Tag Archive for: drawing

Making my own charcoal and ink sort of falls in line with stuffing a mushroom – life is too short. But on holiday we sometimes do strange things to fill time and make projects with children!

It is a dream of mine to have a compact travelling art kit. Sometimes I manage to neatly pack the essentials (fishing tackle boxes are great) but often the art kit bag grows and grows. Well, we are holidaying in the UK with the car so there have to be some perks 🙂 So you would think I had enough with me, but after a day of drawing small in my sketchbook I had a hankering for large and messy…

Clearing out the woodburner I salvaged some lumps of charred wood thinking they might make good drawing materials. Plus, with my daughter in tow, it might save us another expensive trip to the local art and craft shop!

charcoal blocks

What is regular charcoal?

Charcoal you buy is usually powdered and has a binder to make it into stick form. Essentially it’s just carbonised organic material (usually wood but you can use bone too) which is burnt without flame so that all the oxygen is removed. Usually a softwood such as willow is used, but my lumps were any old wood, possibly oak, but we are using up old wood stocks so it could also have been hazel or beech.

Another artist suggested on Instagram that we could also collect soot and add water to make ink – apparently called bistre. Oooh! So that sounded a good idea; off for some more research:

What is bistre?

Bistre is a form of natural brown toned ink made from wood soot, historically used for wash drawings. Apparently it should be beech soot and the kind of wood burnt affects the final colouration, but we just went with what we had.

crushing the soot

We scraped soot flakes from the inside of the woodburner into a flat dish and used the back of a spoon to crush the pieces into a fine powder. Being impatient, we simply tried to mix it with water – it didn’t really work so well. You know when you are trying to mix cocoa powder with milk and the powder stays separated? It was a bit like that – eventually we mixed it in but it was more of suspension.

getting materials laid outBeing impatient we headed outside to set up some large pieces of lining paper as our test sheets. We also collected grasses and sticks that we were going to try to get some different marks on the paper.

So did it work?

The charcoal worked great – a little crumbly perhaps, but I think that is the result of having no binder. However it was a good deep black which you can see on the right hand side below. Using it in large chunk form felt good and different from the usual sticks. It was nicely soft and drew across the paper smoothly. Once an edge was worn down you could make good solid areas which blended well with no remains of lines that you can sometimes get with compressed charcoal. It was quite messy, with the broken fragments so working outside was definitely a good idea!

colour of bistre and charcoal

On the left is the first attempt at bistre ink, the right shows the charcoal marks

The bistre, as suspected was more of a suspension. I like the slight brownish tone and the separation of pigment as it dried. The combination with the more blueish black of the charcoal was interesting, but you couldn’t really say it was ink. So we did a little more research and realised we should have boiled it up first….

Back to boiling point

boiling soot with water to make bistre

Once the water started to boil, it bubbled up much like milk and started to look thicker and blacker. We boiled it for around 4 mins as it didn’t appear to be changing further. As we could still see fine powder we made a simple filter from kitchen paper, maybe a tea strainer would also work.

The strained liquid in the glass looked fairly dark but when we tried painting with it, it was very pale (left below). Good thing we kept the strained part which made a better, rich slightly granulated black (right below).

It had lost the brownish tinge of the original mix, but this thicker mixture you could definitely paint with. A little more trial and error with water ratio and a pestle and mortar, perhaps longer to boil it all down together and thicken it up and this could be very useable. If it’s good enough for Rembrandt….

second attempt samples

What next?

Once you start delving into alternatives there are all sorts of natural pigments that can be used. One technique has you holding a metal lid above a candle to collect the very fine black soot and then adding water. This is called ‘lamp black’ and was the main form of writing ink made by collecting soot from oil lamps. It is very stable and light resistant.

Next time we have a big outdoor fire I will try again using the technique on this video to make charcoal sticks. It needs a little more preparation – removing the bark first and wrapping the wood sticks very tightly in multiple layers of foil. But this could create plenty of charcoal for free – definitely worth trying!

