Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Elephant No. 290: Scratchboard

Although I've tried the kind of sgraffito that involves applying black paint over a crayon base and scratching through the black to make a design, I've never tried using an actual black-and-white scratchboard before.

Scratchboard art is made by scratching sharp blades and other tools into a special board. The most common type of scratchboard is composed of a thin layer of white China clay coated with black India ink, although scratchboards can also be made with several layers of coloured clay. With this type of scratchboard, the pressure of the tool determines the colour that appears.

Modern scratchboard art developed in the nineteenth century in Britain and France, largely as a replacement for more cumbersome illustration methods such as linocuts, woodcuts, and metal engraving. Because the technique allowed for such fine lines and details, it could be photographically reduced without losing quality. From the 1930s to the 1950s, it was commonly used in medical, scientific and commercial illustration.

Goldrush by Gary Alphonso.

To create a scratchboard image, the artist often uses techniques from engraving, such as cross-hatching and stippling. In addition to scratching away the top surface with a fine blade or a special scratch tool, some artists clear away larger areas with materials such as sandpaper and steel wool. Sometimes these large areas are then overpainted with watercolours, acrylics, or even an airbrush.

Highly detailed scratchboard art can have tens of thousands of individual scratches. Some artists even reapply India ink in specific areas. This allows them to scratch through again, in order to create very fine detail.

Big cat by Cristina Penescu.
This artist often reapplies India ink, allowing her to rescratch certain areas.

Today, scratchboard is making something of a comeback, with outstanding works produced in art, commercial illustration and graphic novels.

Illustration by Beth Krommes from The House in the Night (2008),
written by Susan Marie Swanson. The yellow highlights were added afterwards.

For today's elephant, I bought a package of 10 black-on-white scratchboards at the art store for about twelve dollars.

I also bought this little scratching tool.

Because I like the realistic scratchboard drawings I've seen, I decided to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

African elephant.

I started by making a light pencil sketch, then scribed bits of the main outlines.


Next, I began scratching in some lines and shading. This gave me a feel for the scratchboard and the tool. I noticed a few things:

1. The scratch tool works best if you hold it nearly perpendicularly/vertically to the board.

2. If you want fine lines, the tool works best if you flick gently away from yourself.

3. For all other types of lines, you have to scratch quite hard, and it's a good idea to wipe the tip frequently to keep the tool at its most effective.

4. The china layer underneath is very shiny and hard—almost like glazed porcelain—and doesn't seem to be gouged by the tool.

After this, I more or less hatched my way across the drawing. I was reluctant to scratch away any particular area too much, but I did find the scratching tool quite interesting in creating the wrinkly surface of an elephant.

I also discovered that, if the tool ran across the surface but didn't scratch away the black, it left a dark black mark in the surface. You can only see this when you look closely, but it annoyed me.

It took me a little over an hour to produce the final elephant—part of which was spent just getting the hang of the materials. One thing I found a little difficult was figuring out whether the scratched lines were positive or negative. Was I going to use the white lines in the same way as black pencil lines, or should I scratch away everything but areas of black and grey? I'm not sure I ever really made a decision, but I think I tended mostly to use the scratch tool as a pencil, making the image more like a negative than a positive.

The final piece turned out better than I expected, although it's not as detailed as I originally envisaged. On the other hand, there's only so much you can do in an hour or two. I didn't love the technique, partly because of the whole negative/positive thing, but I liked it enough that I'm sure I'll try it again at some point.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Lizzie the elephant was justifiably famous during the First World War for doing her part to help the war effort.

Because many of England's horses were conscripted by the military to serve in Europe, Lizzie was purchased from the Sedgwick travelling menagerie to work at Thomas Ward's munitions works in Sheffield. Able to pull the same weight as three horses, Lizzie proved herself an able assistant.

Lizzie was stabled near the factory, and soon became well-known around town for her many feats of strength. She tirelessly hauled loads of iron and scrap metal, and ultimately became Thomas Ward's most valued employee. She also became a beloved city mascot. There are numerous anecdotes told of Lizzie, including possibly apocryphal stories of her sticking her trunk through a kitchen window to grab a snack, eating a schoolboy's cap, and pushing over a traction engine.

Photo: Lizzie
Lizzie hauling metal for Thomas Ward, ca. 1916.

No one seems to be quite sure what happened to Lizzie following the First World War. There is a report that she may have pushed a train engine out of the snow in some years later. Another story suggests that Thomas Ward kept her on for several years at the factory until the cobblestones became too hard on her feet and she was retired. Still other reports suggest that she may have been returned to circus life, or perhaps a zoo.

Either way, Lizzie earned herself a lasting place in Sheffield history. To this day, there is a Sheffield saying that if something is very heavy, "It's like Tommy Ward's elephant!" There is even a city bus named after her. Bearing the registration number YJ54 UXP, the "Lizzie Ward" and regularly plies city streets—just as Lizzie herself once did.

Photo: Lizzie Ward Sheffield bus
The Sheffield Community Transport bus named "Lizzie Ward".

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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