2D Nature Study: Subject Selection

Art 200 / Greg Clayton

Criteria and suggestions for selecting a topic for your Nature Study


Selecting Your Subject

Before you can begin analyzing and designing, you've got to pick out your subject — this is the "thing" in nature that you'll study.
Here are some pointers on how to pick a worthwhile subject. 

Criteria for valid Nature Study subjects 

Is it Natural?

Select a natural object — a plant, animal, insect, fruit or vegetable (etc.).
Your subject must be something formed by the forces and wisdom that underlie living things.

We're aiming to explore the subtle and intentional arrangements that enable living things to both function well, and enrich our experiences.

Is it Unusual?

Take time to look for unusual objects.
None of God's creations are ordinary, but some things are more visually stimulating or structurally fascinating.
Look for something that is interesting to
you — you will look at it many times while completing this study.

Is it available?

On the other hand, unusual can be hard to find. So, look for subjects that you can get your hands on...hold...study...photograph...examine...etc.
Keep your mind open while looking. Many very familiar and available things are quite unusual in form. Don't take familiar items for granted.


It should be small enough to be easily portable.
You need to have direct access to an actual sample of your subject. It is important that you be able to spend time with your subject--looking closely, handling it, exploring it directly.
Exceptions can be made to this, but be sure to get approval from the professor before proceeding with a subject that doesn't meet this criteria.

Not Too Simple.

Look for something that has multiple parts or forms. Look for complex structures, arrangements of repeating elements, patterns of surface textures or coloration. If your subject can be opened or sliced, look for unexpected arrangements of seeds, fibers or other features.

Avoid very simple subjects that are more amorphous than well-formed. I've had students study potatoes and ginger roots --and they did a good job. But these subjects have only limited organization and structure. In general, fruits, seed pods, flowers, and whole plants offer far more formal interest.

If you pick something that appears to be very simple in form, I may insist you incorporate the entire plant or the whole root system in your study. You might explore how potatoes grow, what pattern or structure joins them to the plant? What design features are present in the plant as a whole, in its life cycle, in the way the potato reproduces itself? Such expanded aspects of this study can reveal much more structure, progression, organization, system, and design than studying an isolated part of the plant -- it can also turn the study in to a botanical, biological, and/or ecological study. I want this study to emphasize formal design, but all aspects of design are eligible--and related.

What's been picked before?

Flowers, Pinecones, seed pods, apples, oranges, cauliflower, Garlic, Green Peppers, ferns.

Seashells — there are many structures and colorations.

Insects — also quite varied and available, with a nice collection of related parts that work together in often unusual ways.

Plants — endless options.
Vegetables and Fruits. Ferns.
Mushrooms and other fungi.
Tree, grasses, shrubs, etc.

Crustaceans (crawfish, shrimp, crabs, lobster )


What if I can't get ahold of an actual sample of my subject?

a) Work hard to find a subject that genuinely interests you but is available.
    If not...
b) See whether someone else might have a sample. Sometimes, for instance, Harding's Biology department has samples of species in their collection that you might be able to sketch and photograph.
    If not...
c) See whether you can arrange to get a thorough set of photographs of an actaul sample — you may to to travel or plan a hike to do so, but first-hand observation is always richer than photographic encounters alone.
    If not...
d) See whether there are good quality images available online, in the library or in other books or magazines. If you must rely on other photographer's photos, you really must find outstanding images, from varied points of view, with great detail. In short, find far more images than you think you'll need and observe them well. This route is a last resort, is not recommended, and often results in studies that are weaker than others.
So, again, try to find some topic that interests you that is accessible. It usually saves time and is more motivating than working from pictures.

Do I have to pick a subject that's not been done before?

But work to find a fresh subject — open those creative eyes of yours and look for unnoticed possibilities.

It is certainly helpful to find some distinctive subject — a species that's a bit different than one already among the class examples. However, what's really important is that you look at your subject in a fresh way, discover distinctive traits in it, and create unique ways to graphically communicate those traits. So there is plenty of room to make the study your own even when the subject has been used before.

What if my subject is really too big to hold?

Larger subjects are allowed, but note that first-hand, direct observation is a big advantage when you're trying to discover aspects of something that you don't already know. Be sure you can study, sketch and photograph the subject thoroughly — one of your first goals is to discover aspects of your subject that you weren't aware of — let the forms of nature teach you how well they are designed.

What are some of the more unusual topics?

Roaches. After you get past the "ick!" factor, it was a good study, though.
Ginger Root. Not really enough "form" there to explore — too simple. Great flavor and nutrition, though.
Water. The study explored water as a natural force — a force that appears in many forms and also forms nature in beautiful ways. The topic was a stretch because it is the outcome of the subject, even more than the subject itself, that is formally interesting. Also, water is not "living" in the conventional sense.
Faces. (human) Great for similarity-variety discussions.
Coral. Quite varied stuff, actually.

So what's NOT been done?

Lots of things.
"Depending on who you ask, the number of insect species could vary from 1.5 million to 30 million." Most of them have not be the subject of a 2D Design class Nature Study. But we still have time.
"the best estimate we have of the number of known plant species is around 400,000."
A modest list of Arkansas trees and shrubs has about 25 species. Most have not been covered here.
Seashells seem endless— most are new to me. (thousands for sale) (stray note—math/3Dmodeling shells)



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