I’d like to start by saying that this blog about scraperboard sketching (aka scratchboard) is not for experienced artists who like to work in the ‘traditional’ manner, but it may be of interest if you want to try a different approach. Whilst I’ve been a professional illustrator and graphic designer for 30-odd years I’ve only recently started using scraperboard. I’d like to share with you my take on this fantastic medium.
If you are reading this I assume you are a creative person, and the beauty of scraperboard is that you don’t have to be a budding Leonardo to make an interesting picture (Da Vinci not Dicaprio!) The important thing is to find what works best for you and what you enjoy doing the most. For me, coming across the woodcuts of William Blake was a revelation that opened my mind to new possibilities. When I said ‘traditional’, I meant that the lines conform to certain artistic conventions, but Blake was more free in his approach:
This white line technique is essentially the same as the way you work with black scraperboard. The picture below was my first attempt using the medium (although for most of my life on and off I have worked with linocutting). The actual execution only took a few hours – the preparation took longer – i.e. going to my local beach to take pictures and then sketching the chosen composition onto the scraperboard:
The reason it took a few hours is partly because I am confident when I work, and I like to get the essentials down quickly and worry about ‘mistakes’ later, or leave them in (up to you, it’s your picture). It’s also because I use the scraperboard technique for sketching rather than working steadily to build up evenly spaced lines in the way many artists do. Please note: I am not denigrating this excellent technique, I’m only suggesting another method.
The beauty of scraperboard is that if you are unhappy with a line, just draw over it with a graphic pen or brush. You can also use the pen to create the image – this is a smaller picture I am currently working on which required a bold white sky with dark trees over it. I could have spent hours scraping away the sky and leaving black branches, but drawing the branches over a roughly scraped sky is more arresting, and is achieved much more rapidly:
Tools and materials
For making marks I use surgical scalpels by Swann-Morton with a 10a blade for fine lines and a 15 for wider lines. I like them because they are very sharp (they are designed to cut through bodies!) and you can readily obtain large packs of blades from Boots the Chemist or online. I know other people use X-Acto craft knives (make sure you get a parent or guardian’s permission to use a scalpel if you are a child).
Don’t use the blades that come with scraperboard packs – I personally think they are very poor tools.
Don’t buy the ‘engraving art’ kits you can get – the black film flakes off and is horrible to use.
Do buy Essdee scraperboard, or Ampersand Scratchbord (although I don’t think the extra expense for the latter makes much difference). You can get white scraperboard, but I didn’t find this as satisfying an experience – you basically draw the image and then scrape away at the ink (a black line technique).
Do use in conjunction with a graphic pen such as a Rotring or Faber Castell, permanent marker or a brush – as long as you use waterproof ink e.g. Indian ink with the brush (the reason for this will become evident below).
This is optional, as the black and white scraperboard image is usually very striking without the need to add colour. When I first started colouring scraperboard, I scanned the black and white image and added colour using an image editing programme, in my case Adobe Photoshop. I didn’t find this very satisfying, so I tried watercolours and found I liked the vivid colour they produced. I know you can get inks specifically designed to use with scraperboard, but aside from the extra expense of doing this, most people have access to watercolours of some description. I also like the fact that you can use them very flexibly; they don’t adhere well if you use too much water, but you can work over them and remove them with a wet brush or soft cloth very easily.
What to illustrate? I get my inspiration from the countryside around me and the places I visit, but you may get yours from vacuum cleaners or the remains of Sunday lunch – it doesn’t matter! I’m also inspired by woodcut artists rather than scraperboard artists – for example Eric Ravilious, Gertrude Hermes, Paul Nash, Gustave Doré and M. C. Escher.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – sometimes ‘happy accidents’ can add interest to a picture and help to create an image that the viewer’s imagination can engage with. Change or edit an image or view you are creating to suit your composition. Find your own style and choose subjects that interest you.
You can see my scraperboard work here – they include a wide range of subjects and might give you some inspiration!