I’ve been taking a break from color lately and revisiting one of my favorite mediums. Scratchboard is the “red haired stepchild” to the venerable etching, one of the most popular reproduction mediums in the artistic world. Instead of requiring a metal plate, block of wood or (more recently) plexiglass and ready access to lots of dangerous chemicals, today’s scratchboard consists of a clay ground affixed to board or heavy paper and coated with india ink. You scrape away at the india ink to expose the underlying clay, and – voila! – scratchboard’s incredible detail. You can use anything to scrape away at the india ink- Xacto blades, specialized tools, steel wool, a dremel, an awl, a nail (I actually know a fellow student in college who did an entire board with a thumbtack), etc, etc – anything that will remove the ink without digging too deeply into the clay. I have been fascinated by this medium since high school, when my first attempt at a scratchboard of a girl and a row of 18th century buildings (it was very “Interview With the Vampire”) won a major prize in a regional art competition. As the years have passed, it’s a medium I have returned to often, usually with a sigh of relief and great enjoyment. My college thesis project was a full portfolio in scratchboard, and I will never forget the many comments made by gallery patrons (beware what you say in an art gallery – the artist may be standing right next to you!) as they all stepped forward to stare at the thousands of little hatchmarks that make up each image. I heard lots of things like “I would go crazy!” and “Who has the patience for that?” and “Who is insane enough to attempt 24 x 36 scratchboards?” I must confess I wondered the same thing as I worked on some of those damn pieces… scratch, scratch, scratching away frantically through the night.
To me, scratchboard is an exercise in zen. I can think of no other medium that is so meditative and soothing as you work, sitting with a shining black board picking away at details. Hair patterns, thread counts, textures, leaves, grass, fur, feathers – these things lend themselves superbly to scratchboard. I have found that by starting with a white clayboard and inking it myself, I have better control over how the ink will react to the blade, and I can get some effects that are harder to achieve on a commercially prepared board.
There are some truly legendary scratchboard artists out there who have pushed the medium beyond the traditional black and white by adding color or incorporating the technique into paintings, drawings and the like. Their innovation has inspired me to try new techniques, such as the one I am testing out for “Tempest”. Instead of using blades to remove the surface ink, I am using small bits of sandpaper, steel wool and fiberglass to “draw” through to the clay surface. I’ve only spent about an hour or two on it, but so far I am very pleased with the effect.