On December 14, 2016 I finished an online course on natural history illustration. In this post I would like to share my experience with you, because it was a complete novelty for me, but thanks to that I also had the opportunity to learn a lot. First things first.

About the course

The full name of the course is Drawing Nature, Science and Culture: Natural History Illustration 101. It was organized by the University of Newcastle, Australia in cooperation with the edX platform. The edX educational platform was founded thanks to the cooperation of the Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its idea is to provide academic programs to people who do not have access to such knowledge. EdX operates on the principles of the MOOC – a massive open online course, which means that everyone has access to such a course. Most of the EdX courses are not related to art and what I’ve heard on the Newcastle radio broadcast (there was an interview with the teachers from this course) – the course in which I took part was the first of its kind, the first on teaching how to draw.

The aim of the course was to familiarize participants with an illustration of objects belonging to the world of fauna and flora. The course taught how to make illustrations with a pencil and mainly focused on the pencil. There was only a small section about watercolors, but the whole course was based only on drawing and improving the skills of using a pencil. From what I saw on the Facebook group of the course participants, there is a chance that a new course of this type will be launched, but this time in a color version – how to illustrate with watercolors. So I will keep my ears open.

Pros and cons

The biggest advantage of this type of course is the opportunity to participate in it free of charge. The administrators of the discussion forum, which was a part of the course, informed us after the first week that over 12,000 people from all over the world signed up for the course. Awesome. On the other hand, a lot of people do not finish the course for various reasons. The mere fact of the existence of such a course is a great opportunity, for example, for people from Poland (who know English), because there are no such courses on this topic here. I have already mentioned that participation is free – it is a plus, but also one of the paths. The second path is a paid version and it ends with a certificate. In the free version it does not matter if you finish the task or not. In the paid version, each task must be completed on time, sent on time, assessed on time, and the final mark of the entire course (in %) must exceed 50% to receive a certificate. I chose the path with a certificate, which also kept me in check and somehow forced me/motivated me to draw each task from week to week. On December 16 I received the certificate of achievement.

Evaluation system

One may wonder if such a large number of participants does not negatively affect the quality of the course itself. Here the most important issue is how to assess the progress of each participant. Assuming that 10% of the participants would actually do tasks on a weekly basis, teachers would not be able to assess everyone physically. Here is my doubt, because if our teachers do not judge us, it’s a bit disappointing. And if they don’t assess, then who does? There were three forms of assessing: tests, self-assessment and evaluation of our work by other participants. I will write about each of these methods when I’ll be describing each week of the course.

Course structure

The course was divided into modules. Each module covered a different issue and ended with a task to do. The modules were divided into subsections, and these were divided into subsequent chapters. We had received theoretical background in writing form with accompanying illustrations, plus videos in which our teachers discussed various issues. In addition, there were other films and resources related to the subject of individual modules. A nice surprise was that we got access to the Global Plants database. This database

“… provides access to content such as plant type specimens, taxonomic structures, scientific literature, and related materials and aimed at those researching, teaching, or studying botany, biology, ecology, environmental, and conservation studies. The materials on JSTOR Plant Science are contributed through the Global Plants Initiative (GPI) and are accessible only to JSTOR and GPI members. Two partner networks are contributing to this: the African Plants Initiative, which focuses on plants from Africa, and the Latin American Plants Initiative, which contributes plants from Latin America. “


Week 1 – Introduction

At the beginning, I learned what the illustration of natural history really is. We have been presented profiles of illustrators living in the Hunter Valley region (a region in the state of New South Wales; Newcastle, where this course was created, in this region). Sisters Harriet and Helena Scott seemed particularly interesting to me. Their watercolors reminded me of the works of Maria Sibylla Merian. An interesting fact is that there is an application for smartphones called The Art of Science, where you can see in detail selected paintings of Scott sisters. The application is available for Android, e.g. from the Play Store. There is also incredible William T. Cooper (1934-2015), who painted birds not only in watercolors. I recommend that you take a look at his page and watch movies.

The task at the end of the first week was not assessed. We had to collect the suggested drawing materials for the next 5 weeks and do some exercises to become familiar with the possibilities of pencils. If it wasn’t for this course, I would certainly not even consider taking a pencil and drawing these few illustrations in the coming weeks. The last time I drew this way in pencil was about 10 years ago. But I could not miss this opportunity. Besides doing some pencil tests we also had to share on the discussion forum the information about an illustrator from the area where we live. There were a lot of names from around the world, thanks to which I got to know a lot of new, great botanical artists. I presented our unmatched Artur Lobus.

Pencil tests, 2H, HB, 2B, 4B

Parasol mushroom, drawing exercise

Week 2 – Observational drawing

The second week was the first in which we had to make a drawing on time. It was a module in which we learned how to consciously observe objects, what to pay attention to, how to measure them, what is the depth of space, how to get a three-dimensional form, how to present objects, etc. Our task was to find at least three objects (fauna or flora), which we had to draw and label with notes and measurements. This was the first week in which we were scored. In this case, we assessed our drawings by ourselves, based on the prepared assessment criteria. I tried to be honest with myself because otherwise it would not make sense. After this exercise I thought that drawing with a pencil is very relaxing and much easier than painting with watercolors.

