Practice your observational skills by drawing

Matt Nowak
Matt Nowak

Back as a student at Cathedral High School in Trenton, New Jersey, I distinctly remember that the nun that taught one of the biology classes was really keen on teaching us how to diagram flowers using the international system for diagraming flower parts so that they are recognizable to anyone familiar with the system.

When I say flowers, I include those tiny little mouse-eared chickweed flowers which are barely an eighth of an inch across and have many petals. Sure, anyone can do a rose or a tulip, but try some of the tiny, compound flowers. I’m pretty sure that I excelled at it back then, although I certainly don’t remember the system today.

I was reminded of these tasks when I volunteered recently to help a local Leavenworth Boy Scouts troop at their annual summer camp at Clinton Reservoir and State Park. I was there to assist them with getting their forestry merit badge accomplished, which includes collecting leaves from at least 15 species of trees, shrubs or vines.

As I explained to them between the heavy rainstorms, the critical aspect of collecting leaves is to help you develop your skills of observation. We can simplify the identification of many plants by knowing their general characteristics. For example, oaks in the red oak family have acute points on their leaves while those in the white oak family have rounded tips.

Or there are four tree species in this region that have opposite branching and one of them is quite small and one is vanishing due to disease, which makes it pretty easy to identify an entire family of trees just by observing that it has opposite branching. There are many, many examples of identifying characteristics that make plant identification quite simple. Another is that mints have square stems, for example.

So how do you go about developing your powers of observation, a skill that is useful virtually everywhere? One way is to do like the nun taught us in biology class, which is to draw out the parts systematically. Another way, which was taught at Trenton Junior College in biology was to do art based on what you are observing.

I found it interesting that they required several art classes as part of the biology program, but it was really for the purpose of developing your skills of observation. Sit down with some drawing tools like a pencil or some pen and ink and try to make a technical drawing of whatever it is that you are looking at.

To do a technical drawing you really have to see what you are looking at. I assume that we all must have some level of this skill, but for many career fields, especially in the sciences I suppose, developing this skill to a high degree can make the difference between having a successful or a not-so-successful career.

What’s pretty neat is that this skill is immediately useful as a hobby. I knew one forester who took on work illustrating some books. When I taught this to 4-Hers, I encouraged them to do drawings of leaves that they collected and to add other things like maybe a barn, or a drawing of a tree or a stream to make the simple leaf drawing into a more substantial piece of art.

From simple line drawings some will probably add some watercolors and some may even go on to painting with oils or some other media. It can all begin with making a leaf collection and doing the technical drawings to develop those skills of observation which will be useful in just about any career field, including just being you.

And you would be surprised how great almost any drawing will look if you put a frame around it. Now is a great time to collect leaves and if you dry them properly, you can use them almost forever. Art is a critical element of the sciences because it makes you see what you are looking at.

Matt Nowak is a retired natural resources specialist and lives in Lansing.