Nature journaling in the rainforest

posted in: Nature journaling 13

bandicootToday’s post is a short guide to nature journaling. I’ve been spending a bit of time in rainforest of late, doing some research for a book. So this post is illustrated with journal entries from rainforest places – mostly from Queensland but with one sneaky New Caledonian picture thrown in (botanists – can you pick it?).

sloaneaA nature journal can be anything you want it to be. Sketches, creative writing, lists of species, hand-drawn maps with added points of interest or events that occurred on your journey. Mine mostly has drawings and field notes.


I think a nature journal has two main purposes. One is to record what you encounter, and your response to it. This leaves a tangible product. The other is the practice of slowing down, really looking at something, and spending time with it. This is far less tangible, but if you enjoy being in nature it’s a wonderful thing to do. Nature journaling is an excuse to be in the natural world without dashing off to a destination or striving for the next bird or plant ‘tick’.

crimson rosellaCunonia spwonga pigeon

If you usually spend a lot of time thinking in an analytical way (hey all you scientists!), it might also de-couple your analytical brain for a moment, and allow you to notice something new that you’ve skimmed over in the past.

brush turkeyscrubwren

The tools I use for nature journaling are simple and portable:

stuff small

  • a small sketchbook 14 x 20 cm (I use ‘mixed media’ paper which is smooth and thick because I use watercolour pencils, but any small sketchbook will do)
  • watercolour pencils
  • 2B pencil and eraser
  • fine black permanent ink marker
  • a paintbrush with its own water reservoir (these are very neat and can be found at most good art stores).

Purling Brook falls small

Many of you will probably say ‘but I can’t draw’. Yep, at the start none of us could draw, every one of us had to learn (a bit like all those young wizards learning magic at Hogwarts). You start off being really crappy at it, you practice, and slowly you get better. The problem is, most people gave up trying when they were kids, and told themselves they couldn’t do it. But don’t listen to yourself, turn off that negative voice. After all, since your nature journal is not destined for the National Gallery – does it really matter? You will know what your drawing is about: it will be your own unique set of marks, your own unique response. And the more you practice, the better you will get.

wompoo practiceIf you’d like to know more about rediscovering your ability to draw, check out the classic book Drawing on the right side of the brain. It includes a series of exercises which will help you to look at things like an artist, and to realize that just about anyone who can sign their name can also learn how to draw.

But don’t forget drawing is only one way to do a nature journal. You could also write, trace the shapes of leaves, do rubbings of tree-trunks or rocks, note down place or species names and invent your own meanings (or invent both names and meanings), observe and then try to reproduce the colours of a sunset or a flower, sit quietly and then write down all the sounds you just heard… The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Have a go – try it. You will probably surprise yourself.

wompoos in fig

13 Responses

  1. Dayna

    Great point about the “I can’t draw!” fear. Enjoying nature starts with spending time in it.

  2. Paula Peeters

    Hi Dayna, thanks for reading, and I’m glad the drawing comments resonated with you. The brain is so very flexible and adaptable, but it needs to be regularly challenged by learning new skills and new ways to look at the world. Closing doors by saying ‘I can’t…’ is not very helpful, unless there’s a good reason of course. Cheers, Paula

  3. carol donaldson

    You made me want to go back to carrying a proper nature journal on my walks, a habit I’ve fallen out of. Nowadays I just tend to scribble notes and thoughts on the back of survey sheets but it is not the same as the nature diaries I kept as a child.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey Carol maybe you should? And I’d like to see some of your childhood nature journal entries – maybe you could blog them? Thanks for reading, cheers Paula

  4. Linda Lee

    I really enjoyed this post. I used to do a kind of nature journaling, which often included just writing about the experience I was having and how I felt about it….kind of like creative writing…and it was great. Sometimes I look back at it when going through old boxes at home and think “Wow, did I write that?”. It’s another process just discovering that stuff from the past and the memories it invokes (which of course is one reason for journaling!) But anyway, yes, saying “I can’t” doesnt help and we have to be brave and just commit something to that intimidating piece of blank white paper! Not something I’m that good at but like you say, it just takes practice and bravery, who cares what it looks like, and you have to start somewhere. And your article may just have inspired me to start doing it again….

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Linda, great to hear from you. I find that it helps to remind yourself ‘well nobody else is going to read this (or see this)’. You’re not doing it for show, or to show off! You’re just doing it. Funny how we can be our own harshest critics. Would you be that critical of a piece of writing or drawing if it was done by a good friend? Probably not. You would probably think it was pretty darn good. And then there are gardening journals too – another aspect of nature journaling that many of us can do in our own backyards. Lists of what to plant and landscaping ideas can evolve into little sketches. Check out for a beautiful example. Cheers, Paula

  5. Jane

    Hi Paula,
    I was very interested to see that you gave a link to the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, as it was one of the books I used when I was a teenager. It’s excellent! I kept the book and used the exercises with my own children when I was teaching them art in distance education. My daughter is now a portrait artist alongside her university studies in anatomy. There is a point at which people decide they can’t draw, but there is a lot of practice involved even for famous artists. Learning to observe what is really there rather than the stylised images we have in our memory is one of the keys isn’t it? That is where simple exercises from that book such as turning a picture upside-down to copy it can help. It is interesting that there is a modern trend to separate the arts and sciences, when in reality the artist often has keen observational skills. In the past, when we didn’t have cameras, botanists relied on drawing skills. Art and science don’t have to be separate. That’s something that your blog highlights. Thank you.

  6. Paula Peeters

    Hi Jane what an enlightened educator you are, to expose your kids to ‘Drawing on the right side of your brain’ ! And it clearly made a difference to your daughter. And what about you, do you still draw? I don’t think anything is truly separate it’s just that humans like putting things into boxes. It helps us cope with a messy and complex reality. Thanks for reading and commenting, cheers, Paula

  7. […] week I introduced the practice of nature journaling, with some pictures from the rainforest. In this post I’d like to further emphasize that some […]

  8. Nat gilbert

    This is a great story on nature journalling. This year I have got my year 8’s nature journalling in Environmental Studies. They have to make 5 entries s week for 10 weeks and they love it. I hope some of them keep it up. I’m just astounded at how creative and connected a lot of kids are to nature. Kid often get labelled with having become victims of the computer age, but they are really concerned about the environment and are eager to connect. Connection to nature strengthens the value they have for nature and then comes respect and action. Nature journalling is a wonderful activity. Thanks for sharing Paula

  9. Paula Peeters

    Hey Nat, how lovely (and not surprising really!) that we’re both independently championing the benefits of nature journaling at this time. Great to hear that the kids are getting into it. But I’m sure living on the beautiful South Coast of SA helps, as well as having an inspiring and encouraging teacher. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers, Paula

  10. Michael Fox

    Great story Paula.
    An inspiration to do more drawing … I can now call my visual diary a nature journal … much more impressive.

  11. Paula Peeters

    Hey Michael – great to hear you keep a visual nature diary journal thingy. Now I’d really like to see some of it appear in your blog one day… Please?!