Strategy Share: Environmental Stewardship Through Field-Guide Drawing

Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by Elisabeth Gambino after her expedition to southeast Alaska as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Elisabeth Gambino teaches art at Bard Early College Baltimore in Maryland. Photo by Elisabeth Gambino

While on an expedition in southeast Alaska, I had the privilege of sharing the ship with several young naturalists. These enthusiastic participants in our expedition, ages 6-13, were especially passionate about identifying wildlife. I worked with them to observe, draw, and classify plankton captured with a small trawl net on one of our stops. In my own observations, I was also drawn to our shipboard Sibley’s Guide to Birds, an extraordinary resource for identifying various gulls, puffins, and other birds.

This experience inspired me to engage my urban students in observing and classifying local wildlife in order to encourage responsible stewardship of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Remarkably, our city of Baltimore is home to the second-largest urban forest canopy in America. In addition, our position at the top of the Chesapeake Bay renders us host to a plethora of migratory seabirds as well as aquatic life forms.

I teach an introductory drawing and painting class to ninth-graders with a wide range of backgrounds in art practices. My students benefit from investigating how artists engage in scientific practices of observation and documentation. They learn how scientists use illustrated field guides on expeditions to classify organisms and develop drawing skills to document species observed in order to add to the body of scientific knowledge. I want to encourage my students to explore and engage with the natural world in our area, and instill an understanding of interdependence and the need for environmental stewardship.

An collage of local fauna created by Sanaa, a student in Elisabeth’s class. Photo by Elisabeth Gambino

First Steps

To begin our exploration, students needed to understand how artistic observation and documentation has added to the body of knowledge in natural history. Examining artists such as Robert Hooke, Marcus Bloch, Beatrix Potter, John Gould, Maria Merian, John James Audubon, and John Muir Laws, we discussed how observation and accuracy are key to collecting information which is difficult to capture in the field. Unlike expressive subjects, scientific illustrators need to focus on accurate representation. First, we worked with the more static subjects: plants. Bringing live plants into the classroom gave students time to notice how branching patterns, texture, and value led to a more realistic capture of the plant’s qualities and aided in identification using a local field guide.

Masturing Gesture Drawing

After plant studies in graphite and paint, I led students through essential shape drawing methods for capturing human-animal gesture drawings. Drawing the human figure is an accessible entry point, as students can reference their own embodied experience to improve accuracy, and models are always in the room. After guided study in proportion and anatomy from a teacher-led model, students modeled for their peers in various poses and practiced life drawing from the peer models.

I instructed students on noting major anatomical details, such as the spine, pelvis, and anchor points in limbs, to capture gesture drawings which express motion. Modern computer graphics techniques in motion pictures provide relevant models for the use of anchor points to establish gesture in variations of the human form. Educators can use clips from the making of motion pictures such as Shrek and The Lord of the Rings to give accessible parallels for the use of anchor points in expressive gesture. To find clips, I usually enter the search terms “animation motion capture” on YouTube and add specific movie names depending on student interests.

Students applied gesture drawing skills as they drew animals such as squid. Image courtesy Makayla, a student in Elisabeth’s class

Drawing Like Scientists

After developing proficiency in gesture drawings, we took the leap to observing local animals. This experience took several forms and could take others in your classroom. We invited a local provider, the Drawing Zoo, to bring native animals, such as rabbits and turtles, to our classroom. In addition, field trips to the National Aquarium allowed us to see local and international animals in situ. Many park services, wildlife rehabilitation and education centers such as the Aark, or other animal rescue services can often provide a free or low-cost animal visit to your classroom. Try searching the internet for “wildlife animal rescue” and your town name to find nearby organizations.

In advance of the animal visit, I used photo and illustrational references to demonstrate how our knowledge of human anatomy could translate to expressive animal studies, and I also emphasized that scientists in field study are not always able to capture key behaviors in photographs. John Muir Laws’ Guide to Drawing Birds is an excellent resource to demonstrate the importance of field notes and quick gesture sketches to capture an animal’s behavior.  During our live observed animal experience, we focused on capturing characteristic movements and layering detail and texture on top of gesture studies. We applied value rendering to illustrate markings and express how features, fur, and scales move with the animal.

Live animal experiences spark curiosity, and my students followed up their illustrations with web-based research. We used the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s field guide to more fully understand how the observed behaviors are key to animals’ roles in the ecosystem. 

Students shared their drawings and research via Padlet. Image courtesy Elisabeth Gambino

Sharing with Authentic Audiences

Publishing scientific information helps to build knowledge in any community. After in-depth study and observation, students selected one animal to develop into a finished graphite rendering, along with research notes. We used Padlet to compile and publish a Baltimore Field Guide containing drawings with corresponding observations and research. The site my students built is shared with our Biology and Environmental Science classrooms in hopes that future collaborations will allow students to access student-generated research and illustration in their coursework. I plan to continue building the site in future classes, using it as a reference and springboard for inquiry.

Finally, we discussed the impact of media choice and explored the use of upcycled materials to create collage versions of each animal. Through cutting, layering, and gluing, students built individual collage illustrations while discussing the waste cycle in our area and the reduced environmental impact of reusing before recycling. Working in groups, students created portraits of various portions of our ecosystem, including ocean, bay, wetlands, fields, and forest. Groups displayed their murals in the school, accompanied by signs explaining the impact of litter and waste and the need to reduce the impact of the city’s consumption on local wildlife. This project coincided with the establishment of a school-wide recycling program.

Students upcycled magazines to create collaborative collages illustrating Chesapeake Bay ecosystems. Photo by Elisabeth Gambino

Interdisciplinary Potential

This project is easily adapted to art or science classrooms and could even fit into a literature class with an emphasis on global impacts of garbage. For example, our ninth-grade English teacher collaborated on a cross-disciplinary unit while partnering with me and a Dutch artist and using the novel Trash by Andy Mulligan as a source text. Students learned to observe the environment and draw and classify observed animals. They identified action steps they could take to reduce waste and the concurrent impact on the local environment. Visual art practices of observation and representation move beyond mimesis to engaged citizenship and stewardship.

Elisabeth Gambino is an artist, educator, and mentor teacher.

This post reflects a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow’s field-based experiences on a voyage with Lindblad Expeditions. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between  Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education

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