Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Drawn to Biodiversity" Workshop Combines Observation with Creativity

Bethann sketching in the great outdoors
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Long before iPhones and waterproof cameras, scientists would often sketch their observations of nature. Last Saturday, the UW Biodiversity Institute held a workshop called “Drawn to Biodiversity” in which students received a short course on the use of visual notetaking and observational drawing.

Wyoming EPSCoR was a sponsor of the Drawn to Biodiversity workshop. According to Liz Nysson, Wyoming EPSCoR Coordinator, “It is important to merge art with traditional scientific fields. It allows researchers to observe the world differently, and communicate their discoveries in unique and compelling ways.”

Bethann Garramon Merkle, a graduate student in UW's MFA program, taught the course, which drew on her own experience as a science writer and illustrator. Her writing and illustrations appear in a syndicated column, Drawn to the West, in the Laramie Boomerang, as well as in American Scientist, Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, and EdibleMISSOULA.

Rosehips from Bethann's sketchbook
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016

Bethann is experienced at helping others see the beauty of nature through art. On her website, CommNatural, she offers clients expert assistance with creating and publishing arresting visual and textual material. Her original artwork combines vibrant watercolor with agile pen-and-ink line drawing, a technique that captures the spontaneity and intricacy of the natural world.

Bethann designed the Drawn to Biodiversity workshop to cater to every skill level, since she believes that anyone can draw. “Drawing as we think of it today is based on a set of techniques developed during the Renaissance. These techniques absolutely can be learned, practiced, and improved - by anyone.”

As a sophomore at the University of Montana, Bethann was accepted into the Wilderness and Civilization program, a one-year multidisciplinary minor program where students learn about conservation issues. “Before this program, I was almost entirely unaware of ecology, conservation concerns, and food system issues.” Field journal practice was a major component of the program. “I had taken every science and every art class offered in my small rural high school, but the W&C Program was where I first learned these two disciplines could be complementary.”
Amphibian lore from Bethann's sketchbook
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

Bethann’s science illustration relates directly to her science writing. “In a pragmatic sense, drawing compels me to look very closely at a given subject - much more closely than if I only describe that subject in writing. I also have to problem-solve visually, which involves capturing color in a visceral way, drawing and re-drawing a form until I have accurately captured the shape.”

The workshop on Saturday provided students a “toolkit” of basic skills that they could use whenever they had an opportunity to draw from life. Bethann relishes “guiding a scientist” through the creative process of drawing, and giving them the tools to solve problems and see the world in a new way.

In addition to the hands-on workshop, Bethann gave a seminar talk for the UW Department of Zoology and Physiology, “Drawn to Science: Exploring the Historical and Contemporary Synergies between Drawing, Creativity, and Science.” You can listen to a Wyocast recording of the talk here. She is currently working on a project on ecological concepts in Caldecott-Medal-winning children’s books, as well as an adaptation of “The Tortoise and the Hare” with naturalistic illustrations. 

For Bethann herself, art is a meditative experience: “Making art, particularly when I am outside, causes time to warp in a fascinating way…It’s as if there isn’t such a thing as time at all.”

If you are interested in learning how to draw from nature, you can download a field drawing basics guide from her website here.

Drawing Workshop for the Biodiversity Institute in August
(Image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle, (c) 2016)

No comments:

Post a Comment