The reed pen has been used by many great civilisations for writing and drawing for thousands of years. I draw with a common reed (Phragmites australis), which is more fragile than other types of reed and has a porous quality. When used with the right drawing materials it can give an adaptable mark and line that is dark or light, thick or fine.

Van Gogh would have enjoyed the frugality of collecting his own reeds and spending only on ink and paper as he dealt with a limited budget.

Rembrandt, a fellow Dutchman, had his times of penury and of course Holland had a plentiful supply of common reeds.

Reed Cutters, oil on panel, (38x38cm).

I made a series of drawings and paintings of the reed cutters bundling straight, thin reeds for thatching.

How to collect reeds

Look for dormant or dried reeds. Feel towards the base and snap at a knot or joint. Take a small handful. Feel for firmness.

I have found reeds across Europe that I have been able to cut and draw with, mostly along the coastlines. To source your reeds in the UK you will need to go to our coastal wetlands and estuaries. In more urban areas, you may find them growing at man-made lakes or reservoirs. You will find them on the very edge of the reed bed, close to footpaths, not in open water. I hardly ever get my feet wet; a pair of walking boots will suffice. The largest and strongest reeds are often on the edges of the reed bed, but I never venture into the reeds as I do not want to disturb the wildlife.

I always collect a small quantity of reeds for my own use – ten reeds will give you about 30 pens. I incorporate a little bit of foraging for the right type of reeds into my trips to the east coast of England where I go to paint and draw; it gives me a break from my easel, the walking gives me some exercise and, in the winter months, it warms me up after standing and painting for long periods.

You can collect reeds at any time of year, but the winter months are definitely the best time to find them because they are not green and in rapid growth. I look for the thickest reeds by eye and search for the dormant or dried stems, which are ochre or brown in colour, and try to avoid the growing reeds. I feel down the stem of the reed, testing its hardness and snap it at one of its knots or joints close to the base. I try not to disturb the roots.

How to make a reed pen

Step one

Score the reed with a craft knife at a natural knot or joint before snapping. This prevents you from crushing the reed tube.

Step two

Carefully snap the reeds into pen lengths.

Step three

Use a sharp blade and cut away from yourself. Trim or taper your nib to a point.

Step four

You can create a fine point or square end with a simple cut across the end of the nib.

Step five

Cut an incision in the centre of the nib about a quarter of an inch in length.

Step six

Hold your pen like a brush. You can manipulate the pen to create a changing line. Enjoy this abstract mark-making session!

Step seven

You can cut a fine nib or a thick square one. Take care – too much pressure will break the nib.

I take my small bundle of reeds back to the studio where I allow them to dry in my plan chest, but any warm dry place will do. I always lay them flat and I peel off any outer layers before storing them. If any are completely dried out I can cut them to make pens straight away.

Making the pens

I was never shown how to make a reed pen but after some research I was determined to find out its drawing potential. My first efforts were crude and did not work well, but I experimented with different ways of cutting and using different types of ink and paper and sensing, by touch and the look, when an individual reed had potential.

Over the last 30 years I have cut hundreds of pens and have led many courses demonstrating its role in my work. I use it for simple diagram drawing and for ideas for my paintings, but also in my portraits and mixed-media work. It can be used in a life-drawing kit alongside other dip pens or in drawings of architecture, landscape or mixed media.

Paper and ink

I think your first experiments with your newly cut reed pen should be with ink and paper you already have, such as Indian ink, acrylic or even fountain pen ink and standard A4 printing paper, and try it in different dilutions. This will get you started and you will feel less inhibited. Medium weight cartridge paper would be the next step, and then try working with a smooth watercolour paper. I use 90 to 300lb weight paper – I would recommend Bockingford, Somerset or Arches. If you want to experiment further the Khadi Indian coloured rag papers have a thick, coarse watercolour paper that I like to work with.

Non-waterproof Chinese ink is, I think, more malleable and I can remove and adjust some marks with water and a sponge. I mix one part ink to three parts water. You can experiment with different dilutions in small ceramic or glass dishes that you can re-use. China, Japan and India are known for brush and ink drawing. Their knowledge and skill is consummate in this medium and they make the best inks.

First lines and holding the pen

This sheet of abstract marks uses the reed pen, brush washes and pastel in combination. I will always make abstract studies to experiment with the marks before moving on to figurative work.

I mostly draw standing up and have used the reed pens out on location, working on a vertical surface. Start to work on a horizontal or slightly angled plane to begin with, as the pen will flow more consistently when pointing down.

Dip the pen into the ink so the nib is coated. Hold the pen like a brush. You will be able to make a sinuous line – try short staccato lines, or circling lines and dots – your skills will develop with practice and a little patience as you experiment.

A reed pen can be brittle: a jabbing motion and hard pressure will quickly destroy the nib, so aim for a light touch. You may need to re-cut the pen during your drawing session, but that's part of its nature.

After each drawing session I wash the pens in warm soapy water and leave them to dry. If there is a build-up of ink I carefully scratch off the ink layers with a craft knife on the outside and in the reservoir.

Portrait drawings

Portrait studies

My portrait drawings are made from observation and I work with a lighter mixture at the beginning – one part ink to five parts water. I sometimes have a collection of pre-mixed inks of different strengths. The Chinese ink I use is very strong in its neat form, and mixes well with water. I enjoy using white pastel, chalk or even gouache to refine or blot out marks. The drawings take one or two sessions and they can be a good basis for a painting. The wonderful portrait paintings of Graham Sutherland were developed from drawn studies in ink.

Dave Thinking, reed pen and Chinese ink, (25.5x20.5cm).

I used a dilution of one part ink to four parts water, building darker lines by layering. The reed pen is absorbent, giving a transparent line.

Adventures with brush, reed pen and pastel

Black Tree in the Snow, brush, reed pen, Chinese ink and gouache, (25.5x30.5cm).

I made this mixed-media study on location in a friend’s garden in the heart of the Brecon Beacons.

I often make mixed-media drawings on watercolour paper using my reed pen alongside my Chinese brushes and pastels. I like the gestural nature of starting with Chinese brushes and ink washes, working the pastel into the fluid, still wet ink and tempering this with a structural overlay of reed pen lines to define and augment my figurative forms. The reed pen does not clog up in the same way as a steel pen, its porous nature holds the ink well and even if I break the nib, which often happens, I can continue the drawing by cutting a new one.

This article originally featured in the April 2018 issue of The Artist.

Read Sally Bulgin's tribute to Jason, who sadly passed away on Sunday February 19, in the May 2019 issue of The Artist (out on March 22).