Reed Pen Drawings

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

Throughout art history, from Rembrandt to van Gogh to the present, reed pens (ink pens made out of bamboo) have been popular.

Reed pen drawing with ink wash. Teacher example.

Middle school and high school students carve bamboo and create customized reed pens. Students cut nibs with fine points and broad points; pens are adjusted for right and left handed students.

What is a Reed pen?

A Reed Pen is a piece of bamboo that has been shaped to a point or flat edge.When it is dipped in ink it makes wonderful fluid marks.

Supply List

Bamboo, (golden brown in color. One stalk = about seven reed pens)

X-acto knife

Electric mini craft drill (0.5mm drill bit used to create ink well). Find it HERE

Wood block for drilling

Sand paper

India ink. I use Speedball brand. Find it HERE

Paper (I use Bristol paper, 11"x14") find it HERE

Finding Bamboo

I harvest my own reeds!

I am lucky to live in a neighborhood where several neighbors have planted bamboo. Bamboo is not native to the DC area but it survives the cold winters and has such a strong root system that it takes over the local plants. Bamboo is considered an invasive plant species in our area and spreads very quickly. A small patch of bamboo can quickly become a bamboo forest.

When I need more bamboo to make reed pens I don't have to go very far! When making reed pens a golden brown bamboo shoot is what you need to find . A golden brown bamboo shoot is very firm and typically means the stalk is dead. I look for a shoot that has a similar circumference as a pencil. One bamboo shoot can be cut into about seven 7" pencil-sized pieces easily. Four shoots of bamboo should give you enough reed pens for 28 students. It is always a good idea to have extra reeds because some sections of reeds can be more difficult to carve.

Finding Inspiration

This book, Vincent van Gogh, The Drawings is an incredible resource for van Gogh's reed pen drawings! It was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Reeds, like quills, go back a long way as drawing instruments. Why did Vincent use them? The fluidity and expressive marks can’t be matched by steel nibs. Van Gogh was also broke most of the time and made his own pens. During his visit to Arles in 1888, van Gogh discovered the reed pen (made from local hollow-barreled grass, and sharpened with a penknife). It changed his drawing style.

Van Gogh believed that drawing was “the root of everything.” His reasons for drawing were numerous. At the outset of his career, he felt it necessary to master black and white before attempting to work in color.

June, 1889 Museum of Architecture Moscow, Russia, Europe

The original study for Starry Night was a reed pen drawing!

Drawings formed an inextricable part of van Gogh's development as a painter. There were periods when he wished to do nothing but draw. Sometimes it was a question of economics: the materials he needed to create his drawings—paper and ink purchased at nearby shops and pens he himself cut with a penknife from locally grown reeds—were cheap, whereas costly paints and canvases had to be ordered and shipped from Paris. When it was too windy for him to set up an easel, he found he could draw on sheets of paper tacked securely to board. The MET has a great article titled: Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): The Drawings. Read it HERE

Although van Gogh is better known for his paintings he was also considered a master draftsman!

Van Gogh's reed pen drawings are my FAVORITE!

Lane at Les Saintes-Maries Ink drawing with Reed Pen 1888

Look at all the different types of lines and marks in this van Gogh reed pen drawing. I love the dotty pathway and rounded marks of bushes and plants. Van Gogh used short slanted lines to draw the sections of roofs. Notice the quick scribbly line for the smoke from the chimneys.

It's important to have many examples of van Gogh's reed pen drawings as available resources for this art lesson.

Van Gogh, Sailing Boats Ink drawing with Reed Pen 1888

Students identify all the different types of lines van Gogh uses in his drawings. Van Gogh created a series of ink drawings of the sea. Look at the circular and energetic lines used to create the feeling of movement in this drawing. The combination of wavy lines and short dashes show the movement of the sea. The use of thick and thin marks gives the water a rough, choppy look.

Vincent van Gogh; The Road to Tarascon; ink drawing with reed pen. 1888

This is one of my favorite van Gogh reed pen drawings. I love how the landscape is divided into sections and each section features a different type of line. The sky is also divided into sections showing the rays of the sun. Van Gogh varies thick and thinness of lines to create the look of abstracted elements of nature. By using large amounts of line varieties and patterns in his reed pen drawings van Gogh creates exciting visual textures.

Reed Pen Production

Students cut nibs with fine points and/or broad points;

pens were adjusted for right and left handed students

Using a small craft electric drill, an ink reservoir was drilled at the end of the ink slit. I’m using a 0.5 mm drill bit to drill an ink reservoir into the nib of the reed pens.

Students tested out their reed pens by creating a page of lines and marks.

It is a great experience to learn how to make your own art tools. Students customize their reed pens and design them to work for their hands. When you make your own art supplies you own them!

Be creative and draw over the mistake.
How do you fix a mistake in ink?

Working in ink you cannot erase a mistake. I discuss with students what a "happy accident" is in art. I show students a few places in my drawing (above) where the ink splattered in a way I didn't intend it to and I talked about how I had to work with the splatter and turn it into a shadow. Another splatter was turned into a different type of texture that I hadn't originally planned.

This is the perfect opportunity to read the book, "Beautiful Oops" by Barney Saltzberg

"Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything."

These were the wise words of Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), French novelist of the realist period and author of Madame Bovary (1857).  His words apply to all people who strive to express themselves through creative means, for creativity is inherently messy. Creativity is not linear, or logical, or predictable; rather, it is irrational, messy, and unpredictable. It is not achieved when striving for perfection, but perfection is sometimes achieved when space is made for making mistakes and for the messiness of creativity.

Reed pen drawing by middle school student.

Students draw for the rest of the class and into the next art class. We look at van Gogh’s reed pen drawings for inspiration. The final project is to use the hand carved reed pens to create a landscape ink drawing showing visual texture.

The mood in the art room is very positive and students remark many times about how much fun it is to draw with a reed pen that they created.

The rays of sun in this reed pen drawing were inspired by Vincent van Gogh's; The Road to Tarascon.

Some students added ink washes over their finished reed pen drawings.

Some students worked from van Gogh's illustrations.

By learning how to make a reed pen,

students develop a new understanding of its place in art history.

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