As you can see it was certainly a big messy muddle, but it kept us entertained for a while. I will probably cut up the sheet and use it for collage as it’s not exactly a finished drawing!

drawing outside with homemade materials

In my last post I mentioned that Barbara Rae sometimes used wine to mix her colours. Have you ever been stuck and resorted to making art with strange different materials?

I also made this small postcard drawing more in line with the new studio landscapes where the suspended pigment helps to add texture to the wash areas. I will be pulling a name at random from my mailing list in the next few days to post it out to – a drawing of the landscape, made with the landscape. Somehow that seems fitting! If you’d like to receive this, and other studio updates you can add your details in the box below.


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


Any drawing is a process of interpreting what you see rather than what you think you see. Our brains are so strong in their collection of pre-conceived images that it can be hard to filter out what we know and instead draw what we are really looking at.

This is exactly why life drawing classes are a great place to learn:  we think we know the human body so well – after all we all have one. But once you have to make a drawing of it, the inconsistencies jump out at you so you know if you get it wrong, even if it’s hard to decipher where!

Alice Sheridan figure drawing study of head resting in handsMy son’s school ran an open drawing event this weekend and, although I should have been doing other things – this was a treat too good to miss. I went along thinking I would drop in for an hour but stayed all afternoon. The models were holding longer poses and I could have done some painting, in line with what I have been working on but instead I chose to concentrate solely on an area I know I could improve.

I have spent hours at figure classes and they often start with a series of quick draw poses to loosen you up. Drawing people in public places, in cafes and on the underground also forces you to draw quickly to capture the esssential essence of weight and form.

So what I wanted to do was to take the time to practice the areas I usually avoid – faces.

There are certain rules that help:

  • eyes are halfway down the head
  • ears are usually as long as your nose
  • the outside edges of a mouth are often directly below the centre of the eye
  • the space between each eye is usually about the same width as the eye itself

And while these help you to understand the anatomy of a head, they are minutely different for each person. They also only apply to a drawing if you are looking straight on. Often that’s not the way.

Alice Sheridan figure drawing study of turned headAs I started I began that familiar sense of “this can’t be right” as I put down the first few marks. But my experience has shown me that I have to trust what I see, look carefully for the links and correlations…. if that eyebrow goes up at that seemingly strange angle, then that’s how you must mark it down however odd it seems to your thinking brain. Whatever you do don’t correct it to how you think it should be.

And true enough the face began to emerge from the paper – like magic rising to the surface. But it’s not magic, because the clues are always there – we just have to look for them.

Walking my dog this morning I was listening to a podcast of Brene Brown being interviewed about vulnerability. She was talking about a field of statistical analysis where instead of setting out to prove or disprove a theory, you gather data and have to trust in whatever emerges. As soon as you try to control the outcome you lose the critical element that makes the reasearch so powerful.

It’s called “trust in emergence”; allowing whatever emerges to rise to the surface.

But you have to be brave. To set out with no clear idea of what you will discover is scary,  but it is the discovery itself that is so essential and so valuable.

Alice Sheridan figure drawing study of young girl headSo, back to figure class – one lady had clearly spent along time on a painting and when the model changed position she obviously wanted to finish it off and she kept working at the face. But the model had gone and I could see her reworking…. she was trying to create the picture she wished for as an outcome but having lost the source of her investigation (the model) the painting quickly became laboured. I could sense her frustration, but she had actually learnt something; you can’t create what you think you want – you have to trust in the emergence that comes from close attention. I have stacks of life drawings. Or I did. They went to the dump a few years ago as I realised that it wasn’t the end result that was important…

What life drawing teaches you is to trust in the process and see what emerges; wait for the drawing to rise to the surface. Sometimes we need a little reminder!

When I was invited to take part in this artists’ blog hop I thought what a great way of sharing ideas and building new links to other artists. You write briefly about the the person who invited you, answer some set questions and then introduce three other artists to pass the baton on to.

I first met the lovely Julia Elmore through an online challenge and was immediately struck by her seemily calm and gentle approach to creativity – so different to my usual frenetic ways! She has a broad way of encouraging creativity in your everyday life. I took part in her 21 Days of Creative Freedom course earlier in the year and enjoyed it as a way to get me over a creative hurdle as well as to feel part of a supportive group. You can read her blog-hop post here and explore her ideas.

