Intentional Curiosity

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling
Written and Illustrated by John Muir Laws
Heyday, 2016, 303 pages

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, John Muir Laws’ newest treasure of an illustrated guidebook, is a how-to of nature journaling that touches on every aspect of his approach to “intentional curiosity” about the natural world. It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped to write such a book – Laws has spent thousands of hours outdoors sketching California’s flora, fauna, and landscapes, as well as teaching nature journaling to others.

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Evident from the first page is Laws’s love of beauty and visual thinking. It’s clear that nature journaling requires a passion for attention to details and connecting to the subject – in this case, wildness and biodiversity. Laws’ guide explores the power of journaling to create a practice of observing, studying, and being present, which helps to transform moments of curiosity into the thrill of discovery and wonder. As he writes, “When you celebrate the world through the pages of your journal, every stroke of your brush or pencil can be a song of gratitude for the opportunity to be alive.”

The guide speaks to the naturalist, but is invaluable to any artist looking to improve technique. What first drew me to the book was Laws’s artwork and the hope that it would improve my own ability to illustrate native California plants. I picked up watercolors this winter after a 10-year hiatus when small living quarters and a busy life seemed to get in the way of my joy of painting. I began by painting a series of flowers, thinking this would be an easy subject, but darn it if the anatomy of a flower isn’t frustratingly detailed. I was instantly attracted to Laws’ technique of breaking the illustration process down into simple steps that anyone could follow.

As Laws repeatedly writes, drawing is not a gift but a skill that anyone can master. Along with his detailed instructions, the book includes lovely illustrative examples from Laws’s own journals. The guide also includes practical suggestions on creating an artist’s field kit, a useful comparison of watercolor, pen, and pencil brands, and recommendations regarding his favorite journals. Laws even adds a segment on making natural paint in the field by using sedimentary rocks. Talk about naturalist street cred – painting rock formations with pigments made from those very rocks!

Laws grew up with parents who spent weekends in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore recording the cycles of wildflower blooms, which left a lifelong impression on their sons. Laws’s own philosophical tutorials on creating meaningful and scientific nature journals reminds me of being a child, wanting to know the names of everything within eyesight, and taking the time to sit by a creek and wait for something to happen. That unhurried expectation that the natural world has much to teach resounds throughout the book, beautifully marrying science and soul.

Besides being full of poetic and deeply personal narratives, the tome is more than anything a thorough instructional guide to thinking like a naturalist – Laws is, after all, one of the world’s foremost naturalists. The foundation of natural history is, as he puts it, “careful and specific observation with rigorous and exacting note-taking.” The pages of the guide are filled with examples of Laws’s own process of scientific inquiry through notes, questions, and astoundingly accurate illustrations. He shares methods for detailing the surrounding world with what he terms “focused awareness,” whether it be diagramming birdsong, recording wind speed, or measuring tree foliage cover. The reader can’t but be impressed with Laws’s full immersion into the journaling experience. Suffice it to say, a man who dips his journal in fresh wolf urine to capture the scent and memory of a place inspires a deeper love of and respect for the natural world.

What Laws and publisher Heyday have given us in this guide is a rare bird – the combination of a dense educative read on topics like how curiosity increases dopamine and activates the hippocampus, which allows us to better retain memories, with illustrated step-by-step instructions on drawing a foreshortened leaf. Laws’s blend of knowledge, passion, and experience are packaged beautifully with Heyday’s ethic of sparing no expense on production quality. This is one of those special books that instantly becomes your favorite strategically placed coffee-table conversation piece.

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