From sketchbooks to paintings: Barbara Rae shows us how

The new Barbara Rae sketchbooks edition (Royal Academy 2011) is a revelation and I believe will help all those who struggle to maintain the freshness and spontaneity of their sketchbooks in their final work.  Barbara Rae defies definition in the contemporary art scene, but has a solid and consistent voice that has been unwavering in its direction for many years.  Running counter to the favoured art of the late 20th and early 21st century, perhaps it is of no surprise that she has not yet had an art show at the Tate or Royal Academy, but given her stature and the popularity of her painting it is a gap that needs filling, and soon. The first book on Barbara Rae came out in 2008, published by Lund Humphries, filled with her lush paintings, dancing with free mark making and bright vigorous colour, with extraordinary juxtaposition of hues.  However, for me, the most astonishing thing is to see her sketchbooks and to realise to what extent she thinks through what will become final paintings in them.  The sketches stand alone and are complete consolidations of ideas, and even though done on the spot, in all weathers, often in wild and rugged locations they contain acrylics, watercolour, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and even paint mixed with wine instead of water! What differentiates her from being just an excellent artist into one of the most significant contemporary artists working today, is her ability to take these delightful sketches, so beautifully constructed and composed, so full of ideas and life, and translate them into large scale paintings on paper and canvas.

I was lucky enough to meet Barbara Rae a few years ago, a gracious, kind woman, she showed me round her stunning tailor made studio in central Edinburgh, geared to be able to import and export very large canvases.  She talked me through her working processes.  The floor was covered in torn up bits of discarded prints, that she reuses in collaged elements of her painting. She uses two A4 Moleskine sketchbooks when out sketching so that she can be working on one image while another dries. Her sketchbooks are treasured possessions, no surprise when you see the gem like contents. If you can’t afford the new book based on her sketches (its £17.47) do take a look at her website (by clicking the link on her highlighted name above) since there is a great array of examples of prints, sketches and paintings on it.


  1. The Open College of the Arts 8 August 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Bee Skelton says
    Absolutely stunning!!!! Jane I envy you the visit you had to Barbara Rae’s studio. I would love to have heard the explanation of her process. The sketches are so dynamic, fresh and colourful …. it’s how she ups the scale and still keeps that feeling, that would be interesting to know.

    Jane, is there any chance you could pass on any of the insights you learned from her.

  2. Catherine 10 August 2011 at 11:05 am

    Wonderful sketchbooks. It’s discussion of these and seeing some in actuality that has motivated me to join a drawing class. I did a bookbinding day last weekend as well and so now feel inspired to create handmade books, especially after seeing a sketchbook created by one of the other people in the group. She had created a wonderful bookcover composed of multiple layers of various materials. It’s amazing how doing even the photography course has opened my eyes to art and creativity in general.

  3. Pam Waller 11 August 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I had just come off Barbara’s website, looking at her sketchbooks publication there to find this message in my inbox. I am certainly inspired by her work too! Unfortunately I find I cannot buy a copy for 1-2 months as it is currently unavailable. Must have been so popular! I will just have to wait – impatiently!

  4. Caroline Dunn 11 August 2011 at 8:36 pm

    I bought this 10 days ago on Amazon.

  5. Pat Hodson 15 August 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Last year, the day before we were leaving to camp in Wales I saw that Barbara Rae was exhibiting both paintings and prints in Edinburgh during the festival. We immediately changed our plans and went there instead. (We had seen her work for the first time in Edinburgh around five years ago and was so astonished by her colour – and especially her sketches of Andalucia. They made me want to go back there to re-see the colour.) Last year, what struck me most as I moved from image to image that each had seemingly effortless complex and emotionally charged colour juxtapositions. Each I looked at I thought the best – until I moved on to the next – to find an image with different colour relationships, but with equally emotional impact on my senses. The interesting thing about the books on her work, is that (unlike some illustrations) that although they cant show the texture in her work, they do reflect the colour very well.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.