Lines and Colors art blog

My Pocket Rembrandt

OK, I’ll explain what I mean by that.

I’ve long been an admirer of Rembrandt’s drawings, particularly those done in reed pen, bistre ink and wash (e.g. the image above). (Bistre ink is made by boiling wood soot, often taken from wood-buring chimneys, in water. It produces as yellow-brown, transparent ink that was not favored for writing, but is well suited to drawings with washes.)

In attempting to emulate Rembrandt’s sketching methods (and those of other master ink and wash draughtsmen), I’ve even made my own reed pens (moderately successfully) and bistre ink (unsuccessfully); but eventually settled on modern tools, a steel nibbed pen like a Hunt/Speedball 108 and washes of modern sepia-colored drawing inks, or other brown or red-brown inks (as opposed to real cuttlefish sepia, which can be problematic).

There are more interesting drawing inks appearing in recent years, like Walnut Ink and Noodler’s Drawing Inks, but I haven’t tried them yet.

So for a while I was carrying around a sketching kit of a sketchpad, pen holders and points, a bottle of ink, a bottle of wash, a watercolor brush, rinsing water and a wiping cloth. Perhaps comparable to what the old guys carried around, but more awkward than a modern portable pocket watercolor kit.

I wanted something I could stick in my pocket and have with me to sketch at a whim, without the mess and fuss, but I still wanted to sketch in brown line and wash.

After trying various tools, I settled on a couple of Sakura Pigma Micron markers with sepia colored (brown) ink in different sizes, usually 05 and 005, and a Tombow Dual Brush-Pen, “Tan”, #942 (many of the other colors in these markers are too dark to be used for washes).

Sakura Pigma Micron, Tombow Dual Brush-Pen, trathmore Series #400 sketchpads
The Pigma Microns are water-fast once dry, which is almost immediately. I can wash over them at will with the Tombow, which is light enough for relatively light washes, and can be built up a bit with repeated passages. The Pigma Microns can also be used over the wash which results in an interesting bit of bleed and rough line.

The result is a reasonable approximation of ink and wash, as in my drawing below (larger version here), and makes for a simple, easy to carry, no-mess sketch kit that lets me draw in ink and “wash” wherever I go (though the Tombow Brush-Pen is a bit big to casually carry in a pocket).

(BTW, I know I’ve got a lot of nerve posting one of my own drawings with a Rembrandt, but I’ve learned over time how horribly counter-productive it is to be intimidated by others’ work; so I refuse to be intimidated even by the great masters. Inspired, yes, intimidated, no.)

Rittenhouse Square lion - Charley ParkerFor a nice off-white suface, on which the brown ink lines and washes look great, I use Strathmore Series #400 sketchpads. They have a nice paper with a slight tooth that takes light washes well, and are slim enough at 24 sheets to slip into a pocket or case easily. (I also use Moleskine Cahier softbound sketchbooks, which are even thinner, about the size and appearance of a U.S. passport.)

While I’m at it, I’ll recommend a good book on pen and ink drawing: Rendering in Pen and Ink by Arthur L. Guptill and Susan E. Meyer, and a nice inexpensive book on Rembrandt’s drawings in color (which really makes a difference) is Rembrandt Drawings: 116 Masterpieces in Original Color from Dover Books.

You can also look for Rembrandt drawings in color on the terrific web site Rembrandt van Rijn: Life and Work (see my post on author Jonathan Janson, the Rembrandt site, and the related site, Essential Vermeer).

Here is a larger version of the Rembrandt drawing at the top of the article, and another Rembrandt ink and wash drawing that I just love.

There are other variations on portable ink and wash drawing, of course; a nice fountain pen with waterproof ink and a Niji Waterbrush, in which you could carry your own mixture of wash, would be more flexible, but a bit more trouble.

I’ve been happy though, with the portability and flexibility of my “Pocket Rembrandt”, and the wonderful character halfway between drawing and painting produced when rendering with washes. If you haven’t tried it, pick up a “Pocket Rembrandt” kit and head for the marshes.

[Addendum, 11/11/2012: I’ve recently been experimenting with replacing the Tombow markers, as much as I like them, with more compact Faber-Castell Pitt artist pens (Blick link), specifically the “B” series. These are brush markers that fit more readily in a pocket than the longer Tombows.

I’m experimenting with colors like “Light Flesh” and “Sepia” to find a nice combination of two tones for my washes.]



20 responses to “My Pocket Rembrandt”

  1. You sound like you have the spirit of running in your veins my friend! 🙂

    You see so many simple, yet effective setups for “artist on the go” at sketchcrawl.

    For example, I’ve watch Marc Holmes show up with a small stack of 100# paper (straight from office max), a ball point pen (office max), and two of those pentel watercolor brushes (Japantown, S.F.) that hold the water inside them ( One brush is filled with black ink and one is filled with a fleshy ink/water mixture. Then he does stuff like this:

    I have to admit tho, I do like the tone of the paper you’re selected.

    Happy Sketching!

  2. How nice to see one of your drawings for a change! I like it very much and the effect of those two pens. (And I don’t think it’s a nerve, those old guys were human too!)

