This week I have been looking again at the sketchbook work of Barbara Rae * – if you don’t know her work you are in for a treat!

Barbara Rae sketchbook Bay at Roy Well 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Bay at Roy Well 2003

Which materials are right for the job?

Finding the right materials to work in sketchbooks can be a search. It’s all part of developing your process and also being aware of what information you want to record; what will help you decipher what you are seeing into a form that will be helpful later on. Pencils are immediate and easy, but I noticed that I tend to draw with line work – fine for developing mark making but sometimes not so good for colour or tone. For a while using watercolour has worked well for me; no fiddly lids, quick to mix and using alongside water soluble media has been my go-to sketchbook medium of choice.

However, I’m coming out of a spell of painting and watercolour suddenly feels too fluid and transparent. Possibly lacking a density and boldness which is what I rely on the other materials to bring.

An artist not afraid to experiment

Barbara Rae sketchbook Autumn Vines Oppeole 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Autumn Vines Oppeole 2010

Density and boldness are certainly two words you could use to describe Barbara Rae’s sketchbooks; filled with strong, bright drawings done on location. She shies away from the description of landscape painter, but the importance of place and sense of location is very apparent in her work which often includes human impact on landscape in the forms of furrows or fencing. She works across multiple disciplines: large scale paintings and big, energetic monoprints. Scotland and Spain are favourite locations and the colours which vibrate upwards from the land are clearly visible and she is skilled at finding unusual and surprising combinations.

Barbara Rae sketchbook Kerry 2008

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Kerry 2008

Barbara Rae sketchbook Ceide 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Ceide 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook Fence at Dounpatrick 2002

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Fence at Dounpatrick 2002

To give you an idea of scale, her sketchbooks are usually A4 and she works in two at once to give the pages time to dry. Working outside, often in wild or hot conditions she uses watercolour alongside acrylic and combines drawn marks in charcoal, chalk, pastel. She has used wine to mix paint instead of water….(I’ve been caught out with this before, but I tend to have a flask of tea – I clearly need to up my beverage game!)

Barbara Rae Tomato plants Robion 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Tomato plants Robion 2010

A few years ago I visited a London gallery which was showing Barbara’s work and bought the book of her sketchbooks (currently the best link to buy). The gallery owner said she had just nipped out to get a sandwich but would be back soon if I wanted to wait and have it signed… no further invitation needed! She was supremely encouraging, as you may expect from someone who has taught for many years, and thoroughly down to earth. What impressed me most was her continued enjoyment of her materials, an experimental approach to her art practice – she was then incorporating nail varnish within her artwork to bring a degree of luminescence.

All of sudden, using gouache seems rather tame!

Barbara Rae sketchbook Aultbea 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Aultbea 2010

* Barbara Rae was born in 1943 and awarded a travel scholarship in 1966 which boosted her love of location drawing. She was elected President of the Society of Scottish Artists in 1983. She was made a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1992 (ARSA 1980) and a Royal Academician in 1996.  In 1999 she was awarded a CBE. Rae lives and works in Edinburgh.

All artworks copyright Barbara Rae – you can view a complete PDF of 228 images from her website


“This time I was sure it would be easier” – how wrong could I be?

It’s not unusual after getting ready for an event to have a bit of downtime. (That seems more forgiving than ‘artist’s block’) Often it takes me time to get going again. A while ago I made a tapestry for a goddaughter and thoroughly loved making it, because all I had to do was pick it up and keep going. Making art isn’t like that – it’s much more complex. This is both the joy and the difficulty.

not a manufacturing job

This time I also had plenty of reasons to keep me out of the studio: my daughter is finishing primary school and it has been a whirlwind of the usual sports days, a river rowing regatta, painting the set for a fabulous year play (making a space ship anyone?). Not to mention keeping up with Brexit news, and Wimbledon, ahem.

Stuck getting stuck in…

I know from experience that the time after you have brought work together can be tricky. This time I was sure it would be easier; after all I have half finished panels all ready and waiting for me to go back to them – what could be more tempting?

Except that somehow my heart wasn’t in it. That’s not a good place to make art from. Often it’s your head that stops you and I’ve got pretty good over the past few years at finding ways to overrule that quiet voice that continually comes up with reasons why you shouldn’t be painting…. you need to do more research, a visit to the the art shop to restock is essential, do you know what you are going to make (why on earth would you want to know in advance? And yet that seems to be a big one!)

Maybe I was kidding myself. I had a trip with a friend to visit the new Switch House recently opened at Tate Modern… nothing.

I tried starting small and picked up my sketchbook again; not even to draw but with collage…great for half an hour, but then… nothing.

I got lost in editing hi-res image files for a project I’m involved with and although it was good, absorbing, slightly mindless work and made me excited to see my pieces on a large scale…. did it get me enthused to pick up a paint brush?… nothing.

Hmm. I went back to an inspiration board I had made a few months back. Not a vision board exactly, just a slightly more thoughtful and edited version of the regular pinboard in my studio / front of the fridge. What visually inspires me; strangely things that haven’t yet made it into my work, but that’s OK, it’s all bubbling under. Surely that would do the trick? Well, sort of.

Instagram Alice Sheridan

At this point I actually asked for help. And all the wonderful giving, thoughtful artists I am in touch with on Instagram chipped in with their support and suggestions. With thanks to everyone who replied (you can see all the suggestions on the post here ) I wanted to share a selection of the great ideas offered, you can click the names to find your way to their own websites.

Say you are going to create something ugly and then there is no pressure and beauty will come.
Lynette Melnyk

As an artist who regularly suffers and makes the mistake of procrastinating far too much, the only thing that gets me going is going to my studio, even just sitting. Eventually something happens and then I struggle to leave!
Cloe Sparrow

Photograph things around you that are inspiring without analysing why. Try another medium.
Deborah Moss

Spend an entire day on your art – pick where where you want to go, not where you left off.
Kim McAninch

Dive in. Co carefree. Don’t deliberate too much, have fun then edit.
David Mankin

Mow the lawn; nothing like a monotonous job to make you want to break free and create. Draw a page of straight lines!
Louisa Crispin

So did it work?

Well, yes! Not so much the individual suggestions, but the recognition that this hiccup was commonly felt by many, if not all creatives. So I turned to a painting that left me with a slight niggle, something wasn’t quite settled and after time spent with it hanging and considering what I needed to change, I just started by mixing the paint and doing what needed to be done. It only took an afternoon.

Accepting the creative cycle

Studio time will be impossible over the summer, so I shall truly feel I have forgotten how to paint by September. But I know this is all part of the cycle: making art is not a manufacturing job.

Something is created of course, and that’s part of the thrill. Doing battle with this element of facing the unknown and accepting that it doesn’t actually get easier is part of the job of being an artist. It’s why people pay to buy art – it’s done for them!

Over the summer I shall be filling my creative bank with sketchbook work. Ideas will mull (probably in wine or over long walks!). I’m looking forward to using different materials on paper again and seeing what rises to the surface.

If this rings any bells with you, I would love to know what methods you have for overcoming artist’s block, or whether we just need to accept that it’s part of the process. Please comment below…