Diane Nicholls teaches to draw what’s around

Diane Nicholls practicing what she teaches. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

“To engage your mind with your hand, through your surroundings,” is the stated goal of Diane Nicholls’ drawing class, “Observing and Drawing the Landscape,” at Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.

“It’s good to have people engaged in what they’re doing,” Ms. Nicholls says. She finds the people who enroll in her summer classes, which can be taken individually or as a series, interesting and varied.

To show her students how to create accurate perspective in their drawings, Ms. Nicholls lines up boxes on the porch at Polly Hill’s former house and encourages them to sight along the boxes’ edges.

She also urges them to make value studies. By adjusting the shades of light to dark, students can see the abstract patterns in their drawings. “It helps you with composition,” Ms. Nicholls explains.

She emphasizes sketching, and her personal preference is to make her subjects look almost abstract at the same time the forms remain recognizable. Her arresting and muted watercolors of beach debris illustrate the point: “I like paintings that don’t tell the whole story but make the viewer engage with the picture,” she says.

Developing a personal shorthand is important in her classes because it gives students the confidence not to belabor their work or spend all day on one drawing or painting.

One of Ms. Nicholls’ students confessed that while she’d gone to art school, she hadn’t drawn for 20 years. “I think that’s so exciting,” Ms. Nicholls says, commenting on the woman’s return to sketching.

Poet and Vineyard summer resident Rose Styron took the class, and Ms. Nicholls challenged her to really look at the objects she was drawing. A week or two later, a poem by Ms. Styron about listening to birds appeared in a local newspaper.

“It (the poem) got at what I was getting at –– to engage with the world,” Ms. Nicholls says, and explains: The student must learn to translate observational skills from language to art.

One year Ms. Nicholls had so many students she had to enlist Island pastel artist Ellen McCluskey to help. Although only two more of this summer’s drawing classes are scheduled –– on July 9 and 22, more will be added if there is demand.

“It feels terrific to be at it again,” Ms. Nicholls says.

Ms. Nicholls, who has authored art reviews for The Times, has had her work displayed at The Granary in West Tisbury, and the late Doug Parker’s gallery, On the Vineyard. Health concerns forced her to take a year off from her drawing classes.

An avid gardener who lived in the Boston area for many years and summered on the Vineyard before moving here, Ms. Nicholls’ association with the Arboretum and Polly Hill goes back to 1998. She was a docent and a teacher there for many years. She prefers teaching drawing to painting because it requires a closer connection between hand and eye.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Ms. Nicholls’ involvement with art began early at Cranbrook Schools — a complex of Michigan private institutions and a community center — celebrated for their arts emphasis. She studied weaving, pottery, and life drawing.

Although Ms. Nicholls went on to earn three degrees in English literature and American studies at the University of Michigan, she never stopped drawing and painting. After teaching English at Wheelock College and Tufts University in Boston, raising daughter Kyle, now 39, and son Barton, 36 –– and spending several years living in the Marshall Islands –– she studied landscape architectural drawing at the Radcliffe Institute.

“I like teaching because it makes me think about doing art,” she says, “and seeing it as a meditative practice.”