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More forest drawings and a story about making charcoal

Here are more little drawings I made while off on a little adventure in “cottage country” with the Newfs. Click on any image to enlarge. Apologies are in order for the inexcusably poor quality photos….I snapped them on a cabin table with an iphone while the rain poured down outside. I’ll get around to doing more fastidious documentation one of these days (maybe).

These drawings were all done in the woods. There were mosquitoes involved. I’d go into the forest with the dogs, find a place to settle down and draw, then started to work. It was hot and humid and there was a storm coming on. At first there were no bugs at all but after a few minutes of drawing a small number of mosquitoes would find me and go back to tell their pals the party had started. I suppose the level of detail in these drawings partly reflects the changing ferocity of the bugs.

At the same time, the choices I made in these drawings also reflects the medium. I did these with some beautiful homemade soft charcoal sticks on hot press watercolour paper. The paper is just 12X9 inches, and on each sheet I created a border using standard blue masking tape, which I removed after applying fixative to the finished drawings. The charcoal sticks ranged in size from 1/8 to 1/4 inch.

I don’t have too much to say about these drawings except to say that I completed a set of smallish, shaped encaustic paintings and strongly felt I had reached the end of something, although I’m not clear in my own mind what that really means. I decided to stop painting for a time and go out and draw in the world for a while.  The first ones were larger pencil drawings I did in our garden. I don’t know where this little drawing adventure will take me and for now I’m not worrying about it too much. I’m just drawing.

For years, Sheila (AKA Tuffy P) and I, along with our Ron Bloore and Tim Noonan and Ardis Breeze, went out painting and drawing in the landscape together. I’ve written about this before on this blog. We called it Sunday Painting. Somehow or another Bloore was the glue that kept this going I suppose because when his health no longer allowed him to go out drawing, the regular trips to the woods stopped. Some of Bloore’s Sunday drawings are hanging around our house these days, and when I look at them, I can remember where we were when he drew them, and a hundred stories around those trips. I think looking at these drawings may be part of the spark which brought me outdoors with blocks of paper and a bag of drawing tools.

By the way, from the shameless self-promotion department, I’ll be having a solo exhibition at Yumart Gallery at 401 Richmond St in Toronto opening September 10. It will feature the new encaustics, a selection of older paintings which for one reason or another continue to strongly resonate with me, as well as a few of the recent pencil drawings.


Let me tell you a story about the charcoal I mentioned. Many years ago, back in the 80s, an old friend (a wonderful artist named Robert Bowers) and I, worked on the problem of making really great drawing charcoal. Good charcoal typically came from Belgium at the time, as I recall, and was really expensive. It was Robert’s idea to become do-it-yourself charcoal makers. I often thought if he hadn’t become an artist, he would have been a mad inventor. Maybe the two are not that far apart. Robert had a good general idea about how it was made, but but our early attempts were only marginally successful. We got better at it with each batch.

The best wood turned out to be driftwood willow gathered at Hanlan’s Point beach on the Toronto Islands. This was way back before Hanlan’s became a nude beach, complete with the nude beach snobs (who recently have been behaving rudely to non-nude bathers). Robert, who could be very funny,  dubbed the place the “Vernal Twiggery”. Even back then, though, it turned out this was a meeting spot for lonely souls looking to hook up, so we had to be careful our quest for willow twigs didn’t unearth any friggery in the twiggery, as we called it at the time.

We’d go over to the island with a bottle of wine, a picnic lunch, and our charcoal making gear, and gather twigs on and about the beach. We’d  bring along the official Canada Fine Art Charcoal kilns, which were two very large tomato cans. Of course every kiln needs a kiln lid (tin foil with holes punched through it). Charcoal is not burned wood. It’s wood which has had the liquids and gasses distilled out of it. To do this without burning the wood, you have to heat it while restricting the supply of oxygen available. We would dig Canada Fine Art Charcoal kiln pits (translate: we’d dig down a few inches into the beach sand), and start a little fire. While the fire turned to hot coals, we’d cut willow twigs to length and stack them vertically into the kilns until each kiln was as full as possible with twigs. I suppose it’s possible to calculate the best temperature of the fire, but we figured it out as we figured everything out, by trial and error. Next we’d put the kilns on the fire and fasten the lids. As the fire heated the wood in the kilns, gas was released. We would light the gas coming from the holes with a match. As soon as those flames went out, we’d close the secondary lid (translate: add a piece of tinfoil without holes), and using a couple bigger sticks, remove the kilns from the fire. We learned that after the the flames went out, the wood was in danger of burning if we didn’t seal up the lids and get the kilns off the fire.

We learned  that if the charcoal cooled too fast, it tended to break, but if we had more sand pits prepared, inserted each hot kiln in a cooling pit and surrounded it with beach sand, the amount of breakage was reduced to close to zero.

We may possibly have made the best artists’ charcoal on the planet. It’s soft and has a wonderfully broad dynamic range and it’s a joy to draw with. I kept a few bags of it and have been slowly using it up over the years. I still have enough for quite a lot of drawings all these years later. I’ve been out of touch with Robert for quite a few years. I hope he’s doing well out there wherever he is. I wonder if he still has some Canada Fine Art Charcoal, Number 1 Grade A Premium?


  1. Miss Polly

    I wish I had even a shred of artistic ability. Had I even a shred of artistic ability I would display no embarrassment in requesting a coveted sample of the Canada Fine Art Charcoal , Number 1 Grade A Premium because it sounds amazing and, well, this story is so charming and funny. The Friggery in the Twiggery is so funny. I am still laughing. Sounds like a great adventure with your Newfs and great memories of a friend!

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