Why Scratchboard is My Favorite Type of Art

I talked briefly about scratchboard in my last post. But I held back my full enthusiasm for the medium when I realized I had more than enough to talk about for a full post. So if you have no idea what scratchboard is, perfect! This post is for you. But if you already have a good understanding of scratchboard, even better. I’m here to indoctrinate you.

What is Scratchboard?

First scratchboard piece

“Reach Out,” my first scratchboard piece

Scratchboard, other than one of my favorite media, is simply a board (or paper) coated with black ink. Using a blade or other sufficiently sharp tool, you create an image by scraping away the black surface to reveal the white underneath. It’s drawing in reverse, penciling in lights instead of darks.

I started working with scratchboard in high school, thanks to a super brief unit in one drawing class. Since then, I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me to continue working in this uncommon medium, sneaking me new tools and gifting me a real scratchboard (as opposed to the cheaper paper we used in class).

My first scratchboard piece was overdone, meaning I’d scratched too hard into the surface and cut up the layer underneath. It’s not too obvious unless you know what you’re looking for; the white areas are greyer and more textured than they should be. I also took to the piece as I would a pen illustration, using bold white outlines that don’t make full use of scratchboard’s potential. But even after all this time, I do still appreciate the waves and flames in this piece.

After my first experience with the medium, I began finding ways to incorporate scratchboard into my art assignments and even when I couldn’t, continued to experiment at home. In the process, I spent lots of time practicing values, carefully considering light sources, and discovering how much detail this medium could really capture. Hint: far more than any of the pieces in this post.

But not everyone likes scratchboard and it does have a learning curve. Here’s the best and the worst of scratchboard:

Scratchboard Pros

Scratchboard allows for SO. MUCH. DETAIL. I’ve already linked to Heather Lara‘s art – now twice – because it’s amazing. This artist is pretty swell too, producing realistic work in the same vein, but mostly sticking to black and white. If you want as much detail as possible, this might be the medium for you.

Scratchboard also seems to be particularly conducive to drawing fur, although this is just my opinion. I’ve found that human skin requires smoother and more skillful line work in order to keep a face from looking like a checkerboard. You tell me which looks easier:

Maybe I’m just more confident with fur.

Working in scratchboard requires you to really focus on light, shadow and precision. I find it to be a fun and exciting challenge, something to break up the monotony of only paint or pencil. But describing scratchboard as a “break” from drawing and painting might be deceptive because it certainly isn’t easy.

Scratchboard Cons

Scratchboard is unforgiving and this was the biggest challenge I had to overcome. Any mistake you make is engraved on the page in bright white. Everyone can see it. No erasing. No turning back.

Not being able to erase also makes planning your composition more difficult.You can’t just sketch out your idea and erase the stray lines later. For someone like me, whose drawing style is extremely sketchy (haha?), scratchboard felt completely unnatural at first.

But this doesn’t mean you have to completely wing it. Many artists sketch on a separate piece of paper, place it over their scratchboard, then draw over their sketch again with pen. Doing so creates a slight mark in the scratchboard – enough to give you a very precise guide, though one that’s hard to see. You can also sketch directly onto your scratchboard with pencil, as long as you keep it very light. Unfortunately, if you need to erase those pencil lines later, just know that your eraser can leave faint marks on the black surface.

However if you’ve made a mistake, not all is lost! It is possible to cover up your mistake with black ink (although it won’t look completely untarnished).

scratchboard Cinnamon Window portrait

So not being able to erase or sketch directly onto the surface is a pretty big con. But one more point I’ll mention is that scratchboard is time-consuming, perhaps even more so since mistakes are so costly. Almost all of my scratchboard pieces are very small, with the moon and raven pieces being the largest at 14″ x 11″. But I pick up my X-Acto knife anyway and find that the satisfaction of completing a piece is well worth the effort.

How to Get Started

Despite the challenges that come with scratchboard, I took an immediate liking to it. Maybe this was because of my perfectionist, hyper detail-oriented personality. But no matter your personality, I’d absolutely encourage you to try it once. If you’re interested, here’s what you’ll need:

Sketching Materials

You can use any pencil to very lightly sketch your idea on the scratchboard before sketching – just be careful. You can also use tracing paper, place it over your scratchboard and use a pen of your choice to draw over your lines and leave a light imprint on your scratchboard.

It’s also not a bad idea to get some black construction paper and white colored pencils to practice and flesh out ideas. You likely won’t get the same intensity of white with these practice materials, so in addition to helping you plan, it’ll be all more the exciting to see the difference when you transfer your colored pencil sketch to scratchboard.

Of course, you can always dive in and wing it.

Tools

There are a number of options for scratch tools made specifically for scratchboard. These have a handle and generally a few different options for the tip, providing different textures and shapes.

You can get a school grade scratch art set here (this is actually the same tool I used in high school!). I have a fancier handle now with newer tips, which you’d be able to purchase at any art supplies store.

However my tool of choice now is a simple X-Acto Knife. It’s easy to find, stays sharp longer, and allows me to produce the finest amount of detail I’ll ever need.

You don’t have to limit yourself. I’ve tried paper clips, coins, pins and thumbtacks on scratchboard. A mini scratchboard set I found at Barnes & Noble came with a little wooden stake. Anything that can make a mark is fair game. Once you’ve gotten a feel for how scratchboard works, you can begin to guess what might work as a tool. This part is fun, but of course, you might not get the same control you had with an X-acto knife or scratch tools. Experiment!

Surfaces: Boards and Paper

If you’re just starting out, scratchboard paper is essential. Even if you want to go straight to an actual board, paper is nice to have for practice. Colored pencils on construction paper might be fine for sketching out your idea, but it’ll never give you a feel for the different textures and strokes you’ll be making on scratchboard. This is my go-to paper; it’s a decent quality and isn’t too costly. Most of the time I cut the sheets down to a smaller size, so the pack lasts longer.

As for boards, I use Ampersand, mostly because it’s widely available in the US. There are a good variety of sizes to choose from too. I favor the smaller sizes that come in packs of three. I’ve actually never used any other board, but Dick Blick has a long list of options.

scratchboard Smokey dog portrait

I hope this post has sparked some interest in scratchboard. Contrary to what I’ve shown here, scratchboard isn’t limited to hyper-realism, and I’ve experimented with more abstract compositions as well. So while I doubt I’ll ever stop etching scratchboard miniatures of my dogs, I’m excited to discover where to take my scratchboard next.

scratchboard edge gender

Edge exhibit

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