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Pen & Ink
Ink drawing with metal nib pen by Burne-Jones, as seen through the microscope. The field of view is 3/4" in diameter.

Pen & Ink

A union of opposites, pen and ink wash drawings combine sinuous fine lines with broad washes, the latter often difficult to distinguish from watercolor in a finished drawing. Pens have evolved from reed and quill to metal nibs like that used in the detail at the left.


Although today inks are available in a rainbow of colors, historically they were produced only in black, brown, or subtly tinted variations. Composed of very fine pigments or dyes in a solution of water and gum arabic or animal glue, ink must be intense in tone yet thin enough to flow through the point of a pen. The oldest black inks are iron gall and carbon black. Iron gall ink, derived from a chemical reaction between iron compounds and the tannin in oak tree gall nuts, gradually fades from black to brown. The corrosive nature of iron gall ink can also cause the underlying paper to discolor or deteriorate. The more permanent carbon black ink, such as Chinese or Indian ink, is colored with fine particles from charred wood or burned lamp oil. Two traditional brown inks are bister, a luminous, transparent ink; and sepia, an opaque wash extracted from the secretion of the cuttlefish. Formulas for bistre, made from the soluble tars in wood soot, were recorded as early as the fifteenth century, whereas sepia became fashionable in the late eighteenth century. Often the term sepia, when used to identify inks of earlier periods, refers to their brown tone rather than genuine sepia ink composition.


Inks and pens have evolved since antiquity, allowing the artist to produce a crisp yet graceful line. By the fifteenth century, quill pens were preferred over reed pens for the delicate calligraphy and illustrations in Medieval manuscripts as well as for drawings by many of the Old Masters. Quills from the pinion feathers of the goose, swan, raven and crow were highly esteemed, producing responsive lines that glided across the textured surface of handmade papers. Although many artists continued to prefer quill pens throughout the nineteenth century, by the middle of the century pens with interchangeable steel nibs were used widely. This development was accompanied by the manufacture of smooth-surfaced paper that was able to withstand the vigorous scoring of the sharp metal points.

Shown above are a quill pen, metal nib pen, and a bamboo pen (similar to a reed pen), along with their characteristic ink lines.


Examples from the Collection


“I rose up in the silent night; I made my dagger sharp and bright”
“I rose up in the silent night; I made my dagger sharp and bright”, c. 1859-1860
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, English
Pen and black ink with scratching out over graphite on wove paper
Sheet: 5 × 5 3/4 inches (12.7 × 14.6 cm)
Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, 1991
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In this diminutive image by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (measuring less than 5 x 6 inches), the fine pen work in black ink creates a wealth of pattern to describe forms and textures with precise detail. The sharpness of the metal pen point is evident in the darkest passages where repeated passes of the pen nib have roughened the paper surface giving it a velvety quality. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the artist sought graphic clarity and minute detail, as well as having a preference for Romantic and Literary subjects. This drawing is inspired by "The Sisters," a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson about a young woman's vengeful murder of her sister's lover.


Haystacks, 1888
Vincent Willem van Gogh, Dutch
Reed and quill pens and brown ink over graphite on wove paper
Sheet: 9 1/2 × 12 1/2 inches (24.1 × 31.8 cm)
The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1962
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The harvest in Arles, with its haystacks and light-filled atmosphere is a recurring theme in Vincent van Gogh's drawings and paintings. Van Gogh animated this drawing of haystacks with short blunt repetitive strokes of brown ink, using this personal calligraphy to express both texture and form. The larger haystack is constructed of short pale curved strokes overlaid with darker vertical lines and emphatic spots in the darkest ink. Variations in ink intensity could result from a more or less heavily charged pen or possibly from fading from exposure to light. Compare these blunt-ended strokes of fairly uniform width produced with the reed pen to the more sinuous fine lines made by the responsive quill in William Blake's A Destroying Deity. Although quill pens had largely replaced reed pens by medieval times, from time to time the powerful strokes produced by the reed pen have been preferred by modern artists. While in France, van Gogh wrote that he had discovered excellent reeds for pen and ink drawing."My drawings are made with a reed that is cut like a quill pen. I want to do a series like this. It's a process that I experimented with in the Netherlands some years ago, but I didn't have as good quality reeds as I do here."


A Destroying Deity
A Destroying Deity, c. 1820-1825
William Blake, English
Pen and brush and black ink and wash, with watercolor and graphite on wove paper
Sheet: 8 1/8 × 11 3/4 inches (20.6 × 29.8 cm)
Gift of Mrs. William Thomas Tonner, 1964
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A gifted and prolific artist as well as poet, William Blake often drew imposing figures placed within a shallow stage, as in A Destroying Deity, the subject of which has never been precisely determined. The flowing black ink lines, applied here over a preliminary graphite sketch, suggests the flexible handling of a quill pen as it defines the contours of the figure and the finer details of the face and wings. To create shape and volume the artist applied ink washes with broad brushstrokes, using subtle tints and touches of blue and red watercolor in the wings and lips to enliven the forms. The placement of the hands in the original graphite drawing was subtly adjusted by the ink lines, leaving the graphite to echo the forms and enrich the drawing. Other subordinate details, such as the spiral twists of his tridents and the small figures beneath the deity's wings, were merely suggested by the graphite, enhanced with an occasional ink line.


Beanstalk, Date unknown
John Ruskin, English
Pen and yellow-brown ink and wash, graphite pencil, and touches of white opaque watercolor on wove paper
Sheet: 7 3/4 x 11 1/8inches (19.7 x 28.3cm)
Purchased with The Herbert & Nannette Rothschild Memorial Fund in memory of Judith Rothschild, 1995
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An author on subjects ranging from architecture to social reform, John Ruskin was regarded as the pre-eminent art critic of his time. Ruskin also wrote three artists' manuals, including "The Elements of Drawing", 1857, in which he advocated carefully drawn studies from nature such as Beanstalk seen here. This drawing is a beautiful example of the fine lines and delicate tones that can be produced with pen and ink and graphite pencil. Golden brown ink delineates the entire image, especially the veins of the leaves, and is most clearly visible in the tendrils at right. Ruskin further defines the stalk and leaves with faint strokes of black ink and graphite pencil, while additional touches of opaque white watercolor enhance the elegant forms of the leaves.

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