Barbara Rae sketchbooks to inspire

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


6 replies
  1. Richard J.W. Zwiercan
    Richard J.W. Zwiercan says:

    Hi Alice, I’m behind on this conversion, but I’ve recently discovered your work via Instagram and following your feed, as well as starting to read through your blogs posts, which are quite interesting and informative. I find your work and particular voice an inspiration to me. I also find your artwork beautifully expressive. Thank you for sharing! Since this blog pertains to Barbara Rae and using her sketchbooks as a way to find inspiration and critically evaluate how to best use the various media for sketchbook use, I found that it was a safe thread for me to comment on. I love Barbara Rae’s work. I’ve been following her work for roughly 10 years now and it was Rae’s bold expressive works on canvas that helped me to understand that an artist’s job is to interpret the world around them and convey that experience visually the way that the artist see it. In essence, her work taught me that you don’t have to make a work of art representational of what you experience, and it doesn’t have to be an exact copy. Were you able to see the latest exhibition of Barbara Rae at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh? Here’s the link: In addition, if you didn’t know already, I though you might find the work of Jeremy Gardiner of notable interest. Here’s a link to his most recent show:

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      Hi Richard, you are very welcome, and thank you for joining in! I agree that sometimes it can be one artist that just pushes us into a particular realisation – in this case that the natural world is even more interesting when conveyed with a personal interpretation rather than simply portraying what we see. I saw Jeremy’s Gardiner’s tall prints at a show earlier this year, but that link gives such a good insight into his paintings too – I really enjoyed looking through all his work and seeing the crossover. Clearly we have similar taste!

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      Agreed Linda! The descriptive lines are so much part of the feel of freedom. I always wonder which comes first as I find I tend to begin with line as a more immediate response, but then adding colour can feel like ‘colouring in’ – the two seem perfectly intertwined in these.

  2. Jan Allsopp
    Jan Allsopp says:

    So interesting! I didn’t know if Barbara Rae before so thanks. It really brings home how our sketchbooks really are just for us and can hold some wild experimentation.

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      The confidence is just fabulous! It’s worth also taking a look at her paintings and monoprints as you can see how the sketchbooks relate to the finished work Jan. I’m glad this introduced her work to you!

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