  3. Thanks for coming out of the shadows Charley and sharing one of your drawings….Beautifully Done!

  4. That tom bow is FANTASTIC! I have used the number 75 with a black biro to sketch loads of heads, they are brilliant, nice to see you love them too!

  5. looks great charley. have you tried some of the gel pens at they have a great variety of tip sizes and colors. the browns i get with some of them are beautiful.

  6. Richard Rabkin Avatar
    Richard Rabkin

    Walnut Ink has the virtue of being very water soluble (although all fountain pen ink is somewhat water soluble). I use it in an old fountain pen I had. Going over it with plain water from a water pen, it can create it’s own wash and can be almost completely removed (depending on the paper: hot-pressed is the best.) If you put down a line and go over it with water, the image looks more like a watercolor in that there is a gradation into the line from inside the form that I like very much. It doesn’t look like ink and wash so much. You can also use another water pen with ordinary bleach in it which will complete remove areas to create hilites that you hadn’t thought about.

    I carry extra ink in a small antique traveling inkwell which I got for about $20 in e-bay from England.

  7. I would also recommend the Faber-Castell PITT brush pen, which comes in a sepia tone. They also have a nice sanguine and range of grays. Also take a look at the Marvy Le-Plume markers, available as water resistant or water-soluble. The Tombow pens I’m fairly certain are dye-based inks, but PITT and Le-Plume are pigmented, FYI.

  8. Richard Rabkin Avatar
    Richard Rabkin

    Walnut ink addendum: the commonly found walnut ink is made by Tom Norton in Cambridge, Ma who also makes a “drawing stick” which is a reed pen (bamboo) with a pen at one end and a sponge brush at the other. The URL below has information and view of the drawing stick. You can click on link to more information. Norton-Design/ecomminktnd.asp

  9. Genuine bistre ink is very difficult to find. Sennelier makes a decent version of it as a shellac based ink in a bottle.

  10. What a helpful post, in so many ways. Thanks for all those links. You’re right that it really helps to see the Rembrandt drawings in color. That ink and wash drawing with the stormy sky is a nice mix of line and tone.

    Fountain pens also work well with brown ink, if you don’t mind the washes dissolving the line. You can get Waterman brown cartridges only in Europe, but the pump refillers let you use sepia water base inks. Schaeffer also makes a brown fountain pen cartridge.

    Please share more of your sketchbooks!

  11. Charley, Ha, I knew we thought alike. I too have to recommend Guptill’s Rendering in Pen and Ink. It is at most libraries for free just waiting for future artists’ to check it out.
    I have been using the Sakura Microns for about five years. Great variety of sizes and relatively inexpensive.
    Going to New York Comic Con?

  12. Fantastically informative post! Great links too, thanks!

  13. nice info man – thanks!

  14. Cameron Pfiffner Avatar
    Cameron Pfiffner

    Yeah, Charley,
    I tried to make bistre as well, boiling the soot from a fireplace chimney for hours on end. The result was nearly imperceptible. Too bad! I’ve also used feathers and reeds as pens. All this was inspired and guided by that James Watrous book on drawing media and techniques.

  15. Run do not walk to the nearest purveyor of Walnut Ink… it’s lovely, rich, interesting to work with in a variety of ways. I’m also a big fan of the Niji waterbrush, which unlike some of the other brush pens I’ve run across, has soft sides, which lets you squeeze gently while you work to increase the flow of water, diluted ink or whatever else you’ve filled it with onto the page. The same feature – used in reverse – lets you draw excess off, giving an overall more watercolor-like experience with a lot more convenience. I love it for subway and street sketches, or anyplace else I have to work with minimal materials.

    At the moment, my sketch kit has one with diluted ink and one with clear water.

    After learning so much at this site, it’s nice to be able to offer something back. Hope it’s useful.

  16. ChrisCP Avatar

    Been using Noodler’s black in a fountain pen (my fave drawing pen), which won’t run when it’s dry. Then a waterbrush and wash of whatever I choose from a 1/2 pan set. Haven’t tried a sepia-ish wash yet, though.

    Noodler’s makes a rainbow of fountain pen inks at this point. I have a small sample of their walnut brown color and I love it in a flex-nibbed pen, but I don’t know how it compares to real walnut ink.

  17. Thanks for sharing this post. I discover your post about a year or two ago, and was immediately inspired to purchase the pens and markers and utilize the technique with great results. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks, Sean. I’m glad to know it was helpful.

      I’ve recently switched from the Tombow markers, which are a bit long to carry conveniently in a pocket, to the Faber-Castell Pitt artist pens; specifically the “B” series which are the brush tip markers:

      I’m trying colors like “Light Flesh” and “Sepia” to look for two colors that give me a range of wash tones.

  18. Rob Hawkes Avatar

    Harvard did a chemical analysis of several of Rembrandt drawings and found they were iron gall inks and not the bister that most of us thought.
    By the way, Kremer Pigments sells a great Bister ink.

    1. Interesting. Thanks, Rob.