Recently, my grandmother gave me one of her books, and I fell in love with it instantly. It is a facsimile reproduction, or an exact copy of Edith Holden’s 1906 nature diary, while she lived in Devonshire, England. Not only does every page include some beautiful study of plants or animals, but since it is an exact copy, the text accompanying the browned pages are Edith’s own handwriting. In The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, Edith gives detailed descriptions of the weather, the plants, and animals each day of the year. Flipping through the pages is a glimpse into her world. My favorite entry is June 24th where Edith describes the chirp of a bird:
“The Cuckoo is beginning to change his tune, a little later he will be saying ‘Cuc-cuckoo’ instead of ‘cuckoo’: There is an old superstition concerning the Cuckoo’s cry in the South of England. If when you hear the Cuckoo, you begin to run and count the Cuckoo’s cry; and continue running until out of ear-shot, you will add as many years to your life as you count calls, – at least so the old women tell you in Devonshire.”
The beauty of Edith’s journal is that we get a realistic depiction of plants and animals surrounding her as they change through the seasons accompanied by written descriptions of the day. Naturally, the pages of March through June are filled with colorful flowers, buzzing bees, and fluttering butterflies.
Her watercolor studies jump from the pages and strike you with their dazzling colors. I admire her attention to detail that can be seen on the wings of the Red-Tailed Humble Bee and delicate petals of the Lady’s Slipper. As the pages of July came to an end, I was curious to see how Edith would handle fall and winter. I was not disappointed. The cover page of August alone shows how observant she is of her surroundings even as flowers disappear and the leaves turn colors.
First pick a plant or animal to paint. I chose to do some studying on the Red Fox, but you can draw any kind of plant or animal that inspires you. First, I researched pictures and videos of the Red Fox to get an idea of its’ anatomy and physique. Try not to copy from images, but use your imagination. Sketch out your plant or animal scenes and fill any white space with information about the plant or animal.
Starting from the bottom figure up, paint the base colors of the plant or animal. Think about the colors that are “beneath the surface,” not merely the ones we see. For example, if I only use red, white, and black for the fox, the paint will quickly become muddy. Use orange and yellow highlights to give it warmth. And use blues to shade rather than blacks. Next, use a slightly darker orange-brown to paint the fur. Use short, light strokes to indicate the fur patterns. Don’t cover the entire fox with these strokes, but leave spaces for the lighter areas to shine through. Lastly, add detail by building up the darks and leaving areas of lights to create contrast.
To make your plant or animal pop, add a background. This is where you can really have fun with different watercolor effects. Then I framed the foxes with bright flowers. Having small, bright flowers make the entire nature study more realistic and dynamic. While you will want to be as realistic as possible with the plants and animals, let the background be free and loose.
I would love to see your nature studies. Send them to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @emcardsandcreations
Holden, Edith. 1906 The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Webb & Bowed Ld. 1977, England.