Following on from my previous post, some googling for images of Van Gogh's reed pen drawings that I like so much led me to a very interesting article by Robert Hughes from The Guardian, 27 October 2005, titled 'The genius of Crazy Vinnie'. Not too keen on the title (it may be ironic) but Hughes totally gets it and brilliantly sums up Van Gogh's reed pen technique:

"  Van Gogh's preferred drawing tool was the reed pen. This was simply a piece of dried reed-stem, hollow and shaped to a chisel point. Not very many artists liked to use it. The only Dutch artist who preferred the reed to a quill or metal nib was Rembrandt, and this must have borne its own significance for Van Gogh. The reed was not flexible, like other pens. Nor did it hold a lot of ink, so it would not produce long, sinuous lines. The style it favoured was short, blunt, angular and (in a limited way) calligraphic. In some drawings you can see Van Gogh brilliantly exploiting the limitations of the reed. He draws a tuft of grass, for instance, as five or six springing, more or less parallel strokes. The first one is heavy with ink. The next, less so. By the fourth or fifth, the reed is almost empty and the ink strokes faint. This creates the impression of a round tussock, rendered not as flat pattern, but turned towards the light. Then he dips his reed in the ink bottle, recharges it and begins again, on a different clump of grass. The marks are abstract and yet not: they have a tremendous graphic sufficiency, tiny though they are.
The reed pen also favoured shortish parallel marks, curving exuberantly. Hence the sense of flow in some of the drawings: the wreathing and twining of substance. In a way, some are reminiscent of Leonardo's water studies, except that you know (or at least think) that you are on solid ground.
It was common for artists, when using pen and ink without resort to wash, to render areas of darkness and shadow by means of cross-hatching. Van Gogh very seldom did this. His drawings are accumulations of shorthand forms, squiggles and dots, dashes and hooks, whose density provides surface with its fluctuation of light; but they have almost no chiaroscuro as such. What you see is a tapestry of microforms, sometimes linear - such as the water patterns on the beach or the internal coilings of the cypress trees - and sometimes dotted. Perhaps he got the idea for the dots from Seurat, but they amount to a kind of notation that is entirely Van Gogh's own.
Garden with Sunflowers 1888

This use of tiny shapes, linked in their almost riotous accumulation but each distinct from its neighbour, is the basis of some of his most powerful and exquisite drawings, such as Garden with Sunflowers, 1888. Now and then the effect is as fecund and near-dissolute as an unusually good Jackson Pollock. Wild Vegetation, 1889, can only be "oriented" as a landscape by a glimpse of hills behind the tangle of bushes, but it is hardly descriptive at all: what the drawing is about is less the character of leaves, vines and blossoms than the primordial character of making marks.   "

Wild Vegetation 1889

Go to  to read the whole article.


Janis Goodmn said...

After going to that Van Gogh exhibition I actually bought some reed pens from a wonderful art shop in London called Cornellisons, they've all sorts but I've not used them enough - love these drawings Angie !


Thanks Janis, yes it's a great shop, I love just staring at the big glass jars of pure pigment, all those lovely colours. I too purchased some reed pens but actually prefer the ones I make myself from local reeds and any old hollow stems I find on my walks. I've enjoyed seeing your recent photos on facebook by the way.