Charcoal Kilns from Grafham and Holme Fen.

Charcoal, made at Grafham Water, from the reservoir willows

This rather special charcoal was made for me by Grafham Wildlife Trust wardens Aidan and Greg and their charcoal burning gang and it is, of course, made from the local willows.

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It’s the first time they have tried making charcoal for drawing. Normally it’s chunkier pieces for BBQ charcoal as you can see by the bag. The secret is to have a very slow burn, steady heat and flat straight twigs.The twigs are normally laid in sand in tins.

This looked good. Aidan told me the biscuit tin they used was destroyed but this is definitely usable charcoal. To work with it is unpredictable. Some parts are too hard and then you will find a very soft section which gives a sudden rich dark line. It was, without doubt, very pleasing to draw the Grafham Water willows with willow charcoal made up in Grafham Water woods. The charcoal kilns are in Littless Wood.  I made some sketches a couple of years go. Their simple solid geometric shapes are very pleasing, against the more organic lines of trees and foliage. There are two kilns there… or certainly were last year, I have not been back yet this year, but I must get back, now the track is drying up.


The kilns are not so large.. the tall trees give some idea of them in the landscape.

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A wheel barrow with sacks and some logs ready to burn.

You can join a charcoal burning party along Aidan and Greg with the Wildlife Trust.
The next course is on the 11th May. I would love to go but we will be away…in Amsterdam…so can’t really complain.

Holme Fen Charcoal Kiln: a remnant from the Second World War.

But I did go back to Holme Fen with Sue on Friday, for a couple of hours sketching and to find the charcoal kiln that I had read about in the guide.
A small sunken kiln base, without its conical top, is all that remains of the extensive tree felling and charcoal burning operation which took place during the Second World War to provide charcoal, possibly for wood gas to power vehicles or for gunpowder. The ring of iron is sinking into the peat. It is being overtaken by rhododendron seedlings and brambles. In the still chilly morning with very little but birdsong to keep us company it was a beautiful place to sketch.

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Two line sketches done on site. I often add tone but we only had half an hour so no time for much more than notes. I did not have a camera with me, or rather I did not have the SD card, but I jotted down enough info to make a slightly more atmospheric drawing when I came home. It’s a simple enough shape and the foliage was mainly ferns, rhododendrons and brambles. I had made a note of the sun direction and cast shadows and a small detail of the rim.


Holme Fen Charcoal Kiln. pen and ink. A4

I had also taken my chunky Grafham charcoal with me and made a couple of sketches of the beautiful silver birches.



For me, used to dark woods of oak and ash, these tall pale ghostly trees with the light shimmering from their silvery trunks make for a strange treescape. Lovely, ethereal and slightly unsettling.

I am looking forward to returning soon.

Drawing Willows with Willow Charcoal.

2013 Willows: Last year I made some drawings of the Willows at Perry. It was April.

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2014 Willows

Today I went back to the same spot. There are new pollards and the pollarded trees from last year have sent out huge strong shoots.

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Three sketches of the same log. The one top right was from last year. Now like some magic hedgehog it has sprung long spines. I made some pen and ink sketches. The shapes of the new stumpy pollarded trees are strange. They give the landscape a desolate look, ruins of old tree.




Pen and Ink sketches A4 And the 3 in charcoal.


Exuberant growth from last years pollard.


The twisty truncated branches on their short bases remind me of some trimmed internal organ.


Charcoal Sketches 12 x16 inches  Perry Thursday 13th March.

It is rather special charcoal ..more of that in my next post…..

Cold Reservoir Sketches

Over the last week I made a few charcoal sketches of the wintery reservoir. Although I can’t get out much yet, I had taken photos of the snowy landscapes last year and Chris had been out in January with his camera.

I know this shore line like the back of my hand now and I have a bank of knowledge and familiarity to draw on, so these sketches are as much about memory as they are about fact.

I love charcoal. I wish it was taken more seriously as a valuable drawing medium. The marks can vary from softest smudge to sharp black and fluid lines. It can be worked into with erasers, fingers and paper stumps..wonderful. In our garish, colour obsessed world, monochrome images sometimes seem like a sigh of relief.

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The reservoir is very low at the moment, deliberately so I think. There are wide beaches, full of pebbles and fossily bits and pieces.

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And the bank erosion is more obvious.

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Looking east from the reservoir towards the village.

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Over the back looking towards Spaldwick there is a roll to the land. I have seen the red kite there.


The shoreline plus sketched in coot. I do like these comical birds. I am hoping to make some work about the local birds later in the year.


