Abstract mixed media with Barbara Whitbourn

Our Zoom demo in October was by Barbara Whitbourn, who gave a fascinating discussion and demonstration of how she works in mixed media – and takes an abstracted approach. I took a lot of notes while she was talking, so I hope they make some sort of sense on this page. The pictures are screenshots, and a bit rough.

Barbara started by asking: What do you enjoy about pictures you look at? 

Is it Colour? Technique? Abstraction?

She suggested that whenever you see a picture, especially one you like, decide what elements attract you and edit out the things that don’t interest you.

She followed this with examples of a trip to the Cornish tin mines, which she did recently. She keeps a sketchbook of all projects like this so she can refer back.

  • Take your time to look around, the shapes, the sizes,
  • what would you move to make the picture more interesting.
  • Take photos, make notes on the day.
  • Start sketching, just feel your way in.

You’re looking for your emotional response to the scene.

Things that help to transfer the mood to the paper:

  • Print photos out in black/white to get values.
  • Do robot drawings to get the emotional response to the scene. Add in what else is happening, birds, bees, footsteps. Soil colours.
  • Use random marks with nondominant hand
  • Thumbnails of what might work and what’s important to me.

Another idea is to look at a scene, look away, and sketch for thirty seconds. That helps you decide what’s really important to you.

Paints and other media (not complete!)

  • Off-primary colours, transparent . Golden brand. List of materials to follow.
  • Titanium white, adds oomph. Later liquid white or other liquid paint. Only three colours so all harmonious when mixed.
  • Pencils and marks. Puts charcoal, graphite etc in the end of a twig to get a rather uncontrolled line/mark, 
  • Also look for unusual tools e.g. wood grading tools.

Works on birch panel with rough gesso surface and works standing up. Sizes vary, A2 if working on paper, up to 1m or so with a birch panel.

I found the stencils she used very interesting. I liked those, especially the writing and the music. She has a collage box of interesting items, mono prints on tissue paper, using her regular colours, putting it on with transparent medium to build up layers.


There is no ‘up’ at this stage; she turned it round to work on it as she felt appropriate

As Barbara progressed covering the paper, I started to like it. The layer effect was very striking, and using the harmonised colours worked well – even when she started to use some paint sticks that made a ridge.

Next stage, turning it into a picture. 

  • Where to put the horizon.
  • What features or impacts need to go in.
  • What are the hero colours
  • Use stronger versions from same palette.
  • Make sure you take care to keep your instruments clean!
  • Stay abstract!

Knock back the sky using zinc white and lots of glazing layers

The first knock back of the sky – she did a lot more later which covered most of the patterns underneath

Then block the lower part, don’t be too regular and have lots of thin layers. Think of what they represent for your purpose.

Add the details! Like the wheelhouse and chimney for the arsenic pits… Then add cogs and wheels for the main pattern in the centre.

Aim is not to obscure layers underneath – and just to enjoy herself with no end in sight. See what happens. It uses a lot of paint/medium. Not a cheap method!

The end result, held upright for the camera


All in all it was a fascinating demonstration, one in which the picture built from nothing, looked like nothing much but pleasing shapes and harmonious colours, then (for me) lost its appeal, and then got it back again when the tin-mine specific motifs came into play.

Certainly gives one food for thought!