By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
While cataloging field books I often come across rough sketches. The sketches usually depict specimens, and are completed quickly and roughly in the field. I love finding sketches. Besides being nice to look at, they illustrate scientific names and collector numbers. For me, they are pretty pictures, but I wondered about the reasons that collectors might make drawings in the field, and what the sketches can tell us.
I met up with Botany Collections Manager and Field Book Project Co-PI Rusty Russell to ask him for a botanist’s perspective on the value of field sketches. Rusty reminded me that to draw something is to really see it. I understood immediately. Before attending library school, I studied art. That single remark spoke directly to my experience drawing from life. To sketch something—to take in all of the lines and planes, colors, shades, textures, and nuances and put them on paper—is to really understand the physical form. Whether it’s a person, a shell, a plant, an insect, or an animal, you have to take time to observe it from all angles. The very act of rendering an object can fix it into your memory. How art and science intersect yet again!
Jenny Keller actually made this same point in her chapter “Why Sketch” in Michael Canfield’s book Field Notes on Science and Nature. Keller asserts that sketching can assist a field biologist with observing and documenting aspects of a specimen that may otherwise go unnoticed or unrecorded. She points out that photography can sometimes miss certain aspects of a specimen: it can only shoot one side at a time and often the color can come out wrong. Keller writes that sketching can ensure that you see and record all observations while you’re still in front of the subject.
I brought some of the field books of botanist T. R. Soderstrom to Rusty’s office so that we could take a look at the sketches together. I was curious why Soderstrom made sketches and measurements of bamboo in the field if he was collecting the specimen anyway. Would a sketch be necessary? Wouldn’t it be easier to take measurements and provide observations back in the comfort of the lab?
Rusty explained that a sketch is “a way of collecting data visually that might not be available to you once the collection is made”. In the case of Soderstrom’s sketches, he was recording measurements of internodes (distances between nodes of bamboo) that he wouldn’t be able to take back in the lab. Because the bamboo specimens that Soderstrom was collecting were so large, only portions were collected. Soderstsrom may have wanted to get measurements for the entire specimen, and that was only possible in the field. The sketches are an obvious way to visualize, remember, and understand the data.
So, these are just a few ways that field book sketches are valuable documentation. Keller includes even more reasons for sketching in the field, and I encourage you to read her chapter in Field Notes on Science and Nature. To all collectors: sketch on!
Canfield, M. (2011). Field notes from science and nature. (1st ed.). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.