TUTORIAL - Draw and Sketch Like The Old Masters - by NR43


Tutorial: Draw and sketch like the old masters

Ever wonder how the old masters did their quick sketches or concept drawings?

Nowadays we use computers or our ever best friend the pencil, but 4-500 years ago there was no such thing as a pencil so artists had to use different tools to put their ideas and studies on paper.

Open up a book with sketches from Rubens, Rembrandt,… and you will often see the word “chalk”, “feather” or “pen”. Chalk -which was very often used (brown, red, white,…)- and feather speak for themselves but what exactly is meant by “pen”?

Surely it’s not a pen like we know them, with a tube or a spong-ish material serving as an ink container.

They used what is called in dutch a “rietpen”. I don’t know the English word but for our own ease let’s call it a “cane pen”.

It’s made from a small piece of cane or bamboo. Any other wooden stick that is “hollow” on the inside will do. You could buy a cane pen in a decent art store but why spend money on this when your wife/girlfriend/mother surely has one of those cane sticks lying around her basement somewhere in case she has another plant to tie too so it will grow straight up? And aren’t we artists? We looove making things ourselves now don’t we…


Chapter 1: Making the cane pen

Step 1: preparation

 Here's how we make this lovely tool in just a couple of minutes...

What we need:
[li]a bamboo/cane stick with a diameter of about 1cm.[/li][li]A dremel with a cutting disk (a sharp cutter knife won’t work and is too dangerous anyway. The sticks are very hard on the outside and have a very soft spongy core, which makes it very easy to make a mistake and end up with a very deep cut in one of your fingers or even worse…)[/li][li]protective glasses (you only have 2 eyes) and clothing[/li][/ol]Warning:

A dremel can be a very dangerous machine if not used properly. Always protect your eyes and body before using it!

I cannot be held responsible for anyone hurting him- or herself, or someone in his or her very near neighbourhood, or for damage brought by you to any object within close distance of you when using your machine. Do this at your own risk, work in a safe environment under safe circumstances.

Step 2:

Cut off a piece of the stick, about the length of a pen or a bit longer, say 15 to 20 cm

Step 3:

Make 2 cuts at the edge of the stick, about 1 cm long – 1mm deep and under a slight angle. Don’t go too deep yet as this is just to define the shape of the piece that has to be removed in order to get a pointy tip.

Step 4:

Turn around the stick 180° so the 2 carves are unvisible. First make a small groove, paralell to the edge of the stick. Then change the angle and “connect” the small groove to the first edge of 1cm we had created in step 3. Do the same on the other side and you will get sort of a U-shape.

Step 5:

Continue to cut along the U-shape very gently until you can remove the piece with your hand. Be careful not to overdo because you might cut too deep and end up damagint the tip of the pen.

This is what you should get:

Step 6: cleaning up the tip

Clean up the inside and the shape of the tip with the dremel by gently sliding the disk towards the tip. Make sure the back and the top edge of the tip is flat and straight so the whole width of the tip is usable when drawing or writing.

Remove all sharp edges so you can’t cut yourself with your pen. Be very gentle when shaping the side of the pen because using too much force can screw things up completely.

All done:

Here’s some text to test the pen; The flowers were my daughter’s idea ^^


[left]Chapter 2: preparing the bistre.

What is Bistre?

Please find a nice explanation at wikipedia.org

Bistre is available in every good art store, most likely in dry form but some stores may sell it in liquid form. It’s remarkably cheap. I paid 0,99 Euro for the small container seen in below image, which is good for many hours of sketching fun. Let’s assume we got the powder and not the drink (ahum)

What else do we need?[/left]
[li]We need some small jars or bowls to put the bistre in, preferably jars with a lid so you can save your bistre for later use. It’s a good idea to label the first jar with a permanent marker; Call it something like “Master” or “original”. We want to keep our darkest shade in this master jar and derive all our lighter shades from this one.[/li]

[li]Put a bit of bistre powder in the master jar and add about just as much warm (not hot) water to it. Use your brush and stir the mixture for a couple of minutes so all the flakes have disolved.[/li][li]Grab a piece of paper. [/li]
I prefer 200gr 36cm x 27cm sketching paper because it can take a bit of moisture thanks to it’s thickness. Use a 10 to 15 size brush and paint on the paper using the master color.
[li]If you think it’s value is too light, add more bistre powder. Check again and add more until you are satisfied.[/li][li]If you think the master color’s value is too dark, add a bit more water. Check again and add more water until you are satisfied.[/li][/ol][/left]
[left]Here’s what I got… I’m pretty happy with this for now and if I would want more shades I would just have to take an extra jar, put some of the master (or the 2nd shade for that matter) mixture in it and add a bit of water until I’m satisfied.

[img]http://users.telenet.be/nr43/images/tutorials/bistre/image_10_resize.JPG[/img] Just an old rag, a jar with clear water to clean our brush and some paper needed now and we're all set to have fun the old fashioned way :D

[b]Some additional info:[/b]

[li]bistre will wash off, in case you mess up your best suit in a prolific whim[/li][li]descriptions of old drawings often say “washed”, which refers to the usage of bistre with a brush, the shading.[/li][li]this is a medium with a very low viscisity so it’s best to keep your sheet horizontal when sketching, unless you intend to have your moisture drip off the paper.[/li][li]Using bistre can be quite challenging. The best way to exercise is to force yourself to get your strokes and lines right from the first time. If you start “correcting” things will get messy. Your paper might loosen, your sketch might be screwed up. Keep practicing is the key here and after a while you will see the effect of these exercises on your drawings and paintings using other media. One could see it a bit like a simplified version of aquarel painting. Same principles count except there are no different colors, only values.[/li][li]Example(s) from old masters:[/li]
Rembrandt van Rijn
[left]— Well that’s it. If you have suggestions and/or remarks concerning this tutorial just reply to this thread. I hope you like using bistre as much as I do and I invite you to post images of drawings and sketches you made with this medium here or in your own sketchbook threads.

Have Fun Creating!


So I made a few sketches today using my brand new cane pens and bistre.

These are after Rembrandt, who made hundreds, if not thousands of this type of sketches.
The great thing about this medium is you can experiment anyhow you like, it’s really quick and if you push yourself to keep your lines and strokes spontane, you get a certain kind of freshness which isn’t often seen anymore these days.

Following sketches are nowhere near the quality of the originals they were made after, but I hope they are of any explanatory value to you.

And one I did on the cardboard back of a sketching pad that was all used up. I used some white chalk at the end to lighten things up a bit.

And here’s the final:

Pretty happy with this concidering it took only about 10 minutes to make.

What about you? If you got any simular drawings or sketches, I kindly invite you to post them here or in your own sketchbook thread…


This last one could be referred to as follows:

“brown ink and brown wash, heightened with white chalk on grey cardboard.”

Books with drawings and sketches from old masters often have simular descriptions


Oh yes ohh yess O
Thanks for sharing, I’ll surely try this technique too! (Cheap and artistic? That’s COOL!)


Ooh! I wondered what kinds of lines you could get with a bamboo/cane pen. Good thing to have. Will have to see about either buying or making one at some point. Thanks for the tutorial.


Thanks for this Johan, it’s great to see the pictures, that’s very helpful. :slight_smile:


Thank you so much for taking the time to show us this…


Oh my, how nice ! :slight_smile:

Thanks for sharing this tutorial. :slight_smile:



the drawings obviously show I’m not a master, but this is one of the tools they used.
…and it sure is fun to experiment with different tools :slight_smile:

I’m going to see an exposition with drawings from the golden century soon (next week or so)
It will be full of drawings made with this technique.


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