An experiment with natural dyes turned into a fun activity for Wren (my two year old) this week, as she found out how to make charcoal paint.

I had been experimenting with making heather dye for a few days, but having left it rather late in the season, was only managing to achieve a colour very similar to my willow and fern dye. It’s a really nice colour, but I wanted something different to work with, so I went back to the drawing board.

I was having a think about it, while Wren and I were clearing up our bonfire area. We’re having a combined Halloween/Bonfire Night celebration next week and were taking advantage of the dry weather to tidy up and cut plenty of wood to dry out.

We don’t usually celebrate either of these events, apart from the occasionally having taken our kids to see the local fireworks display, back in Cornwall. This year however (with covid19 to contend with), after months of not seeing anyone and living a very quiet life, little celebrations like these have helped to give our kids a boost.

Wren often likes to scribble with the charcoal from our fire pit and we have found that willow makes fantastic charcoal without any need for special conditions. I decided to gather some and see if I could use it to either deepen, or completely change the colour of the raffia that I had been dyeing.


We filled a pot with lumps of charcoal and as we don’t have a pestle and mortar, took a large flat stone and a smaller rounded pebble, to grind it up.

It had been raining for several days beforehand and the charcoal must have soaked up a lot of water, because as I started to bash it up it started to turn into a thick paste.

Wren quickly wanted to try it for herself and the charcoal had become so soft that it was no problem for her to break it up and grind the rocks together to make more paste.

It was very satisfying work for a little one and as we had some of her toy pans to hand, we put some in her pot and some into my big dye pan.


Wren could have used the paste as it was, but she was keen to add some water. She had a lovely time stirring it and painting the concrete outside our backdoor, while I went to grab some paper for her.

There were still fair few lumps in the mixture, because we were focused on having fun rather than making perfect paint, but I think with a bit more time spent grinding and possibly some egg or gum arabic, you could make a really good paint with this willow charcoal.

My 16 year old is just starting to delve into the world of natural paints and inks and having seen her little sister getting stuck into the charcoal, she is keen to try her own experiments.

It just goes to show how we can all learn from each other, no matter what age we are.


While I continued to break up charcoal for my dye pot, Wren was having a wonderful time with her new paint.

“Look mummy, I’m painting a thunder storm!”

It was great to see her getting so much out of making her own art materials and having her work alongside me, as I was developing my own creative skills.

We will definitely try more paint making and it’s something that I am sure my 10 and 13 yr olds would enjoy as well. I think that we will even have a go at making our own brushes and other art tools and why not paper too, so that we can see the processes through from start to finish.

I think that this year, of using foraged resources for basketry and dye making, has shown me that the process of making and creating is more important than the finished piece. There is so much to be gained from that connection with your materials and I am so glad to be able to share that with my kids. Even over the space of a few months, I have watched their creativity and resourcefulness grow and it is wonderful to see.

That is one of the things about home-education that I love the most. We all learn alongside each other and from each other. Our kids are just as much teachers as we are and I am grateful for everything that they teach me. I am all the better for everything that I learn from them and for striving to find better ways of living, so that we can help them on the journey to a happy life as adults.