Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Elephant No. 241: Bamboo Reed Pen

I discovered a container of bamboo reed pens in an art store a couple of days ago. I didn't know there was such a thing, so of course I felt compelled to buy one.

Reed pens have been used for centuries in cultures all over the world. Pens with split nibs have been found in Ancient Egyptian sites dating as far back as the fourth century B.C., and pens made with various reeds, including bamboo, were widely used in China, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean basin.

A reed pen is often known as a calamus—a term derived from words in various languages meaning "reed" or "reed pen". These include the Sanskrit kalama, the Hebrew kulmus, the Greek kalamos, the Arabic qalam, the Swahili kalamu, and the Latin calamus.

Although it was unclear to me whether the Greek word came before the others, this story from Greek mythology is the basis for the Greek kalamos. Kalamos and Karpos were two Greek youths who shared a deep friendship. One day, while competing in a swimming contest, Karpos drowned. In his grief, Kalamos allowed himself to drown as well. He was transformed into a water reed, and when the wind rustles the reeds, it is said to be the sound of Kalamos lamenting his loss.

Reed pens are made by cutting and shaping a reed, often with a split nib and even a small reservoir hole in the nib section. According to various sources, reed pens are stiff and don't retain a point for very long. As a result, goose quills ultimately replaced reed pens for general writing. Reed pens have remained an important tool in calligraphy, however, for their ability to produce bold strokes.

How to cut and shape a reed pen.

Artists apparently like reed pens because the nib can produce rough, scratchy lines, which is appealing in some types of work. Reed pens can also be reshaped with a simple penknife, making it easy to create custom nibs. Using a reed pen is like using any other pen and ink: the nib is dipped in liquid ink, which seeps slowly towards the nib, which is then used to draw a line. 

I'm not very adept with conventional pen nibs, so I had no idea how well I'd do with something like a bamboo reed pen. Some sources say this type of pen should be used with sumi ink or India ink, so I thought briefly about using a sumi inkstick and an inkstone. Then I decided that I would prefer to use coloured ink from a bottle. I chose a violet ink I'd bought last year and never really used. For paper, I used an inexpensive sketchpad paper with a pinky-grey undertone that drove my camera's colour balance nuts.

Because I wanted to draw something fairly realistic, I decided to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

Asian elephant, Arnhem, Netherlands, 2010.
Photo: Foto Martien

I didn't test the pen on anything before I started, so my first lines were somewhat tentative and sketchy.

So far, it was like any other pen nib, although it ran out of ink quickly. This, however, is a bonus for someone like me, because it enabled me to produce dry, scratchy lines.

I began to like the reed pen a lot. It's probably the only medium I've tried so far that allowed me to create effective elephant wrinkles. Everything else I've tried makes lines that are too heavy or too sharp, necessitating either filling everything in, or leaving just a hint of wrinkles. The reed pen, however, allows for a fine underlay of sketchy colour, almost like using a pencil—but with ink.

I also liked that it allowed me to make heavier lines, as well as cross-hatching that ranged from delicate to bold. Varying the pressure with which I applied the pen made a big difference in creating these effects, and I think the absorbent quality of the inner bamboo may help produce a much softer line than a metal nib.

I'd have to say that, all in all, this was my favourite drawing medium so far. I thought I'd hate this pen—mostly because I'm not great with any other kind of pen—but I really loved the different effects I could create without a great deal of effort. 

From start to finish, this drawing took me about 45 minutes, and I quite like it. Reed pens are definitely going to become part of my drawing kit. I may even learn how to make them myself.

Elephant Lore of the Day
This rather sweet story comes from Belfast, Ireland, during the Second World War. German bombs had targeted the city's shipyards among other industrial installations; unfortunately, the Belfast Zoo was located near the shipyards.

The constant noise and percussive force of the bombs was a source of deep distress to the zoo's animals—especially to an Asian elephant named Sheila. A young zookeeper named Denise Austin noticed that Sheila was becoming a nervous wreck. Denise decided to take Sheila home with her each night, allowing her to keep an eye on the traumatized elephant.

Although photographs had been taken of Sheila in the Austin garden at the time, it wasn't until many years later that the full story became known.

The head keeper, Dick Foster, would never have allowed Sheila to be taken from the zoo. Luckily, he was an extremely punctual man, arriving at exactly 9:00 a.m. every morning, and leaving at exactly 5:00 p.m. every evening. Denise Austin simply waited five minutes after he had left, then took Sheila home with her.

Sheila followed Denise like a pet dog, and made herself at home in the family's large walled garden. During night-time bombing raids, Denise stood beside Sheila, rubbing her ears and talking to her until the all-clear was sounded.

Denise Austin and her mother Beatrice with Sheila, 1941.

Everything went well for 18 months. Sheila calmly walked the 400 yards to Denise's home almost every night, and became a familiar sight in the neighbourhood. One day, however, a small dog started barking at Sheila as Denise led her back to the zoo.

In response, Sheila raised her ears, lifted her trunk, trumpeted loudly, and tore off after the dog. She ploughed through front gardens and destroyed fences, heedless of any attempt to stop her. Denise still managed to get Sheila back to the zoo before Mr. Foster arrived, but there were complaints, and Sheila was put in a cage to which Mr. Foster had the only key.

Despite the rather public nature of Sheila's escapade, Foster kept no records of it. Denise Austin died in 1997, and the story might have died with her, had she not kept photographs that finally became public in 2009.

Sheila in the road near the Austin home, with Denise's father and neighbour
John Montgomery, 1941.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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