Natural History Illustration MOOC
This summer I have taken part in an interesting MOOC; Drawing Nature, Science and Culture: Natural History Illustration arranged by the University of Newcastle, in Australia and EdX. It has been very interesting to explore my personal interest in nature through observational drawing and at the same time learn more about Natural History Illustration. This course has very little to do with artistic expression but mainly to draw realistically whats in front of You through the concepts of composition, form, structure and motion.
The MOOC (Massiv Open Online Course) in it self is an interesting way to how one can organise education in the future of the digital age. This particular course had over 7000 participants (12 000 before this one) from all over the world.
What is characteristic of this way of teaching online is condensed introductions, the intense interaction between students and the use of the vast amount of resources made possible by the social media. I can see that in a near future one of the teachers main tasks will be to facilitate online teaching in different forms and making it possible for students to work independently, sharing their work and follow students in social media. Paradoxically, this way of teaching will save time and possibly supervise the students and their progress even more efficiently.
This MOOC was organised over 6 weeks with 6 sub-modules, each with several drawing assignments. Some were just homework published and commented by fellow students, others were formal peers - evaluated assignments that would be graded. There were also quizzes and other tasks to be solved through the course and recommended time used on the course was 6 hours per week. This is the sub-modules for week 2.
The main task in Natural History Illustration is, in general, to draw accurate and realistic. A lot of praise was given to these ”accurate” drawings and rightly so but there are some paradoxes here known to everybody who has studied nature and in the field tried to identify different species. What kind of bird or flower is that? A hard look, then searching in the field guide and at the specimen again. I know, I will be able to accurately render this bird or flower and I could even make it beautiful, but it would be worthless as a Natural History Illustration. The simple reason is that it is not enough that it is realistic and beautiful if the drawing lacks the experience to make the necessary distinctions between species, age, sex or geographical variations. This is the reason why a photograph lacks the power of a good Natural History Illustration.
A drawing of a bird has to have the right proportions, characteristic positions, movement displaying a strong contour together, with a striking visual pattern and colours. In the field, one will often encounter brief sightings, difficult weather and light conditions that make it possible to observe traces of the contour, colour and proportions.
The course has a very good pedagogical approach beginning with fundamental drawing skills, understanding the fundamental means of expression, "tricks of the trade” to a final exam with a full rendering.
The first week was mainly an introduction to the course, how it is organised and to what Natural History Illustrations is. Our first homework was to find a local practitioner or someone who has links your place in the world. These were presented on a discussion forum and discussed among the other participants in the course. I choose the able Norwegian wildlife artist Viggo Ree that live not so fare from where I live.
The second week our task was Observational Drawing. The lessons were several introductions videos, text material and our homework was to upload a landscape drawing. To our help, we had a hint sheet we could download.
The third week was devoted to fieldwork and keeping a Field Journal. The main exercises this week was to collect some photos of flowers we should work with later in the course and the homework was to make some Field Sketches. I drew my cats Lilly and Jussi.
The assessment drawing was to produce a structurally accurate rendering of a flower and my choice was a Malva sp. that grows just outside my studio.
The fifth week was very much the same as the week before but instead of botanical studies, we should in depth work with the anatomical structure of animals.
And after looking at several videos and reading on how to capture the structure we should make some analytic sketches and the second homework was to draw a "structural drawing" of a bird.
The final week was the exam and in a way sums up and repeat all the previous stages of the course. The homework was to build form and to capture the underplaying structure. This analytic drawing was supposed to be done before the final drawing assessment and again I used my cat Jussi as a model.
And for the final drawing that was assessed by five of my peers in the course, I continued to work with my horse studies from the week before. Finally, we finished with a multiple-choice exam on the theory for the whole MOOC.
This was an interesting course that I can recommend for everyone who is interested in scientific illustration and how to organise a MOOC in art and illustration. I am sure that this way of teaching will be a part of future in Art education.
Check out this promotion video on Youtube.