Now ready for the Q&A….

How does my creative process work?

Sketchbook ideas that haven’t yet translated into anything else

I’m still not sure I know the answer to that one! I usually start by collecting. Sometimes objects or found printed material, but often using the camera on my phone as it’s always as hand. Using the viewfinder to compose and re-crop allows me to play with different compositions. Often it’s colours or textures that catch my eye. These become starting points for drawings; the fact that the screen goes dead after a short period of time is helpful as you have to hold the image in your head. It helps me concentrate on the key elements I want to incorporate. I also use collage as a starting point and often do larger drawings or paintings and then use a view finder to cut them up and create smaller compositions as starting points.

Usually I start working on a piece with some kind of plan but once I get going that usually goes out of the window. It’s this balance between control and allowing myself to react to what happens spontaneously that excites me. It’s a balance that is easier in painting but that I still find hard in printmaking where you can be so driven by following a process.

Tube drawings

Tube drawings

I draw in a small sketchbook too; usually I draw things that will never translate into any finished work (people on the tube or at cafes) but the practise keeps me on my toes and stops me being scared of the blank page. Sometimes the tiniest sketch of an idea grows into something you never expect – and you never know which one that will be!


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My background and training is in graphic design and I think this comes through. Working out a composition has similar principles to designing a satisfying page layout. Design tends to be neat and tidy and I like to push against this with the more gestural marks as a contrast to some tight and precise marks – I have used printed elements such as the lines in dress making patterns as part of my paintings.

Let’s Go This Way

I’m also still drawn to letterforms and graphic shapes so these often appear. My most recent set of prints started by noticing the stonemason marks in the pavement – a personal mark hidden in an urban landscape.

Etching with chine collé

What am I working on now?

I’m gearing up to do some large scale paintings. I love making prints but I’m yearning to do some work that’s more instinctive, bigger and with colour! These will be landscape in the broadest sense – a reaction to where we are. I visit Dartmoor often and find the space there enormously invigorating but I have no desire to make representative images of it. I’ve lived my whole life in London and find living here inspiring too. Perhaps I will find a way to combine both?

Even though I’m desperate for colour I’m going to start with some big black and white drawings, using ink and charcoal. I find working at a large size helps keep the marks gestural.

Why do you do what you do?

Being able to bring something into existence is magical. I love making things; transforming furniture, inventing and making costumes, changing things at home. But these things are just part of life. Making art is like putting a stake in the ground. Sometimes it feels like a personal indulgence. And so what. Without art I was lost and it gives me a chance to reflect and to consider how I view the world. What could be more important?


So, having answered the questions myself, I am passing the blog baton on… to three artists friends whose work or approach inspires me. They will post answers to the questions above on their own blogs next Monday, but please feel free to check out their creative output right now!

First up is Michelle Avision who is my inspirational printmaking tutor at Morley college. She also owns and runs her own print studio Slaughterhaus in south London. I usually only see the teacher side of her so I have enjoyed catching up with her painting blog from Scotland over summer. The video gallery on her site shows some footage of Michelle being interviewed where she talks about setting up your own residency structure and how she works in the open and transfers ideas back to the studio.

Next is Niki Cotton whose blog I found through a post she had a written about struggling to make changes to a painting and showed all the stages she went through. This side of creating art is one you never get to see in the finished works hanging on gallery walls and it takes a bravery to reveal it. Get to know the real Niki at nikicottonart.com UPDATE: Read Niki’s post here

And finally is Sarah Boyts Yoder who I discovered via Pinterest. She works in Charlottesville VA – the wonders of being inspired from across the pond! She uses bold painting and collages shapes to create vibrant works that play with colour, marks and composition in an exciting way. Take a look through her work at sarahboytsyoder.com and I promise you will leave with your fingers itching and feeling braver. UPDATE: Read Sarah’s post here.

And a sneaky extra bonus… I came across Amanda Foshag during #DrawingAugust. She is primarily a textile artist but some of her drawings are beautiful – take a look and see what she creates over on her Facebook page.