One of the fallen trees by the water.. it sends new shoots up still and is close to where I saw the stoat last year.


Back on the lane looking south towards the reservoir, tangles of brambles and the ever present flocks of birds

Small charcoals 9 x12 inches, the large one 15 x 22. Materials: willow charcoal, plastic eraser and fingers :)..

Walks: Day Three. Charcoal in Littless Wood

You can smell the acrid smell of wood smoke from two fields away. I had almost hoped they were burning today.
I remember cycling round the lake one day and glancing up to see a plume of smoke on the horizon rising from the woods across the reservoir.
On that dry May day it could have been a catastrophic fire but up in ancient Littless Wood they were burning charcoal.

Today, a grey and chilly morning, I took a cycle rather than a walk up to Littless Wood to the charcoal burning camp.
They must have been there quite recently. The smell of burning was so strong. I have long been keen to draw or paint something on the theme of charcoal burning.

Many years ago I made a small sketch after watching the capping of a kiln, brilliant red flames flaring up around the black rim of the conical lid. But today just some sketches of the deserted and eerily quiet camp.
The kilns are curious things, uncompromisingly black and simple geometric shapes in stark contrast to the leafy tangle of the wood. A high wind rustled the tree tops but at ground level things were very still. A fox barked somewhere in the wood. It’s a distinctive and shivering sound.

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The blackest thing in the scene was a pile of charcoal, deepest black black. It gleams like coal.

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A nearby wheelbarrow with two sacks of sand and a pile of logs.

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I get a bit frustrated with the rigidity and slowness of this pen sometimes. Next time I will take some ink to use with the brush or a dip pen.
I didn’t have a decent dark colour with me today so mixed up a darkish grey from 3 colours.. but it doesn’t have the power of ink. Maybe tomorrow..

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Meanwhile I spent quite a bit of today with two rescued bumble bees. One found perilously immobile on the main road outside when I came back this morning.  He only needed a rest and a warm up.

The other I think may not make it, which is sad but there are many tatty and forlorn aging bees around at the moment. Their natural life span can be as short as two weeks.
However, I feel that giving a little bee a sip of sugar water and a safe haven  for an hour or two is worth it… isn’t it?

Leaf of the Day: The UK .. Digging, Moving, and a Slight Hiatus

Here I am back in the USA, sketch book almost completely empty, but head completely full of ideas inspirations and possible directions. “Leaf of the Day” may have to become “Thing of the Day”.. or even just “Thing of the Month”.

UK Things:
Most of the trip seemed to be spent in the hire car, trying to keep to the correct side of the road and admiring the beautiful May countryside through sheets of driving rain, while visiting old friends and relatives.

I learnt many things on this trip:

*The origin of the Chelsea Physic Garden.
*The use of chicken’s feet skin in bookbinding with very beautiful results.
*Quite a bit about charcoal burning and ‘chicken in the woods’.
*Huge Indian mice and Ganesh.
*The problems of sourcing real English apples for a farm shop in Lincs.
*More about the far from grim, Grimsthorpe Castle.

I so enjoyed these things, (in no particular order);

*The warm and welcoming company of old friends and family.
*The joy of a real prize winning Pork Pie from Mr Thorpe, real Lincolnshire Sausages and fish and chips.
*The snowy beauty of the hedges white with May blossom, Horse chestnuts blossom and kecksey ( cow parsley)
*Regent’s Park on a beautiful summer day with my good friends Dorothy and Jill.
*London for all its wonderful treasures, specialist shops, great pubs and cafes.
*Catching up with my friend Dy over soup and a roll in Bloomsbury.
*The privilege of visiting London’s stunningly wonderful Museums for free.
*My sister’s hidden treasure of a sheet music shop, Counterpoint, in Lincoln, (although found and much appreciated by Louis de Bernier.)
*My friend Kate’s really excellent, specialist and aclaimed cheese shop “The Cheese Society” also in Lincoln.
*Seeing the Bookbinders exhibition at the Flow Gallery…more of this later.
*The big skies and tiny distant church spires of Lincolnshire.
*Huddling on Big Stone in High Bentham with my friend Gill, in borrowed anorak and wellies, in the chilly darkening evening, while clutching a beer, listening to curlews and peewits crying out over the moor.
*Meeting up with my wonderful dog sitters of ten years ago, Stan and Barbara.
*Sitting in a tiny old Derbyshire cottage and having tea with an old friend at a local Church Flower Festival.
*Listening to my Dad (91) admitting he had a friend with a gorgeous red sports car ( Jaguar ss 100) in the late 1930’s with whom he used to go to Blackpool from Leeds on weekends when they were flush!

