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by Jill Novak

Spring, summer and fall are the time of year to stock up on plant and insect specimens for your home nature library. Nothing is more useful to an artist than a reference library full of specimens. Whether you preserve your specimens from life or use digital photography stored on the computer, stock your library now!

When I attended commercial art school we were taught to keep an artist’s reference file for anything we might want to draw in the future. Those files were filled with pictures of animals, people, and plant life taken mostly from the pages of National Geographic magazines. On one hand the files were invaluable if you needed an example of something for an illustration that you were currently working on such as a monarch butterfly on milkweed; on the other hand they were limited to the photographer’s style or the angle of his shot.

Other than figure drawing class and an occasional still-life, I don’t remember being encouraged to draw from real specimens. I found still-life drawings extremely uninspiring. And still-life is just what the name implies – still! I have found that drawing from life is much more captivating because you can observe a specimen in greater detail and draw it from any angle you choose.

How can you make your own specimen library? Well, it’s not hard at all. Let’s start with insects. Buy your children some butterfly nets and let them go exploring. It won’t be long before you have a fine bug collection. They don’t have to worry about pinning and labeling their insects unless they want to. Their drawings can be labeled and stored in notebooks. Pinning and labeling can limit your children’s ability to draw their specimens from different angles. Instead, get a large tackle box and store your bugs in it loosely. They can draw from their collection anytime they are inclined – even in the dead of winter. Preserve specimens in a jar with a cotton ball saturated in nail polish remover. When the bug has expired, place it in a slot and store it for later reference.

What about animals? Do you have a cat that loves leaving you “presents” on the doorstep? Some of most treasured bird specimens have been the result of a “cat-n-mouse” game. What about preserving dead animals that you find on the side of the road? Sound kind of crazy? Taxidermists have been doing it for years!

I love the story of children’s book illustrator Tasha Tudor thawing out specimens so she could pose them in different positions, and refreezing them to use again later. The collection in our garage freezer includes mice, moles, different kinds of birds, a baby weasel and many other interesting animals.

Keep a medium-sized aquarium on hand for drawing any live specimens you find. Release them after you’re done. In the last two weeks, we’ve used an aquarium to study six baby barn swallows, a large painted turtle, and a flying squirrel just to name a few. You never know what the Lord is going to provide for your nature study so be prepared!

Some plant matter can be preserved by air drying. I have several ball jars that line the top of an old library card catalog in my hallway. They contain samples from last year’s nature walks; thistles, bird’s nests, goldenrod, and milkweed pods are just a few of our “priceless” drawing treasures. Old printer’s trays can be filled with pine cones, maple tree seeds, insects, etc. Give your tray a prominent spot in your house and tell the kids to fill it up with specimens. Children are inspired to draw more spontaneously when specimens are readily available.

And of course, let your young naturalists loose in the backyard with a digital camera. Nothing can compare with the quality and instant reward of a child who takes his own pictures for reference. I regularly let Elizabeth, age 10, and Anna, age 6, take pictures of whatever they find of interest outside. Besides getting instant results, children can enlarge their photos and draw from them as they sit in front of the computer. If they can’t see a particular detail, they can click on the picture and enlarge it. Digital cameras are simply invaluable when it comes to catching a specimen for your collection!

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