Observational drawing, task in module 2

Week 3 – Field sketching and recording techniques

This time there were three tasks: (1) we had to go out into the field and draw something from live; (2) take pictures (based on specific rules of taking pictures used in the natural history illustration) of animals or plants and make them available on the forum; (3) solve the test of knowledge we have gained so far. Wise Australians had fun because there was summer, but here in Poznań, Poland there was frost at that time, so there was no option for me to do it. Fortunately, the first two tasks were not obligatory. If these tasks were obligatory I would have finished my course on this week. The test of knowledge was obligatory. Fortunately, I have read everything so far, I have translated less-known words, so I made the test easily.

Week 4 – The structure of flowers and leaves

We were learning about the structure of plants, especially flowers and leaves. This week, the language barrier started, because there were a lot of botanical terms that I didn’t know in Polish. Fortunately, with the help of dictionary managed to scrape through. Our task was to draw the structure of a chosen flower. This time we didn’t have to add shadows, so we didn’t have to build a form. It was more about studying how the flower is built and drawing contours with notes. On the one hand, I liked this task because it seemed relatively easy and interesting. On the other hand, the lack of shading made the whole thing look at least not satisfying, maybe because I had chosen such this particular object. And I chose an orchid that just had bloomed the other day. And perhaps the fact that it was in such a half-bloom stage, the drawings came out somehow obscure. I also bought a Schlumbergera for this task, but someone drew it before and I didn’t want to draw the same subject. I bought Schlumbergera also to make a resection of it, because if it was possible, we should also did it and make a cross-section drawing. I decided, however, to draw the orchid and I didn’t want to cut it.

This task was assessed by other participants of the course. The evaluation was anonymous, and we received others’ drawings randomly. We had to stick to specific rules and evaluation criteria that were given. By mutual evaluation we also learned to notice mistakes in others works, but also in our own drawings. I honestly admit that I was not convinced at first about this form of assessment. Many people were disappointed that our teachers would not rate us (Dr. Andrew Howells and Dr. Bernadette Drabsch – both lecturers at the University of Newcastle), but on the other hand, how would they evaluate thousands of works? At first, I was disappointed, but I decided that, after all, it is an amazing opportunity to learn something new. I did it for my own satisfaction. Besides before signing up for the course, we all knew what the rules were, so there was no point in complaining.

It turned out that, firstly, judging others is not so easy, and secondly, the people who assessed me were very professional. I received a lot of comments, mostly positive, but also negative, which were very informative and helpful. There were a lot of comments, hints and suggestions that really helped me to look at my drawings from a different perspective and see a lot of shortcomings. Also after this first week of mutual assessment we got used to this method and probably the majority knew that it made sense, considering the form of the whole course.

Anatomy of Nelly Isler orchid, task in module 4

Week 5 – The structure of mammals and birds

It was a very hard week. Mainly due to the amount of material to be processed and dozens of technical words. It took me a long time to get through the material, but I also learned a lot. This module covered the anatomy of mammals and birds. We had to draw a mammal in two versions. In the first one we had to mark the anatomical structure to choose: the muscular or bone system, in the second one we had to give the mammal a form and mark the characteristic features by using shading, for example the characteristic rhino skin or cheetah spots. I was thinking quite a long time how to do it and what to draw. Eventually, I decided to draw a meerkat.

This task was also assessed by others and probably after this week real talents emerged. We also posted our works to a Facebook group and we saw amazing things there. Some participants admitted that they had already been drawing quite a long time, have experience, others said that it was thanks to this course that they discovered such patience and thanks to the advice of our teachers and information from the course, they were able to create such drawings. And I really admired the drawings, panda’s fur, tiger, dog are not easy things to draw, and people really drew them brilliantly. Thanks to this module I learned about the existence of super-funny alpacas!

Meerkat, task in module 5

Week 6 – Rendering

In this part there was a lot of information on how to get the final realistic result of the drawing. How to manipulate light and shadow, how to get textures, how to draw fur, scales or feathers. This time, besides the final drawing of the plant or animal, we also had to do a test that included knowledge from the entire course. Our work was again evaluated by fellow students and again I received a lot of comments about my drawing. While in the earlier stages we did not have to make such detailed drawings and one week was long enough for it, this week was not enough to make a satisfying illustration. That’s why my drawing is not finished. I wanted to present two finches sitting on a branch, but I managed to draw only one and a part of the branch.

Despite everything, I got the highest marks, and at the end I was extremely honored, because Bernadette Drabsh herself commented on my work very positively. Taking into consideration thousands of participants, the fact that she commented my drawing was really a great honor for me.

While drawing a finch, I also recorded a short video:


If I were to take part in such a course again, I would definitely do it. Certainly without this course I would not take pencils in my hands and start drawing. Working with a pencil every week was a motivation to hone my skills in drawing, and at the same time I gained a lot of theoretical knowledge. People from the course have created an amazing community on Facebook where we will continue our struggles on our own. A plan for the next year is already being prepared. I declared help with working with watercolors, because we will not be practising only drawing.

The course was something completely new to me. The very method of organizing was new, I did not know before about the existence of MOOC courses. I think that this is a really great initiative, especially because such courses are free (as I mentioned before they are paid if we want a certificate). I chose the path with the certificate, because in Poland there are no such courses, so it was an opportunity to formally raise my qualifications in this field. Although I did it only for my own satisfaction and with a great pleasure, the certificate is a nice addition.