I failed to do these things:

*Sketching 🙂
*Get to Scotland

In between I did some heavy duty gardening for my Father. It was sheer joy for me to be out in those cool mornings..light at 3.30.. accompanied by the singing birds, biting east wind and fine drizzle. Best activity? … digging. To be precise, digging out one of Dad’s excellent compost heaps, more of that later.

I have actually been back for 2 weeks but due to pressing economic necessity we have been trying to find a cheaper apartment. We are moving from shoe box to matchbox. The next step will be the cardboard box on the street corner or the workhouse, but we remain optimistic. It is at this point in my life that I realise the mistakes I made of; A, not training to be a nurse, they seem to be able to work anywhere and; B, not marrying a very rich man.

Creatively things are just on hold while I regroup..
“Hiatus” is the best word for this little break and has some interesting definitions ie:
Suspension: an interruption in the intensity or amount of something”
or “Latin = a gap, (like that between some people’s ears)” or the gap between the covers of my sketchbook!

Back soon with some fond discoveries in the attic, regarding scarecrows….

Leaf of the Day: Charcoal Soapberry

The weather now is cool in the mornings, fresh and beautiful and today we cycled for miles from Winter Park to Baldwin Park. We continued along the newly discovered (to us) Cady Trail, which then becomes something else and we cycled along that too until my cycle gears disintegrated and we had to return to a repair shop.
Cycling can be a joy here or a complete and utter nightmare. My jaundiced blog post Cycling in Orlando is almost ready for publication. But today was lovely and there were different lakes and different views. However Chris did, irritatingly, point out that due to lack of rain this week the damn plantains have all moved back to the shore line..sigh…

Back in the “studio” the nature table is overflowing with bits and pieces I have picked up to draw and paint but I had decided to do a series about the soapberry tree which I started here in Bugs in the Paint #2. It will be a sort of extended study so there will be lots of them this coming week. Today I decided to do just one charcoal and work on a bigger sheet than normal this time 14 x 17 inches. It’s a messy medium but allows for some lovely marks and velvety blacks.
Charcoal was one of the very first artist’s mediums. The finest is usually willow, whose beautiful thin sticks still show the shape of the twigs.

Some 7 years ago now and lacking inspiration, I set myself the task of producing 60 large drawing in a week. The theme was roughly bugs and plants ( no change there then) the drawings were on 30 x 20 inch sheets so lots of room for big marks. It was a great exercise for ideas, as the first 10 are easy then as those first ideas run out, you have to get more experimental and hopefully, more creative. Many of them were in charcoal. Here are just three which perhaps show the versatility of this lovely medium.

The slightest touch of your finger can change the subtlety of the surface and tone, or you can make big sweeping linear marks.
What happened to them? Well they are in a folder somewhere, awaiting the time when having big bugs on the wall becomes very fashionable. I could be waiting some time.

I have included these details of the soapberry as I like to crop in and see something different. It also shows the marks that you can achieve with charcoal.

The soft white smudgy marks are made with a putty rubber, harder edged marks with a plastic eraser, and general smudging with fingers or anything else you might have to hand.

It’s a gorgeous, sensitive and underrated medium.


Charcoal Soapberry

Leaf of the Day: Greater Celandine and a different way of looking.

It is the last day of May, the blue Florida sky is dotted with clouds, I have been swimming in the pool, the shuttle launches today just over on the coast and I have been thinking about the last three weeks in the the UK and what I have achieved or learnt.

Foremost in my mind is Liz Leech´s course. She opened up a world of close and informed examination of plants and flowers and help in getting to grips with understanding what things are, and why they are the shape and colour they are. Stripping away the layers and looking at the underlying structures did not lessen my appreciation of flowers, quite the contrary, it just increased the fascination. I can now draw with a little more understanding of the architecture and purpose of flowers and plants, not just make a record of their superficial beauty.
Also, just having this knowledge means I can approach the drawing with a greater sensitivity which in turn gives me a greater satisfaction. It is not, of course, an easy route to better draftsmanship but it really helps and, (as I do, and will, keep saying in this blog) it all comes back to the value of to drawing from life. Photographs while being a very useful tool, can just reduce things to distorted 2 dimensional cyphers of the real thing and can be endlessly misleading.

