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John Muir: Sketching in the Sierra


A Sierra sketch by John Muir.

In 1911, when John Muir was 73, he published what I believe is his most engaging book, My First Summer in the Sierra. This spring marks the 100th anniversary of its publication. Muir kept a journal as he hiked, often tying it to his belt to keep company with his dried bread and tea. For this book he relied on those journals to tell the story of the summer of 1869. Though a wonderful storyteller, Muir often agonized over his writing; My First Summer in the Sierra reveals none of his struggle and reads as if he had simply reprinted the journal itself. All of his journals have been digitized by the University of the Pacific, and you can read the journal that is the basis for the book at Yosemite Year Book.

Muir also used his journals as sketchbooks. Many of his entries fill a page; others only a corner, surrounded by notes. He always used a pencil. Drawing in the Sierra is difficult because of their grandeur -- which is the problem I faced last spring when I tried to capture the scale of these trees outside my cabin window while on a visit to California:


Muir's Sierra drawings are focused on capturing and recording that scale. As you might expect, he drew mountains, glaciers, trees, a few stick figures for scale -- but no portraits. He often wrote that he had spent an entire day drawing.

His drawings have the same strong point of view as his writing; in each one, he is recording a specific scene and uses accurate perspective with skilful use of shading to indicate distance or texture. Muir often guided artists on painting trips through the Sierra, but he never took up painting or changed his own style of drawing.  I can imagine he would have loved the idea of our small digital cameras! The University of the Pacific holds Muir's drawings, in addition to his writing. You can check them out here.

My First Summer in the Sierra is being reissued in the spring to commemorate the 100th year of its publication. An evocative, not-too-commercial video about the book will take you out to Yosemite Valley right now:

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

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