by Kate Garchinsky

When Tara asked me to write a blog post for Storystorm, my inner critic threw an immediate tantrum. She, Princess Poopynannyhead, is between six and eleven years old, has the voice of my troublemaking younger sister, and sticks her tongue out a lot. She is prettier than me, always wears the right shoes for her outfit, and she knows and remembers absolutely every criticism I have ever received. Especially those about my writing.

“Advice for writers? Who do you think you are? All you do is draw and color pictures.”

That’s right. I do. I am an illustrator.

I’ve always been a very visual person. I’m learning to write, but images always come easier to me than words. My brainstorms come to life in my sketchbooks. Piles and piles of partially-filled sketchbooks. Would you like to try a little drawing exercise with me?

“But I can’t draw! I can’t draw a stick figure. I can’t even draw a straight line!” you say?

It’s ok. Please thank your Poopynannyhead for trying to protect you. My mistake. This is not really a drawing exercise. It’s a sensory exercise. And it’s called…


I learned this exercise from a naturalist named Mark Baldwin at the Highlights Foundation’s Nature Writers Workshop in 2014. For years he taught this same game to kids of all ages as the Director of Education at Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. He’s now a science teacher in Sweden.

Here’s what you’ll need: blank paper (loose or in a journal), a pen or pencil, and a door that leads to the outside.

First, go out and walk toward the first patch of nature you see. It can be as simple as a pile of blown leaves, or as fancy as an arboretum. Spend a few minutes letting your eyes wander until they settle on an object of interest, small enough to bring back inside with you if it’s cold out there. Some examples might be a pinecone, an acorn, a dried seed head, a sprig of holly or boxwood, or a dried, crumpled leaf. I used a piece of bark I found in the woods for my first I Wonder.

Next, study your object. Turn it around in your hands. Set it down on a table or your lap.

Now let’s do a contour drawing. In a contour drawing, you trace the outline of an object with your eyes, and let your drawing hand mimic your eye movement. Slowly. Deliberately. Pretend you’re watching a little ant walk around the outside of the object, and let your pencil point follow the ant, just on your paper. DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR DRAWING UNTIL YOU ARE DONE. It doesn’t matter if you run out of room on the page and have to start in a new spot. Just keep going. When you finish the outline, look at the middle and contour draw any lines you see there.

It won’t matter if your drawing looks like an ugly blob. What matters is the attention you put into observing all the little angles, curves, and details of the object.

Now that you’ve studied the object’s appearance, pick it up and gift it a long, deep sniff. Feel its texture, turning it around in your hands. Now start writing with these prompts:

It looks like…

It smells like…

It feels like…

It tastes like… (optional)

It’s the same color as…

It’s as heavy/light as…

It reminds me of…

I wonder…

Did anything unexpected come to mind? Where did your wonderings take you? You can also try this exercise with something colorful from the produce aisle, a pair of children’s shoes, or a treasure from the thrift store. Can you think of another place to look for objects? Where would your characters like to go? What do they wonder about?

Let’s check in with that inner critic of yours. What is s/he up to now? Do they have any ideas?


Kate Garchinsky listened to inner Poopynannyhead for twenty years before fully committing herself to her dream of illustrating children’s books. Since then she has illustrated four children’s books, including  The Secret Life series of narrative non-fiction picture books written by Laurence Pringle. Her most recent book is The Secret Life of the Skunk. Before that she held less-fun jobs like retail cashier, patio furniture salesgirl, hoagie maker, dollhouse decorator, and packaging designer. She lives and works on the edge of the woodlands in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania with her husband, two kitties, and their new rescue puppy, Ruby Roo.

Learn more about Kate and her books at, Twitter and Instagram @katesnowbird.

Kate is giving away a signed copy of her first illustrated book, The Secret Life of the Red Fox, written by Laurence Pringle, and a page of thumbnail sketches she did for the illustrations, and a peek at an illustration from book #5 in progress, The Secret Life of the Sloth (2021).

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Good luck!