The "Joys" of a Difficult Medium

I have sat at an art festival with my wares, watching as buyers and looky-loos admire the oils, watercolors and sculptures of my tented neighbors. I have watched them oooh over jewels and aaah over fiber. And I have watched as their faces fall—and puzzle, and sometimes even scowl—while they appraise my works on scratchboard. They seldom cross the threshold into my booth. They whisper to their friend, “what is that?”, and their friend shrugs and shakes her head. Then they move on.

It’s challenging to work in a difficult medium. Most people do not know what scratchboard is. They don’t know how it is created or how to categorize it in their minds. It isn’t paint. It isn’t pencil. It isn’t printmaking. So is it art? Scratchboard seems to baffle people. And people don’t like to be baffled. I have considered changing the description of what I do to “Ink Etchings”. This really is the closest approximation I can make in order to accurately title it. But at the end of the day, it is what it is, and I must be true to the medium. It is simply “scratchboard”.

If I could create my art in any other medium, for the comfort of art buyers, I might consider it. I have worked in everything under the sun, from pastel to oil to watercolor to ink. But nothing fulfills me quite like scratchboard. I suppose that leaves little else to say about it—scratchboard is my medium. Just like every artist must find their own vision, so too must they find exactly the right medium in which to interpret it. 

And therefore, my first official post on this blog will be a breakdown of what it takes for me to create a work in scratchboard. Perhaps you remember an elementary art class where you had the assignment to scribble colored crayons on paper, cover the scribbles with black crayon, and then scratch though it with a wooden dowel. That’s scratchboard! Many people did this in school, so when describing scratchboard to someone, I usually start with this example. What I do is the grownup version of that. 

I begin with a panel that has been coated with fine white clay, and then coated again with an opaque layer of India Ink. This is my canvas. It is black. And since it is black, I cannot draw the lines of the face, the eyelashes, the contours of the clothing. I can only reveal the highlights. This medium forces the eye to see things in reverse. Instead of drawing the iris of an eye, for example, I must create the whites that surround it, leaving the iris untouched.

There are more scratchboard artists than you may imagine, and most create their art using a variety of tools, such as steel wool, fiberglass brushes (yes, that’s a thing), metal scrapers, etc. But I have limited myself (purposefully) to using only a single Xacto blade. I work my layers, of which there are up to 12 or more in a single artwork, in very precise grid of crosshatching. I want my scratches to be visible when viewed up close. I am seeking a delicate balance between lifelike and graphic. From a distance, my work presents as a photograph, but upon inspection you will see the very distinct and hard lines of every crosshatched layer.

Scratchboard is unlike any other medium I have tried. It is confusing, difficult, laborious, and hard to explain. But isn’t that part of what makes it so interesting? What is an artist without a little dose of difficulty? Aren’t we, as artists, difficult people? How many bland and compliant artists do you know? I’m guessing not many. I feel lucky to have found a medium that suits me so well. In fact, I may go so far as to say my medium is an extension of who I am as a person—a dozen shades of gray, hard to understand, not everyone’s cup of tea, pretty from far away, but up close, a carefully arranged grid of chaos.

For one final consideration of scratchboard, think about this: every fully-rendered square inch of one of my finished pieces has an average of 352 lines that have been scratched through it. Yes, I have done the math (I have a love affair with numbers). Therefore, my average 12x16” scratchboard piece, which has 192 square inches, contains 67,584 individually scratched lines. 

You can see in the example I show above (which is, by the way, one of the pieces in my new collection that will be shown on Oct 26th, with thanks to Creative Pinellas) the difference between viewing from afar and viewing up close. This particular piece is 16x20” and contains approximately 112,640 individually scratched lines. Not that you were counting.