the habitat. Then I was able to place some of the plants that make up the microcosm, the smaller communities of plants and animals that make up the larger ecosystem. The tall bulrush on the right helps keep everything balanced on the page and fortunately, I left plenty of space to write.
I love this entry because it’s a testimony to what can be found in your own backyard, and how beautiful the common place can be. This was all done in one morning just walking through our yard. Witch Hazel and wild low bush blueberry are very common in my area. Collecting leaves and making a mandala on the ground gave me an interesting way to show the fading leaves in several stages of decay, from still mostly green to golden to brown. I think that shows an important aspect of nature. Things happen slowly and not always at the same rate in nature, it truly is a process, a gradual progression from one state to another. In the instantaneous culture of technology that we find ourselves in, I think the reminder that things take time is an important one.
This is a favorite because it is the record of an opportunity that I truly enjoyed, and I love the way I was able to slip the text into the negative spaces around the sketches. This was a day trip to a place not far from where I live but a place I’d never been before. It was a great sketching opportunity because the spotting scopes were already there set up for visitors to use and that made sketching the cormorants and terns so much easier than my usual back and forth between peering through binoculars, putting them down, making a few lines and then having to raise my binoculars again, over and over, until the sketch is complete. Being able to just glance over into the spotting scope and then back at my sketchbook was wonderful.
The pinecones are recent victory for me! They are a very complex subject, and like many plant forms they are based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which makes them predictable, but still very complex. If I had been sketching these outdoors I would have simply focused on the overall impression of the pinecone, its general outline and texture. Bringing them inside for more careful observation gave me an opportunity to really slow down and try to draw exactly what I saw. I did not use a ruler or divide up the shape mathematically with intersecting lines, creating the precise numeric pattern of scales, because then I would have been creating an “ideal” pinecone rather than a unique individual. However, this was a study in careful, sensitive observation and slow drawing. In the field I work very quickly, but it is a nice counterpoint in the winter, to bring things indoors for careful study. The other “victory” was combining both watercolor and black and white pen sketches. I am such a lover of color that it’s really difficult for me to leave a pen sketch simply a pen sketch without adding color, even though I love the look of pen and ink and often realize that a simple line drawing is the best choice for a subject. So, I’m very happy that I had the presence of mind and the discipline to leave the end view of the pinecones as pen sketches to balance the full view that was done with watercolors.
~ What would you say you have been the greatest benefits to keeping your journals?
I have a different sense of time. My life is now far more ordered by an awareness the seasons, what is melting away and what is just beginning to stir, then by the calendar pages. I follow the seasons of the year, being more productive and busier in spring and autumn, teaching more, taking on more projects and responsibilities, and taking it slower in the heat of summer and in the hibernation of winter. Observing, interacting and recording nature in my journals enables me follow the rhythms of the seasons with awareness and purpose. I’m also see more. I walk out of my backdoor and see the trees now, because I’ve identified them and know them by name. I see the weeds, grasses and wildflowers, I don’t just skim over them and ignore them as a blur in my peripheral vision because now I know their names, their bloom times, and the insects and birds that use them for food and cover. I notice the clouds because they predict the weather better than the local news station. Nature journaling has turned my experience of my own yard, neighborhood and region from a nameless crowd of strangers I ignore, into a congenial group of familiar faces I meet and greet. I look for the arrival of the swallows, and hummingbirds in spring, and the return of the juncos in the winter. I know which weedy patch will bloom first in spring and I look forward to the Sea Myrtle and Witch Hazel blooming in October. How much poorer my life was when I shut all of that out simply because I was ignorant of it. I hadn’t taken the time to stop and look, to investigate, ask questions and get to know what was quite literally in my own backyard. How much richer my life is now and how much more beautiful, complete and gracefully ordered and aligned with the greater workings of the universe. Nature is amazing and a wise and wonderful teacher.
~ What advice would you give to fellow nature journalers?
The most important thing of course, is to just begin. Don’t get bogged down in too many supplies, and keep your expectations focused on the process of being outside and observing. Do not under any circumstances allow your inner critic to berate you because you think your drawings are poorly done. Drawing is a skill which will improve naturally over time. The basis of all drawing is keen observational skills so focus your efforts there. Allow your entries to simply be records of a specific experience. Use sketches, colors, even just little color swatches, to capture what you observe. Use words. Most of us are more accustomed to describing something using words, so let your sketches be what they are (however inaccurate), and round them out with written descriptions, use arrows to point things out or makes lists of characteristic you observe. Nature herself is wild, fierce, abundant, chaotic and filled with variation, and surprises. Your nature journal should be the same.
~ What do you have planned for 2017?
I currently have three large projects going on in 2017. The first is an online nature journaling course that will launch in spring of 2017. That will cover absolutely everything you’d need to know to get started, and then some. There will be instruction (over ten hours of video instruction), but it will also inspire, get you motivated and outdoors experiencing the joy and wonder of nature. It’s thorough, and a perfect introduction for the absolute beginner, while also introducing and explaining to more seasoned nature journalers and sketchers how I create the colorful, lively sketches that I’m known for. Plus, there will be plenty of bonus materials to download, extra videos, color mixing charts, a private Facebook Group, inspiring Pinterest boards, field journaling checklists etc. There’s also going to be a live portion (via the internet) because personal connection is really the best way to learn.
The second big adventure in 2017 is being enrolled in a program to become a Creative Depth Coach, once I’ve completed that program I’ll be able to use the transformative power of making art, primarily mixed media collage using found images, as part of my practice as a creative coach.
The third new endeavor is a local one. For the past several years I’ve been leading nature journaling retreats which weave a sacred dimension into a day of contemplative time in nature and creating nature journals. In 2017 that model will expand and I’ll be offering nature journaling retreats that incorporate Celtic spirituality at John Philip Newell’s School for Celtic Consciousness here in Connecticut.
~ Where can people find you on the web?
Faceboook is a great place to connect with me. I have a page called The Nature Journal Place, where I share videos, demos and posts of all my current nature journaling activities plus I update it regularly with my own nature journal pages.
I also have a blog called The Sketchbook Hypothesis: making art makes you happy, which covers nature journaling, as well as other forms of art journaling and sketching. It’s where you’ll find a Classes and Events Page and a free beginners guide to nature journaling that can be downloaded.
I also keep a daily Instagram account which is pretty much like following me around when I’m out nature journaling and doing other interesting stuff including brewing and sipping tea, making art journals, gardening, visiting art museums, and you might come across the occasional pic of one of my Sheltland Sheepdogs.
You can sign up for my mailing list and receive a free nature journaling mini-video class .
For those interested in my fine art landscape paintings, nature drawings and Spirit Doll mixed media sculptures just go to my website.
A huge thank you Jan, for sharing your wisdom with us.