Tag Archive for: mixed media

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


Shaking things up is a great way to inject some new energy. Over the last year I have fallen into the habit of using smaller sketchbooks; usually ones that fit into the pocket of a waterproof jacket. So I deliberately bought a large sketchbook to expand the scale of marks and to challenge myself. This one is A3 with a soft cover and only 20 pages so it will fill quickly.

I find that my art practice is a constant struggle between wishing I had a more consistent process and being aware that too much consistency can easily lead to a habit and predefined way of working. My fear is that if my work becomes routine, the drawing loses freshness and I become an art-robot. No thank you!

The idea is to have a place to play and explore. To mix different media in a free-form way of drawing that is not about representing a place but that is led by the materials and listen to my instinct about what to do next.

BW sketchbook pink

I began with charcoal. My plan was to keep colour out and restrict myself to just black and white. Well, that didn’t last long as you can see! This page used willow charcoal and gesso which was whiter than the off-white of the page. I was thinking of branches and hedges in the mist. After the smudgy softness I needed some more precision and drawing the harder marks with charcoal and colour pencil let me create some focus and movement across the page.

BW sketchbook ochreWith this page I started using paint and my fingers so there was contrast between the texture and the trails of charcoal.

I’m finding that these are a good way to warm up at the start of each studio session. Almost like a mind-clearing meditation.

They have no purpose; no end result. It will be interesting to see what emerges.







Daler A3 softcover – click to buy online

UPDATE: Many of you have got in touch to ask about which sketchbooks I use. For these kind of exercises I use fairly cheap soft cover books. I like to fill them fairly quickly and move on! The paper in these stands up well with a nice surface for drawing and for taking paint. 

You can find them here.