Bonding with Nature

An early start makes all the difference


by Pat Buchanan


What does it take to bridge the distance between Maryland and Massachusetts? How about 22 first graders with a lot of enthusiasm, yours truly with a sketch or two, and a smidgen of digital technology?

Last fall my daughter Lisa, who teaches first grade at City Neighbors Hamilton, a charter school in northeast Baltimore, invited me to join her in an art project she had just begun with her students—ours would be a long distance collaboration. The children had drawn self-portraits and now they were starting to sketch from nature. In an aside, Lisa had told them she happened to know “a very good artist who did a lot of sketching of the natural world” and wondered if they’d be interested in learning more from this person about drawing. The response was enthusiastic and all the more-so when they found out this ‘very good artist’ happened to be their teacher’s mother.

In one of the exercises Lisa described to me, she had asked her students to take a long look at an aloe plant, which she then tucked out of sight. Then she asked them to draw what they could remember about it. When they were finished she brought the aloe plant back and invited the children to draw it again, this time looking at it very closely as they drew. It can be said there was definitely an “Aha!” moment for many of the children when they discovered there were details they hadn’t recalled while doing their ‘memory’ drawing. About their second drawings, young Ahzi noted that “What was hard was drawing the spikes on the aloe plant”; Alexander said, “It took so long to do. I thought I needed help, but I could do it on my own” and Lola observed, “What was difficult was trying to draw the plant exactly as it is”.

I couldn’t think of a better approach to drawing than the one Lisa had already introduced to them, but I could certainly offer them some examples of what I had done and also do a sketch for them just the way I would do a field sketch. Drawing a mushroom for them was an obvious choice for me. I must confess it wasn’t that long ago that I became aware that not all fungi had gills. For reasons I am unable to fathom, I was actually stunned by this very ordinary fact and have delighted in photographing and sketching these fascinating organisms ever since. So I sketched a mushroom I’d found in the woods near my house, taking snapshots of the drawing in progress and then e-mailing the shots to Lisa’s class along with a copy of a small watercolor I had done called “Bird's Nest Fungi with Two Ants”.  This prompted the kids to send me a number of questions:

How did you become a great artist?

Thank you for this nice question. I don't really think of myself as a great artist but I do think of myself as a good artist.


Is it fun to sketch or not?

Yes and that's why I do it. But sometimes it's not so much fun because it's not turning out the way I'd like it to. Then I have to keep working on it because I feel really good when I get it figured out.


Did someone teach you how to sketch?

I've had lots of teachers, especially in the last 15 years. Before I got interested in drawing from nature one of the problems a teacher gave me to solve was to start with a doodle and just let my imagination take me where the doodle led me. And later, I learned a lot from a botanical artist just by watching her draw.


Where do you go to sketch?

Mostly I work on my dining room table. But sometimes I take a sketchbook with me when I travel because I can't bring everything home that I'd like to draw. So I might draw a person having lunch at a restaurant or friends at work.


Lillian says she can draw as good as that.

That's wonderful Lillian. Your teacher Mrs. Bryant sent me pictures of some sketches some of you are working on and they are really really good!


Why did you do this?

When I do the sketch like the mushroom or the Birds Nest Fungi with Two Ants, part of what I really like is what I learn about the thing I'm drawing. There's a big difference between looking at a picture, say of a mushroom, and actually drawing the mushroom. I notice and learn a lot more when I do a drawing and some of the things I discover are really fun to see.


Why did you add watercolors to the picture?

I added watercolors because it helps me remember that this is what the mushroom really looked like.


How do you feel when something is finished?

I feel pretty good about it. When I really like something I've drawn, I look at it often and it makes me happy that I did it.


The children worked on their drawings over a span of nearly eight weeks: they went outside to gather flowers and other natural materials to bring inside to draw and also spent a morning drawing out of doors. Finally they wrote down their thoughts on what it meant to see and how it felt to draw what they saw. Lisa gathered copies of their work together in a booklet: some of their sketches and reflections are shown here.

As a kind of postscript, I sent the children photos of sketches I did while I was foraying for mushrooms last fall in Sardinia. I uploaded the photos to my iPad and imposed them on a map of the island: the illustration is a composite of the four or five installments that I sent to them.

I'm looking forward to a visit with the City Neighbors first graders in the spring—it has been enormously rewarding to me to be able to share in their discoveries and enthusiasm. They are now engaged in studying the fascinating world of water and I can't wait to find out what they will have discovered, and to meet them face-to-face.


  • Pat Buchanan hunts mushrooms to draw and teaches an introduction to Photoshop Elements as part of the Botanical Art and Illustration program at the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens.
  • Lisa and her City Neighbors Hamilton first grade class.
  • Pat's daughter Lisa
  • Ahzi's aloe
  • Lola: I got this leaf in the class. It was hard to draw it. I was trying really hard when I was doing it. What was hard was that I couldn't do it the same. It was my first leaf sketch.
  • Lila and Gia
  • Nicholas: I was looking at the leaf but it was hard because I didn't know how to make it look round on the edge but I figured it out.
  • Violette
  • Lillian Rose: It was not hard to sketch because it was small. I drew a feather but I wanted a mushroom to sketch.
  • Lila and Wynn
  • Lillian: It was so easy to draw a leaf but now that I look at it I can make it look better.
  • Logan
  • The mushroom Pat drew and three stages of the drawing
  • A map of Sardinia with sketches of some of the mushrooms and other sights Pat saw there.