Lara Gastinger is a botanical artist and illustrator in Virginia who keeps the most inspiring sketchbook. I found her work on instagram (@laragastinger), where each week she usually posts from her “perpetual journal”, a weekly journal and sketchbook (now two books) that she’s been keeping for over a decade, since 2000. Her artwork is gorgeous in its own right, but the collection she’s put together and shares in her perpetual journal is really inspiring.
Lara has a masters degree in plant ecology, and illustrated the Flora of Virginia, a field guide book and ap with 1300 plants. She says she loves plants and loves learning about them. This comes through in her artwork. On her website she shares,
“As a trained plant ecologist, my love of learning and drawing nature is exemplified in my field journals. I do these journal entries for myself and also as commissions.”
Above: Spreads from Lara's perpetual journal
Basic Idea – What’s a perpetual journal?
A perpetual journal is just that, a journal that never ends, until the pages are full anyway. Lara divides her journal into weekly spreads, and then adds to each spread for current week over the years. On Instagram, she shared her process on Jan 1st:
“Is one of your New Years goals to keep a nature journal? We all have those sketchbooks that start off full of energy and focus that fade out to a trickle by February. Here is my idea for a perpetual journal that I have been keeping for 15 years and you too can do it.
Find a blank journal (maybe you were gifted one?) and devote the first week of January to the first two pages like shown here. Continue dating the pages to represent a week until you get back to January. Each year, turn to the current week and enter an observation - drawing or notes. You can see on this page, I documented 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 in one page.
I've had many sketches that I do not like individually but all together over years, it starts to become something else.”
In another post she says, “I've been doing this since 2000 (this is my second journal shown here). It really helps one learn about the plants and the seasons where they live. What's cool is that one journal can be used year after year and there is no stress to do a huge drawing everyday or even every week.”
It’s a great new years project, but really you can start at any point in the year.
Above: Lara's perpetual journal pages with her favorite materials, pen and watercolor.
Lara notes that there is no one way to keep a sketchbook, or perpetual journal. You can obtain a journal with 52 spreads (one per week), or maybe a journal that has 48 pages (4 pages per month). Figure out what would work for you.
Lara’s journal is handmade by another Virginia artist, Lindsey Mears. She uses Fabriano artistico hot press paper. The first journal is 90 lb paper, but the second is 300 lb, which she likes better.
Lara usually includes her sketching materials in her IG posts. She usually uses pigma micron pens and a bit of watercolor (“I tend not to use too much color so I use it wisely” she adds). But sometimes I’ve seen her experiment with graphite pencil and colored pencil. Basically she uses what she feels comfortable with, but doesn’t seem to limit herself with her materials. By being fairly consistent in using pen, the journal holds together even though the drawings on each page might be 5 years apart.
Above: Examples of Lara's sparing use of color. Making it count!
Lara explains that the perpetual journal works well for her because “I do not feel the burden of drawing every day! It is so much easier to just convince oneself to write/draw a little observation once a week.” Depending on what else she has going on, some years or months might be sparser in terms of entries. Maybe some days she’ll spend an hour on a drawing, and another day 10 minutes to make a quick sketch or a note.
She doesn’t have a specific plan for each journal spread, but lets them develop based on what she observes. What’s cool is the composition grown over time. Lara says, “the layout builds upon each year since this is a perpetual journal. So...let's just say, it's not very planned out. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much but that's what journals are for.”
Above: More pages from Lara's perpetual journal, with a variety of drawings from complex to relatively simple.
In a recent post she shared:
“One of the most common questions is “what do you do when you are drawing in pen and make a mistake?” I work with the mistakes and these journal pages are forgiving and I never expect them to be perfect. On this page, I’m still tinkering with the tree silhouette in the background and dealing with a much too dark persimmon....but it’s all a part of the fun process.”
I can think of so many reasons to try this process. It’s something that I’d like to do myself. Lara says that she enjoyed learning and re-learning her plants every year. I’ve written before about the value of field sketching, in practicing observational skills and keeping drawing muscle memory strong. Sometimes Lara uses her sketches as a basis for bigger paintings or studio work. She’s even created some commissions that look like her sketchbook pages.
I also think this would also be a cool way to track how the natural world changes from year to year. You can see when flowers bloomed early or late, and when the leaves turn and fall off the trees over multiple years. I think having a decade-long record of drawings would be so cool. Many thanks to Lara for sharing her work so we can all learn and be inspired by her journal.
Above: examples of Lara using her perpetual journal: for a commission (on the left), and to create a larger composition (right).
Above: Lara's perpetual journal pages for August and January. I love how colorful and delicate her winter pages are.
All images in this post are copyrighted to Lara Call Gastinger (2017) and used with permission. Thank you Lara!