Interview with Bonsai Drawing Instructor, Tina Thieme Brown

How an artist achieves mindfulness, captures the natural world by drawing among bonsai trees

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While walking through our Museum’s collections, you’ll observe the sun glinting off bonsai pots or the turmoil of greens and yellows that mix to create each tree’s flawless color with your own eyes. But how do you capture those intricate details with pencils and paper? 

We spoke with nature artist Tina Thieme Brown about her experiences drawing while immersed in natural settings and how she brings that background to her drawing class at the Museum. 

Thieme Brown received a Master of Fine Arts and Master of Liberal Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She spent a great deal of time with the school’s science department, researching and asking questions about rainforests and natural habitats. 

Her love of nature and her sketches became even more pronounced during her time volunteering to clean sea otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Thieme Brown filled up her sketchbooks with drawings of the otters and other natural features of the Alaskan coastline.

“I fell in love with the intricacies and the richness and the habitats and being surrounded by scientists and drawing,” she said. “I’m stimulated by sketchbook research experience.

Thieme Brown has also worked on several books that align with her passion for illustrating the outdoors, including Sugarloaf: The Mountain’s History, Geology and Natural Lore and An Illustrated Guide to Eastern Woodland Wildflowers and Trees

“I feel the most passionate when I’m able to investigate a habitat, discover it, study it and then draw it,” she said. 

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Drawing at the Museum

Thieme Brown begins each of her workshops at the Museum with a stroll through the Cryptomeria Walk. The class sits on a stone ledge to discuss with her the materials each participant brought, as well as warm-up techniques the class should utilize before drawing. 

“The walkway has a very calming, cooling effect on people,” Thieme Brown said. “They get so focused, they don’t even notice people walking by them.”

Students in Thieme Brown's class learn to build upon each color they use in their drawing to ensure they can capture all of the texture and vibrant energy each tree offers. The class can also spread out and choose a few trees from inside the Museum they would like to focus on during the class. 

Thieme Brown said that often she teaches people who have never drawn before. She weaves through the class, suggesting adjustments participants can make to mimic their tree’s form more clearly on their page.

“It’s a gentle back and forth. Students will come around and look at what I’m talking about with someone else, so there’s a lot of collaboration,” Thieme Brown said.

“They’re pretty excited when they start seeing the trees show up on their sketchbook page.”

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Connecting Nature with Art

Thieme Brown maintains that even if someone is not an experienced artist, staying present with an object and exploring its dimensions and figure with your pen and paper can facilitate a meditative mindset.

“It’s a really wonderful way to connect with what’s happening in nature at a point in time.”

Thieme Brown’s session allows participants to relax without interruption – she encourages people to turn off their cellphones.

“We are so aware of the history and the magnificence of these beautifully designed gardens and beautifully cultivated bonsai trees,” she said. “There’s so much there that is rich visually that moving through that space slows people down automatically.”

Budding artists hoping to develop their illustrating techniques can sign up for Brown’s class at the Museum here. Drawing From Bonsai will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 14th. Share your drawings from Tina’s class with us on Instagram or Facebook – we can’t wait to see your work!