Another way of looking
This way of looking was botanically analytical, but a couple of years ago I experienced a completely different approach to drawing plants. I attended a short course run by Hibernia College in Stroud which is a college running, amongst other things, Art Therapy courses. The weekend class was devoted to the study of just one medicinal plant.
In short, the idea was to see if by studying the form, the habit and the “spirit” of the plant, through drawing, writing and discussion, we could come to some conclusion ( without first knowing its name ) about it’s medicinal properties.
For a practical northern girl this seemed a bit airy fairy to start with but my initial scepticism was won over by some very interesting work that was produced.
Our first encounter with the plant was with closed eyes, just to limit the senses to start with. Then we studied the plant for only a few minutes, before it was taken away and we drew what we could remember. Then with the plant in front of us we made continuous line drawings without taking our eyes from the plant. From there the exercises and discussions branched out, working in monochrome, colour, and words and looking at every characteristic of how and where this little plant grew, roots, stems habit and habitat and perhaps most revealing of all, the startling bright orange sap which bled copiously from it cut stems.
Before we actually got to know what the plant was, we pooled our observations and drew up a profile of the plant. Those more in tune with natural remedies were the keenest observers, noting vigour of habit, sinuous wiry roots, the branching patterns of the stems and the vital searching orange sap as being keys to its use.

The little plant we got to know so well turned out to be the greater celandine Chelidonium majus a plant used historically as a valuable remedy for conditions affecting the liver, gall bladder, and stomach, a variety of skin diseases and a folk remedy for cancer, gout, and jaundice. A stimulant and purgative.
Other participants in the course were mainly teachers herbalists or therapists rather than artists and their work was by far more interesting and experimental than mine. I (ever the commercial artist ) was too bound up in the look of the thing.
I wonder what the drawings would have been like if we had had prior knowledge of the plants medical properties.

I am not sure what conclusion this exercise draws in terms of medical significance. Making associations about the way a plant looked and what it could cure, as laid out in the wonderful “Doctrine of Signatures” theories ( worth another post in itself ) was an extremely unreliable way of dispensing medicine but, for an artist seeking maybe a more sympathetic than scientific approach to analysing plants, this was a fascinating exercise.

The drawings were done on newsprint with charcoal, biro, and powder paints.. the drawings were not important here.. the method was. ___________________________________________

Greater Celandine Sketches

Leaf of the Day: West Dean Sketches

Today I will be travelling back to Florida. Its Bank Holiday Monday and its raining here in the Uk. My two days in London have been lovely and fun. No drawing done but I still have quite a few sketches to post from my trip.

There is not much spare time at West Dean as the courses are quite intensive, but to take a break from the close and detailed work I made some sketches outside in the beautiful walled garden here. The shapes of the espaliered and supported fruit trees really appealed to me and I made some quick loose charcoal sketches. Also of some forcing pots in the rhubarb patch and a cyprus branch. It’s a long way from botanical painting but a good loosening up exercise. Of course now, having done these, I feel I want to get back to the oil painting… “when she’s in she wants to be out, and when she’s out she want to be in”….

Walled Garden Sketches

Leaf of the Day: Killarney Trees and a Little Blue Heron

At least once a week I try to go and sketch outside and the weather is lovely at the moment so this afternoon I went to the lake to do a larger sketch of a clump of trees by the shore. I love working in charcoal, it is responsive and messy, a real welcome change from the waxy hard coloured pencils. This is 20 x 25 inches, charcoal and white chalk on a warm grey Ingres paper. I´m not very keen on Ingres paper and started working on the textured side by mistake which I like even less because of its mechanical looking surface but it was nice to work on a larger scale today.

I had the usual accompaniment of critics, jeering from the trees around me, mostly grackles which I wrote about before, perching sometimes just a foot way, all glossy and smart. When not screeching they have a disconcerting “uh oh” noise like some insufferable know-all’s ” I wouldn’t do that” comment, looking over your shoulder just as you are about to make a huge mistake. They sat by me, above me and below me squawking, “I wouldn’t put that mark there if I were you”, noises for about an hour. A pair of mallards was pottering about in the water at the foot of the trees, so happy and so sweet together.

The little ghostly blue heron was also silently patrolling up and down, quietly stalking its prey of dragonflies and little fish. Also known as the ‘levee walker’ it is the Italian greyhound of the bird world, delicate and fragile with twig thin legs, looking as though it has been carefully crafted from the finest and softest dusty blue suede. When you sit for long enough the birds come very close and I was able to do some more sketches of the heron.
This little bird is not so difficult to draw from life as it moves quite slowly and hesitantly and covers the same patch of floating marsh grass, up and down, delicately picking up its huge feet and gently placing them down again, almost walking on the water.

Trees by Lake Killarney