An Interview with Shirley Ann Vels

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Today, as part of the year-long nature journaling series I am running, here on Raising Little Shoots, I am very pleased to share an interview with Shirley Vels.  I have known Shirley as an online friend for many years; we began home educating around the same time. Shirley is such a beautiful soul!  She has a gorgeous Etsy shop, which she and her daughter sell the most beautiful yarns, and other goodies. So without further ado, on to the interview!

~ Hello Shirley Ann, I am delighted to have you here on Raising Little Shoots! Please could you tell us a little about yourself.

 I live in Devon, England. I’m not English though, we immigrated to England 6 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa. We’ve been homeschooling our two daughters for 11 years using the Charlotte Mason philosophy which has brought richness to not just our education but to our lives in general.

Apart from my main ‘job’ as wife, mother and home educator, I am a freelance writer. In the homeschooling community I am a regular contributor to The Curriculum Choice and to Barb’s Handbook of Nature Study newsletter.

I would have to say that my Christian faith, family, home education and nature are what are most important to me and what I am most passionate about. I have been privileged to encourage and come alongside new homeschooling parents in their journey over the years. I love to impart my knowledge and experience of homeschooling, the Charlotte Mason method, particularly nature study, to new or struggling homeschooling families.

I am also deeply in love with England – always have been. I never quite felt at home in Africa, England is where my heart belongs. I feel privileged to live here and so love to share the beauty and historical heritage of this marvellous land on my blog.

~ When did you first begin to keep your nature journal and what got you started?

During our first year of homeschooling, I joined a Charlotte Mason study group. We would discuss Miss Mason’s philosophy and how to apply live it out in our homes. One of the topics was Nature Study and keeping a nature journal. Our groups’ leader had brought her nature journal along to show us and I was instantly hooked. The thought of observing nature so closely and creating a life-long keepsake appealed to my creative instincts. The very next day I went out and bought my daughters and myself our first journals and the rest, as they say, is history.

~ Have your journals evolved from when you first began to keep them?

Absolutely. This is one of the things that I love about keeping a journal, I am able to page back to my very first entry and see the progress that I have made in my drawing and painting skills. My first entries were scattered around my page without much thought into composition. I was literally just recording what I saw using Faber-Castel Indian ink pens with colour being added with colouring pencils. However as time has gone on I braved the world of watercolour paints and my skills have grown. Now I use watercolours with details filled in using Indian Ink.

My pages are a bit more thought out now but always a combination of my art and written notes – I love reading my thoughts and observations on entries. My style is very much influenced by Edith Holden’s Country Diary.

~ Please could you share with us your favourite journaling supplies?

Paints: I wouldn’t be without my Winsor and Newton Cotman Watercolour Whole Pan paints. There are 12 full pans of colour in a compact box which is perfect to take into the field. You can get watercolour pallets with more colour options, but I prefer to keep it simple and mix my own colours from the 12 I have. I think I would run into trouble with too many options.

Sketchbooks: My favourite journals are Stillman and Birns – Zeta. The paper is wonderful for mixed media and holds watercolour beautifully without bleeding through. You can get them in 7 inch X 7 inch (square) wirebound format or A4, however these are quite pricey so another excellent (and cheaper) alternative, one that I am currently using, is the Hand.book Journal Co. Artists’ Sketch Book 5.5 inc X 5.5 inch. The paper is perfectly adequate for light watercolour washes with no bleed through.

Artist’s Pens: I use Faber-Castell PITT Indian Ink artist pens in all my work for adding detail and ‘fleshing’ my sketches out. These pens are affordable, great quality and come in a pack of about 4 for less than £10.00. The ink is waterproof too which means they are perfect for use with watercolours.

~ Would you share some of your favourite pages with us, and let us know what you like about them?

This snail is one of my favourite simply because it is the very first journal entry where I laid aside my pencil’s and picked up a paintbrush. The day before this entry I had purchased my first watercolour set. It’s a lovely reminder of the instant I took my ‘next’ step in my nature journal journey.

These butterflies painted in the summer of 2013 always make me smile. Our nature study challenge for that week was butterflies. Armed with a camera and with our journals and watercolour’s, we set out and spent a wonderful two hours sitting in a meadow that was full of little white flowers painting butterflies.

I love how this bee turned out. We were able to closely observe some of the bumblebees that were buzzing around the clover in the lawn. We captured a few in mason jars and sat outside in the sunshine painting them. I have to say that if you can sketch from a real-life specimen rather than a photograph it really seems to lead to much better drawings. Photographs, although sometimes necessary, can lead to rather flat looking reproductions in my experience.

I love the layout of this page and it really is something I want to do more often. We had newt’s living in our garden pond so were able to draw from close observation, but what I love about this page is the insert of a closer observation on one part of this semi-aquatic amphibian. AS you can see, I have lots of writing along-side my illustration.

