documenting nature, mom, Skinning, Taxidermy, tools, wood

observational drawing + whale bones

01.05.09 | 6 Comments


The boys do a lot of imaginative or “free” drawing, but they spend less time doing observational work. Earlier this week Chas broke down in the back of the car when he couldn’t synthesize a drawing of a Bionicle. I explained to him that something so complex as a Bionicle can be very difficult to recreate on the page from memory, and that most often, to replicate an image with that much detail, I draw from observation. We would have to do an “exercise in seeing,” I told him, and so this day was earmarked with Chas in mind.


The ‘Sketching Aquarium’ project in the Handy Book seemed counterintuitive, but I wanted to stick to topic of nature sketching, so today we drove to our favorite local aquarium, UC Santa Cruz’ Long Marine Laboratory, where Seth adventured earlier this week. We went for one very special subject: the blue whale that hovers as best as a whale skeleton can (complete with CHRISTMAS LIGHTS) beside the museum. She’s truly a spectacle in ginormity and abstract elegance, a poem on form. We had to draw her. Plus, she sits very, very still.


We were also on a mission to learn more about the whale through seeing. Observational drawing is our vehicle, to this end.

Whale bones are HUGE!


You start asking questions when you begin looking closer and drawing.

The skeleton provides attachments for muscles. Swimming through the ocean, the whale’s massive size requires a great deal of force to propel, provided by muscles. When the muscles contract, they need something rigid to pull against in order to flex the arm, or flipper. Bones form pivots and levers that enable a muscle to do work. Without opposing forces, bones are unnecessary. Because the whale is so huge, the bones have to be larger.

Whale bones are also relatively porous. We hadn’t realized that until we started looking closer. According to marine biologists writing for GREMM, The Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals,

“Whale bones are more porous and lighter than those of land mammals. Dense bones are necessary on land to support the body and counter gravity. In the marine environment, water works to support the body, dense bones are therefore unnecessary. Furthermore, this lesser bone density gives marine mammals better flotation. Thus, they expend less energy to remain at the surface. So what fills up all of these little holes? Fat! In fact, whale bones are made up of 60 percent fat. This constitutes a reserve in times of food shortage.”

The skeleton also protects the body’s internal organs, illustrated by the cage of our ribs. The spinal cord is safely nestled within the corridor of the vertebral canal. The skull cradles the brain. Nice design (or primitive, depending on your perspective).


It can be difficult to draw outside at the beach, especially for a four year-old who is more interested in climbing the subject. So I set the Biggie pad on the ground (to keep it from flying away) and began drawing, myself, trying to set the example.


The impressive form and size of the whale skeleton called for conte crayons. These monochromatic crayons are great because they are highly-pigmented and easy to smudge (a good thing–for creating tonal values). Also, one stroke can take off in many different directions: thin, broken, fat, ghostly, angry, fragile, arabesque–the possibilities are as endless as beautiful. Plus, you can fit a box of pastels in a purse and be done.


I encouraged seeing the details through drawing, but noticed they were more interested in the rich new crayons. Shifting gears, we talked about blending values by shading to show gradations between light and dark, made by pressure and smudging; about broken lines, erased lines, calligraphic lines–all ways to make the subject really come alive. It’s like electricity, this language of lines. If you play around with them, the three-dimensional form will appear in the drawing.


I mostly just wanted them to pause, draw and observe.


Five to fifteen minutes a day, it’s good medicine for the eyes and coordination and soul. In fact, today, this whole sketch session lasted less than five minutes for Chas, maybe ten minutes for Ford.  It’s small chunks like this that make the difference between practice and chore. You don’t want to feel like you are preaching, but be ready to talk when they want to listen. I was lucky, today; the kids were really receptive.


Remember not to simply praise the end result, as easy as this is, but to articulate what went on in the drawing process:

“You really captured the vertebral pattern there!”

“You went to town with that pastel! What did you think of them?”

“Wait! I only see one flipper here! Where is the other one?!”


Drawing is so much a part of my life that it’s hard not to include a tutorial on sketching techniques, especially since we’ve begun talking about observational drawing. Check back tomorrow and I’ll show the different ways kids can try translating the movement, the forms and the textures of life onto paper!

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