Channelling Rembrandt

You know how it is – you put a proposal in for something, it gets accepted, you’re all “Hurray!” – and then you have to fulfill what you said you’d do. That’s me with my workshop in USk Amsterdam this year. Luckily for me, not only did the proposal have to be planned down to the five minutes at the application stage, but the deadline for submission of handouts to be printed by USk is 15th June: that means the entire thing has to be fully prepared well in advance of the Symposium. The event is superbly organised and there is nothing, but nothing, that hasn’t been thought of and thoroughly planned.

That leaves me where I am now. My successful proposal was to teach a workshop based on Rembrandt as a 17th century urban sketcher, drawing what he saw in Amsterdam. I thought it would be fun to give my participants a real taste of the tools that he would have used, so I will be bringing home-made iron gall ink and goose feather quills for them to try. After they’ve had a go of those, I will be getting them to use the modern equivalents: Document ink in Brown by De Atramentis (from Anna at The Writing Desk, no matter where you are in the world) and my beloved fude pen by Sailor with a flattened, 55-degree nib that gives the same width variation of a goose quill.

You need oak galls to make the ink. Luckily I have a very large garden, in which my husband planted at least ten baby oak trees some twelve years ago. They are now part of a small but adorable forest – he planted 500 trees in total – and they are home to birds and bees and foxes and hares and lots and lots of rats (probably). Actually only birds and insects actually live in the forest, as far as I know – the rats live in the dry stone wall near the house (too near), the hares live in sets in the field next door and the foxes only pass through.

Anyway. Oak gall wasps like to inject a hormone into an oak tree branch, along with their eggs, and the amazing thing is that the oak tree doesn’t realise this is a cunning ruse, and develops a kind of tumour at the injection site, which forms a sphere around the eggs – providing them with a cosy home to develop in until they are old enough to burrow out through a teeny hole they make. The round wooden balls are like apples – kind of – which is why I grew up knowing them by their country name, oak apples. My daughter Honor had a huge jar of them that she’d picked, for decoration, and I was hoping she still had them – it turns out she dyed a top with them. That’s exactly what I would have done at her age, including not mentioning it to my parents.

I’ll go out and get more – she couldn’t reach anything above five feet or so – and smash them up with a hammer, soak them in rainwater, add ferrous sulphate and gum arabic – and hey presto, I’ll have deep black, permanent ink that is inseparable from the paper it’s drawn onto.

I shall post step-by-step photos – and that’s before I’ve started on the quills…

Fun and games!

The workshops in the USk Symposium are long since sold out. Lucky for you, there are still a few places on my workshop in Haarlem from 19th-21st July. It’s a watercolour workshop, designed to give you lots of useful tricks for your urban sketching practice, but you know what? I will bring some home-made ink and feather quills for you to try…you’ll be able to channel Rembrandt too. I bet he sketched Haarlem back in the day!

Email me to if you’d like to join us!


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