This is the first entry in my new nature journal for 2017 and I simply LOVE how it turned out. This is my Handbook Paper Co. Field journal, it’s a square 5.5 X 5.5 inch layout. I’m loving the size and the paper quality is fantastic for light watercolour washes. This is the very first time that I am happy with how one of my bird illustrations has turned out. It’s not perfect, and looking at it I can see some things that I should have done differently, but I love it’s general proportions and shapes and I love the colour’s I managed to achieve. I paid attention to page layout in this entry and I think that 2017 is going to be ‘page layout’ year. I want to create a work of art in this year’s journal, take it to a new level. But this entry makes me feel that I have somehow crossed that invisible line in art skills and am moving onto the next step.

~ What would you say you have been the greatest benefits to keeping your journals?

We have experienced so many benefits to keeping journals, but the greatest has been the memories that I have created alongside my children in keeping our journals. As I page through my journal each entry evokes a memory of a walk, of conversations had, of snippets of life shared and enjoyed. My journal is not just a collection of artistic attempts at capturing ‘a flower’, or a ‘bird’, rather each page brings a sense of my place in this journey of life.

More obvious benefits are that my artistic skills have grown. It brings me great joy to be able to draw something I have observed, to capture a moment in the brief life of a living plant or creature, forever immortalized on the pages of my journal. The more time you spend drawing and painting, the more accurately I am able to capture my observations, and that brings a huge sense of achievement.

A very important benefit that has come out of our nature study and journal keeping is that it has been the catalyst for my eldest daughter’s career choice. She has recently graduated from our homeschool and is now studying Art and Design with the hopes of becoming an illustrator – more specifically a botanical illustrator. Her nature journal was a key part of her portfolio which gained her entrance into art college despite not having the ‘recommended number’ of GCSE’s! She continues to keep her nature journal as it brings her so much joy.

The great benefit that leaps to mind is that my knowledge and connection with nature is much greater and deeper than it was 7 years ago. I am in awe of the intricacies of God’s creation, of how each and every living thing is unique and so perfectly created to survive & thrive in its environment.

I’ve observed how even though technology pulls us forward into a fast paced, ever changing world, how wars scar our land and humanity, how very frightening our world can appear, nature keeps its annual rhythm. Moment upon moment, day upon day, year upon year, it keeps to its course. It is reliable, each year I know that spring follows winter, the Swallows will arrive sometime in March, Bluebells will bloom in May, the Perseid Meteor Shower will put on its annual display in August. Natures rhythm is reassuring, it is healing, restoring and instills a sense of peace when my heart and mind are anything but peaceful. It’s therapeutic.

~ What advice would you give to fellow nature journals?

I so often hear statements like, ‘I can’t draw’, or ‘I don’t know the first thing about nature’, but the beauty of keeping a journal is that you don’t have to. It’s a personal journey, you start off with basic skills and sketchy knowledge and you grow in knowledge and skill the more you observe and record. There are a few nature journaler’s that I follow in Instagram who’s work I really admire, reading their blogs they have shared that in the beginning they were just like you and me – no formal artistic training – just ordinary people who were drawn to recording what they saw in a medium that appealed to their creative sides. Now people like me look at their shared work and aspire to be as proficient in their own skills. One particular nature journaler, completely self-taught, now makes money from giving online watercolour classes and nature journaling workshops. In fact, many of my favourite reference books have just been ordinary people faithfully recording nature for the pure love and joy of it. Their journals have then been made into books and courses for aspiring naturalists to learn from. Some of my favourites are The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, Janet Marsh’s Nature Diary, and Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie.

Don’t allow lack of skill or knowledge keep you from keeping a journal. You are guaranteed to learn, no question about it. Like everything in life, the more you practice something the better you will get at it. If you stick with it, it will dawn on you sometime down the line that you are able to identify different wildflowers along your walks, or that you can distinguish between a Gold Finch and a Bull Finch. One step at a time I say, build your knowledge and skills one entry at a time.

Finally, buy the best quality journal supplies you can afford, especially when it comes to your journal. You are creating a keepsake that could be around a hundred years after you have left this earth, an heirloom to be passed on through generations in your family. A journal with good quality paper that can hold watercolour and hold your art work is worth paying a few extra £’s for.

~ Where can we find you on the internet?

My blog is called Under an English Sky. This is where I write about our Charlotte Mason inspired homeschooling, nature study, living in England, and living in tune to the years liturgical and natural rhythms. I also have a blog Facebook page where you can connect with me. I will often post snippets that I have come across that I want to share with my readers but really does not constitute a full blog post, recipes, moment captured, nature journal pages – that sort of thing.

I have an Instagram account which I post to throughout the week.

You can also find me on Pinterest. I LOVE Pinterest so much and am always pinning great ideas that I find on the web.

And finally I have an Etsy shop which I share with my arty daughter. We sell bespoke planner goodies, hand-dyed yarn (by me), and other yarny accessories.

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