Scratch Art FAQ

Q) What is a scratchboard?

A) Scratchboard is a unique artistic medium that allows the artist to think and work in reverse, creating white lines and effects on a black surface as compared with pen and ink, which produces a black line on white paper. Because of this positive/negative reversal, it is easy to create interesting graphic effects that would normally be difficult or nearly impossible to achieve using traditional drawing methods. Some of us may remember creating rough homemade scratchboards in grade school using crayon and India ink; nowadays, high-quality fine-art-grade scratchboards are available, made on ultra-smooth masonite. They are used by commercial and fine artists for all kinds of applications.

Some artists have a hard time finding the masonite boards, and have instead worked on flexible paper scratchboards. These are far less satisfying to work with than the masonite boards, and much less receptive to the tools. Other artists have made their own boards using a variety of materials. An Italian artist, Bianco Walter, made his from cast plaster and India ink. Every material has its own properties and potentials.

Q) What kinds of tools are used for scratching?

A) You can use pretty much anything that is sharp enough to have an effect on the board. The simplest tool is a fine-point stylus, which resembles a quill pen but is meant for scratching or engraving. This tool, used properly, can be made to produce almost any effect (see Nick Baxter's In Times Of War for an example). Other tools can be purchased that are made for scratchboard; there is a kit available with a variety of tools including the simple stylus (which has a removable handle) and a curved replacement blade, which is perfect for clean bold lines or for clearing large areas of white.

Other tools include a fiberglass brush, which can be used for making feathery white brushstrokes on the board; it is a very useful tool which allows for a fair amount of control of feathery effects. The kit also has a random twisty stiff wire brush, some oil-free steel wool (which makes interesting effects, but is tricky to get control) and a thing that looks like a 4 needle flat tattoo needle group. The points are thicker than what we use, and on the scratchboard it creates parallel white lines, perfect for hair and that kind of thing.

Many tattooists used actual tattoo needles, either in combination with these other tools or by themselves. Tattoo needles are not quite as specialized for the purpose as these other imlpements, but can make for some nice effects. Magnums are almost too flexible to scratch any white lines, but can be used for making dark gray tones. However, if you hold a finger part way along the needle shafts to keep them from bending too much, they can be used for some nice crosshatching effects. Some tattoo artists found that needle groups gave them the maximum control over their gradients and shaded areas.

Q) Where can I find these materials?

A) The masonite scratchboards that were used for the majority of the Scratch Art book project are made by Ampersand Art Supply ( They are also available at many retailers, both online and at stores, such as Dick Blick and Hobby Lobby. Many stores have both the boards and tools available. These materials are cheap- you can have the whole suite of tools and a short stack of boards for around $30.

The boards are available in a variety of sizes, but keep in mind that this is a medium that allows for a lot of detail in a small area. The majority of pieces in the Scratch Art book are 5x7" (12x16cm). Although a larger board may seem like fun, once you get started you may find it to be an overwhelming task unless you've warmed up with a few smaller boards to get familiar with the medium.

Q) What if I make a mistake while scratching?

A) You can fix it using India ink or black tattooing ink and a small brush. Keep in mind that the black may not be a perfect match with the black of the board, but this will probably only be visible under close inspection.

Black ink can be used to make other refinements as well. For example, in the Guy Aitchison board "Hyperstar", the subtle gray values in the crystal were adjusted by brushing a diluted ink wash over some of the facets. After this wash dried, some additional light scratching was done over the inked areas to make them look more consistent with the non- inked areas. By doing additional careful scratching around ink repairs, you can make them appear more natural.

Ink can also be used intentionally not for repairs but to create shading effects. A good example of this is Steve Morris's "Woman", which was first scratched and then accented with a black ink wash. Colored inks or watercolors can also be used to tint or color the piece.

When a scratchboard is finished, a clear acrylic gloss finish can be sprayed over the board; this deepens the black, seals the white and helps hide any inconsistencies in the blacks. It also gives the piece an attractive shine and protects it from accidental scratching.

Q) What else should I know before I get started?

A) First, you need a way to transfer your design onto the board. You can draw it on freehand using white or gray colored pencil, but this leaves some evidence after the scratching is finished and makes for an imperfect result. Many artists made a stencil, almost like with tattooing, by drawing or printing out a full-sized image of their design. This was then taped over the surface of the board and traced firmly with a ball point pen. After removing the paper, the drawing can only be seen by looking at the board at an angle in bright light; this is enough to get started by but does not leave any evidence in the finished piece.

Also worth mentioning: scratching does produce some small shavings, which can be messy. Working with the scratchboard centered on a drawing board gives you a surface to catch the shavings. Working outside on the patio is another option, as is keeping a small vacuum or Dustbuster handy. If you have a messy art studio, the shavings probably won't bother you.

The other thing to prepare for is that the fiberglass brush, although very useful, has a couple drawbacks. It sheds fibers as you use it, and because it shortens noticeably as you work it can be lengthened again by twisting the handle, the way some erasers can be adjusted. Sometimes small shards of fiberglass come loose, and can get caught in your skin- an itchy, annoying sensation. Latex or nitrile gloves will prevent this. Also, don't inhale too deeply with your face close to these fiberglass fragments.

Q) Why were tattoo artists invited to experiment with scratchboards for a book project?

A) There are some interesting parallels between tattooing and scratchboard. For starters, both media require a certain amount of planning and preparation in order to make a successful piece. Tattooing is famous for not being eraseable, and in some ways scratchboard is similar; although you can make repairs with India ink, ideally the goal is to complete the piece without needing to make any repairs, since the finished result will appear to be more perfect. Both media involve a certain amount of making small mistakes and cleaning them up as you go. And both skin and the sensitive clay surface of the scratchboard can be overworked and chewed up if care is not taken to prevent it.

The key difference between the two mediums is the reverse positive/ negative relationship. This was liberating and empowering for some tattooists; several remarked that it was easy for them to approach the project as though the shading was already there.

It seems that the scratchboard medium is one that tattoo artists naturally have an affinity with; this is evident in the quality and breadth of subject matter in the Scratch Art book collection. Also evident is the high level of artistry now in the tattoo industry; this was the main motivation for seeing what tattoo artists would do with this interesting medium.

Q) I'm bummed that I missed the chance to be in this book... will there ever be a second one?

A) We certainly hope so! The plan is for us to send out an open invitation a couple years from now and take online submissions. We expect there to be a much wider collection of scratchboard art around by then, since so many artists have done amazing scratch art since the book project concluded. We expect the second volume to be even more mind-blowing than this one!

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