Charcoal Art Club: At The Table with Rosie Ramsden & Kitty Coles
Food stylists Rosie Ramsden & Kitty Coles are the founders of life drawing art club, Charcoal. Having launched at the end of 2018, Charcoal was originally based around evenings of dinner and drawing at Narroway Studio in Hackney, but during the pandemic they turned, as many did, to online classes that gave many a sense of connection and comfort. They’re back hosting live classes, but they’re continuing their classes online too. We had a chat with Rosie & Kitty about their project and how it brings together food, art & design.
Tell us the story behind Charcoal Art Club. How did it all begin? What brought the two of you together?
R: It was a stroke of luck. I was in the mood for small life drawing evenings – book-club style – with friends, and when I mooted it on Instagram it took off. We launched it at Narroway Studio, an hour and a half of drawing with dinner too (cocktails, warm focaccia, a bowl of something warming and usually meringues to finish…).
“I think I speak for us both when I say art has a really strong influence on how we see food. Food styling is a strange job, but one thing I love about it is that it can be so creative. Building a picture with food, just like you would with paints and colours.”
K: Rosie mentioned it to me when I used to assist her on food styling shoots – the idea being to just get a group of friends together to draw, eat, drink and chat. I obviously loved the idea so came along to help cook for the evening, and then it just sort of rolled in to doing a few more, then a few more, and so on. I mainly manned the kitchen while Rosie calmly and beautifully lead the class.
We’ve always thought there’s such a strong relationship between food, art and design. You’re both food stylists so we have a feeling you’ll agree. How would you describe or define that relationship?
K: I went to art school before becoming a food stylist, and Rosie’s an incredible artist as well, so I think I speak for us both when I say art has a really strong influence on how we see food. Food styling is a strange job, but one thing I love about it, is that it can be so creative. Building a picture with food, just like you would with paints and colours.
R: I couldn’t agree more. Part of the reason I fell in love with food styling was so that I could get my hands in, work it like a painting. Working with other people who all have an eye for design is inspiring, and like the life drawing, a whole room of artists (online or in real life) can help you unknot your creativity.
There’s also something so meditative about using our hands both in cooking and in drawing. Do you think that’s played a big part in why we’ve turned to the kitchen and discovered creative hobbies so much in the last couple of years?
R: It’s a good distraction, it makes you feel grounded. Using your hands in a practical way can often be a rare thing when at a desk so when we do it it releases joy and satisfaction.
K: When I first met Rosie, something I really noticed in the way she styles food is the way she uses her hands. You can definitely tell she’s an artist. No faffing about with pipettes or tweezers! We’ve found a lot of people’s interest and enjoyment in Charcoal is being able to use another part of your brain after work. Most people have been at home working all day, and then with a lot of entertainment closed over the last few years, had nothing else to do apart from cook or watch TV. So being able to do something creative, whether it’s cooking or crochet or life drawing, is great for an escape. Also, theres nothing more satisfying than having an end result which you can appreciate/eat/frame.
Rosie, your cookbook The Recipe Wheel is beautifully illustrated with watercolours of fruit, veg and all kinds of ingredients. Do you find that your drawings and art inspire your recipes and styling, or more the other way around?
R: Thank you! One feeds the other, though I definitely have more energy and an urge to work harder after I’ve done a painting. My brain is kicked into gear.
As food stylists, how do you strike the balance between writing recipes that both look beautiful and taste delicious? Walk us through the creative process from developing a recipe to bringing it to life visually through an image. Do you see similarities in the process of drawing or painting?
K: I definitely get very clear ideas about what I want a recipe to look like. But taste is key for me – I wouldn’t add anything just to make it look nice, it’s got to also to make it taste better too. And for me, less is more with drawing and cooking. My strengths lie in the short poses, in the same way my strengths lie in easy, short and simple recipes (my attention span is very short….)
R: I’m actually more last minute with the visuals. I like to play when it comes to the plate, but I’m sure colours and textures come into action well before. Same with art. I’ll mix my colours for an oil painting but it only starts to make sense when its on a canvas (and sometimes it doesn’t too!)
Community is such a big part of both art and food, and of course it’s at the heart of pop-up events like yours. Since you started doing the classes online, how have things changed? Is there still the same connection?
R + K: When we tell people that we now run an online life drawing class, I think people find it hard to imagine. “The model is just on the screen? And I draw what I see on the screen?”. But then they join and see that it’s so cosy and has the best community feeling. There’s something amazing about a group of people all getting together online at the same time – all strangers but having the same interest. We’ve also been able to connect with people all over the UK and even as far as the US which we would have never been able to do before – so we’ll definitely carry on the online classes for as long as we can – to include everyone, and not just Londoners.
We also have a Charcoal membership, so there really is a little community! They come to every class and its so lovely to see familiar faces every week.
If you had to pick one item of food to draw, which would you pick and why? It could be a single ingredient, a dish, anything.
K: Rosie and I both drew each other a little clementine for Christmas a few years ago (we exchanged them the night of our first ever Night In x Charcoal evening). It’s in my kitchen, actually next to a rhubarb, also drawn by Rosie! So maybe I’d say a clementine/orange or even a nice leafy lemon.
The Charcoal Pantry
1. Jarred beans (chickpeas and butter beans always)
2. White Mausu chilli oils (all three of them)
3. Anything pickled
4. Pasta of every shape and size
5. Really good extra virgin olive oil