I am delighted that you all agreed to take part and I can’t wait to read your replies when you post next Monday. Thank you x


Ask any grown-up and they have often decided that they are either creative or not. Sometimes this happens even younger; from childhood we start to build our own self-image. I wonder what it would take to change that perception?

Guests to our house over the summer have been drawn (no pun intended) to my sketchbooks as they lie scattered on the table. What is it about sketchbooks that is so tempting? Like a sweetshop full of unexpected gems… Conversation tends to follow a set pattern:

“Oh! Have you been drawing much?”

“Can I have a look?”
Always appreciated when someone asks this – sketchbooks can be quite private places – then usually followed by:

“How lovely, I wish I could draw!”

This is usually followed by excited encouragement from me as I truly believe there is no such thing as “not being able to draw”,  But it made me consider what people actually mean when they say they can’t draw. Because we can all draw. Even playing the board game Cranium there are rounds where you have to draw blindfolded and people manage to draw fully understandable drawings!

Of course we all draw differently. The way your hand moves across the page, applies pressure and changes direction is part of this. Often what people mean is that they can’t draw a visually accurate impression. Fair enough, this can be tricky – it certainly takes practice and time to develop the skill. But it is a skill, like learning to drive or touch type. If you want to do it, you can. You just need to want to do it enough to develop the practice.

There’s more to it than that though. Often when I draw I’m not looking to create an accurate representation – sometimes precisely the opposite. If I want accuracy I can take a photograph as a record, but when I draw I’m looking for some personal interpretation. Gerhard Richter is a German artist often credited with re-injected new life into painting when it was considered ‘tired’ but his enigmatic drawings also show how he challenges the preconception of what drawing is. This is a large drawing at 40 x 60 inches, some of the marks are evident but you can also see where he has taken away as well as added, building and removing in layers. What is it of? Does it matter? It seems an honest and refreshing way to draw.

Gerhard Richter Drawing II 2005

Gerhard Richter Drawing II 2005

I looked up the definition of ‘draw’ and was surprised at the results. Drawing in the artistic sense was waaaay down the list at number 22 of possible meanings. Instead I found this:

“to move or pull so as to cover or uncover something” draw the curtains

“to suck or take in” for example draw in air, inhale

“to extract or take for one’s own use” draw strength from one’s friends

“to bring about deliberately, to provoke” draw enemy fire

“to evoke as a response; elicit” performance that drew cheers from the crowd


What fabulous definitions!! If we think of drawing in the light of these we can begin to see how drawing can be so much more.

We draw to uncover our understanding – to push and pull our own reaction to what we see to discover the truth of what we are looking at.

Suck it up, take it in: we draw to absorb information.
Artists soak up like a sponge, it’s part of the creative process – to collect and gather.

Drawing is for your own use. Extract from it whatever you wish.

Widen your parameters and squash your preconceptions. Drawing can be bold and energetic like this gesture drawing by Clive Powsey. Or slow and studied like the work of Euan Uglow who famously uses compasses to measure his models exactly. Nothing is left to chance in this scientific approach and the measure marks become part of the drawing or painting.

quick gesture drawing showing movement and balance

quick gesture drawing showing movement and balance

every detail is noted in this measured drawing

every detail is noted in this measured drawing

Take a moment to to consider why you are making the drawing.

Drawing is a deliberate action; you can listen to music in the background, you can drive while having a conversation but drawing tends to absorb you. You have to make decision to find a drawing tool and surface and yet sometimes we don’t stop first to think about what we are doing – is it to create an accurate impression, to remember a moment or simply to generate a balance of textures on a page?

Evoke a response.. hmm I would forget the part about drawing cheers from a crowd – that’s bound to tie you in knots! Remember that drawing is for YOU but evoking some sort of emotional response is worth bearing in mind: excitement, calm, studied, delicate, energetic. Start to notice drawings you like and think about why – perhaps because they draw a reponse in you.

In its simplest form drawing is merely marks on a page. And a toddler can do that. Take the judgement out and you may find that you can indeed draw. And what a joy it can be!