To most Islanders, Polly Hill Arboretum is the place to go when you want a relaxing, educational afternoon among the trees. The property is like a time capsule, 3,000 species preserved in sun-drenched amber.
But many don’t know that the arboretum also offers classes and lectures related to botany and nature from a world-class lineup of experts in entomology, writing, and art. Lizzy Schule is one such expert, who has taught the “Drawing from Nature” class for the past year. You probably know her from her work in Old Sculpin Gallery or Featherstone Center for the Arts. This summer she is teaching her three-hour course every Friday morning in an eight-week series. We dropped into her class to learn how to render the Vineyard’s natural beauty.
Upon walking into the Education Center at Polly Hill — a few years out of my last art lesson and a little nervous — I was immediately reassured by Schule’s calm manner. Schule is like an old friend you can consult with about anything under the sun. Whether you are an amateur artist intimidated by the prospect of drawing bark, or a well-weathered sketcher looking to adjust your composition, she is sure to put you at ease.
A year-round Vineyard resident after several years off the Island, Schule grew up here in the ’90s. She said that she sketches “at least every other day,” and finds it to be a grounding experience.
The Education Center was prepped with all of the materials we would get to play with. Glass jars filled with the whole color spectrum of pencils, Blackwing brand Palomino graphite pencils, Papermate black felt tip pens, and, of course, erasers.
To begin the class, Schule announced that we would be focusing on texture. Texture, she explained, can be translated to pencil through making a variety of marks — hatching, crosshatching, scribbling, and more. This raises the image off the page and makes it look more three-dimensional. She showed us examples from other artists, like Richard Doyle, Léon Bonvin, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Then, with our drawing boards and materials in tow, we were released into the arboretum to find our plant subjects. The roots, bark, or canopy of an oak tree; the petals of a calycanthus flower; any of the millions of leaves photosynthesizing around us. I headed toward the field of wildflowers and focused on one butterfly weed plant with bright orange blossoms.
“En plein air” is the act of painting outdoors. Although we weren’t painting, the air that rustled the grassy plain spread in front of me made for a dynamic drawing experience.
To determine the composition of our final piece, we were instructed to sketch our subjects from three different angles for five minutes each; moving around the plant and using our fingers to outline the frame. I drew one from the left side, switched to the right side and zoomed in, and then zoomed in even farther, so that the petals and pistils filled the whole frame.
Schule then called us back together to review our techniques and advise one another.
“How do I draw this foreshortened leaf?” one woman asked. “Should I focus on one flower stem or multiple?” asked another. “What colors should I use to draw the darker parts of the plant?”
Schule offered her advice, and then encouraged us to move on to our final pieces using colored pencil or pen. “Use the complementary colors,” Schule said; “that’s going to make things more naturalistic, and your colors won’t seem as artificial.”
With that, we headed back to our respective perches. I chose the second, more zoomed-in perspective, and set to lightly outlining with graphite before starting to shade in the tangerine tones. On the darker parts of the buds, I worked in some cyan blue. Lizzy came over and complimented my technique, then suggested that outlining the flower with geometric lines would speed up the tedious process of drawing tiny umbels.
The particular plant I had chosen made for quite the entertaining thoroughfare: bees and butterflies flitted from flower to flower. I only wished they stayed long enough for me to capture them. That is the mission for a future class.
As the class neared its end, I began to despair. Somehow, focusing on my little pencil marks had suspended me in a meditative state. I wanted to stay in that moment forever.
Schule expressed that art did the same for her. She said that if she didn’t draw, “I’d feel lost without it.”
Register for the “Drawing from Nature” class by calling Polly Hill Arboretum at 508-693-9426.