Monday, July 11, 2022

Book Review: Spotlight on Nature

Spotlight on Nature -- the latest edition in the 
Urban Sketching Handbook series

One aspect of sketching the urban landscape that has long intrigued me is the interplay between trees and human-made structures and objects. My ongoing series of trees that have been pruned to accommodate utility lines goes back nearly 10 years. In addition to the stories these trees tell about their relationship with humans, esthetically I enjoy and appreciate the tension between their organic, graceful lines juxtaposed with harshly vertical power poles and horizontal wires. Even when they have not been rudely trimmed, trees present the same contrast: Next to a house or car, they offer bold, irregular shapes against sharp architectural angles and unnaturally curving automotive lines. I think neither a tree alone nor a manufactured object alone tells a visual story as interesting as the two together.

The latest book in the popular Urban Sketching Handbook series, Spotlight on Nature: Tips and Techniques for Drawing & Painting Nature on Location, focuses on trees and all kinds of natural elements in the environment. Artists and instructors Virginia Hein and Gail Wong have closely observed nature as they’ve drawn and painted it on location, and their new book collects their best tips, techniques and approaches.

Like all the books in the Urban Sketching Handbook series, Spotlight on Nature is divided into Keys. The first shows us how to look for the role nature plays in a composition: Is it the star or a supporting character? Does it give background context or serve as a foreground frame?

(Images below do not necessarily correspond to my comments; I chose pages randomly to show the types of tips and techniques provided.)

Key II, How We Draw Nature, begins to get into the nitty-gritty of approaching the potentially overwhelming task of depicting the natural world. How can we show depth in a landscape? How do shadows on rocks and trees give them volume? And how do we manage masses and masses of overlapping foliage? (A gorgeous example of the latter by Brazilian artist Eduardo Bajzek takes my breath away.)

Key III is about storytelling: Finding the Character of a Place. How do natural elements contribute to the story of a specific place? Rock formations in Joshua Tree National Park are like no other in the world. Weather almost always affects the appearance of a scene. The quality, direction and color of light at different times of day or year tell much about when you sketched. Even the degree of moisture in the air affects what you see and feel and therefore how you draw or paint.

Key IV is perhaps of most interest to urban sketchers: Finding Nature in the City. It’s everywhere in the urban environment, but sometimes the unlikely spots tell the most fascinating stories. Maybe there’s a peek-a-boo view of trees between skyscrapers, or a tree softens the edges of a steel and glass atrium.

Key V focuses on various media and tools and how they can lend unique qualities to express natural elements. Color from paint, ink and colored pencil can add rich vibrancy. Specialized brushes, salt or sponges can provide organic texture.

Finally, the last Key is a gallery of stunning, varied work by contributors worldwide. (I wish this section were longer. The few images left me hungry for more.)

Tips and how-to instructions for techniques are included throughout as they relate to specific sections. For example, using wet-in-wet watercolor is a useful approach for painting skies. Observing the direction of tree limb growth helps to draw them accurately. “Workshop” sidebars offer challenges and suggestions for practice.

As part of the Urban Sketching Handbook series, the book’s main focus is on the relationship between nature and the built environment, but some sections discuss natural elements on their own. Detailed botanical drawings and portraits of individual trees might not be considered “urban” sketching, but when drawn from life, they offer the same rewarding experience of close observation that cannot be found by drawing from photos (the latter is my own opinion, not theirs).

7/8/22 Reading the book inspired me to look for ways
that nature can act as a frame in the urban environment.
(Maple Leaf neighborhood) 

Throughout the book, plentiful examples come from Virginia, Gail and 40 other well-known artists from the worldwide urban sketching community. As with all the other books in the series, my only complaint is that these gorgeous works have been necessarily reproduced at a tiny fraction of their actual size. They must be glorious when viewed full size!

The human-built environment is never without nature (at least we certainly hope that will remain true). Spotlight on Nature is easily one of my favorite volumes in the Handbook series for exploring this essential element of urban sketching.

(A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, but my opinions are my own. In fact, I had been looking forward to reading it ever since I heard it was coming out, and I had it on hold at the library when the publisher contacted me.)


  1. Since I sketch nature so often, this book would be something I would like to get my hands on. I'll have to do that.

  2. Very interesting. It's not the first time I see these featured on your blog. I think I could use some help to get me going through these. I saw I could get them here in France so I was wondering which ones I should consider first. Do you have 2-3 handbooks of this series you would consider most useful for a beginner+ sketcher?

    1. For a beginner, I recommend Suhita Shirodkar's How to Build a Practice for Sketching on Location and Mike Daikubara's Sketch Now, Think Later. For specific aspects of sketching, Katie Woodward's Understanding Light and Shari Blaukopf's Working With Color are favorites!

    2. Oh thank you thank you thank you ! I was going to lean into the architecture and nature ones but I could benefit from more info about light or color first, that is for sure.


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