Scratchboard is a fun—albeit unusual—art medium. Manufacturers coat a smooth, flat surface, like hardboard (the material used in old-school clipboards), with white China clay. After that, they coat the dried clay in a thin layer of india ink.
You create marks on it by using a sharp scratching implement as though it were a pen, carving through the thin coating of ink to reveal the bright white clay beneath.
Different types of scratchboard
In some types of scratchboard, the clay is actually layered in a variety of colors. The deeper the scratch, the more layers you scratch through, which changes the color that’s revealed by your mark.
Scraperboard is another name for the art medium. I’ve seen it written on labels, but I’ve never actually heard someone call it that. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that word spoken aloud … but I digress.
In all the scratchboard drawings I’ve made, I’ve used the hardboard variety. I really like it, and I’d recommend it.
Cardboard is sometimes used as the base surface instead. It’s much flimsier, and usually you can’t carve as deeply into the clay. Those are the downsides, but there is one positive: unlike hardboard, you can actually cut that kind to your desired size.
Still, if you can just buy your hardboard piece in the size you want it, then that problem solves itself for you.
Example scratchboard drawings
All the scratchboard surfaces I’ve used have also been the kinds that just use white clay, and not a variety of clay colors. There’s no real reason for this other than that I just love black & white and haven’t particularly found the multilayer clay to be appealing to me. I imagine the final result would look a lot more arts-and-crafts–like, which isn’t what I typically shoot for.
1: Glowing Eyes
2: Back Yard
Monsters are great to draw on scratchboard—I find that the dark backdrop sets the stage really well to carve in glowing eyes and sharp teeth. And the stark lines can give the finished art work a really edgy feel.
I titled this piece Back Yard.
In addition to the scratchboards like the two above, you can also find the kind that have not yet been coated in ink. This allows you to apply custom colors of ink to the surface.
3: The Jungle
I used scratchboard that came without the black-ink surface in this semi-abstract drawing called The Jungle, and coated it in ink myself. Scratchboard without ink is also known as clayboard. You can use whatever colors of ink you like to coat the China clay surface.
Clayboard, unlike scratchboard, is always on a hardboard surface—never cardboard.
I simply chose black sumi ink on the drawing above—I really like the stark contrast between white and black. Still, it would be interesting to try covering the clayboard surface with a different color, or even a variety of colors. If I try it, I’ll post how it turns out here.
The strong contrast that you can make so easily between dark and light on scratchboard can be leveraged in a variety of ways. One of them is contour lines.
The drawing below is called Trabeculae, and the lines are inspired by the structure of human bone.
5: Torn Glass
It’s important to avoid making mistakes with scratchboard, because you can’t undo any scratches you make. You can cover up your mistake with ink and re-scratch it later, but there are a few problems with that. First, the scratchmark remains, and the smooth texture you had before is gone. Second, it requires stopping all work while you wait for the ink to dry.
Some artists have that kind of patience, but I do not.
That’s why I typically stick to more abstract, automatic, or surreal work with it—mistakes in an abstraction are more easily turned into marks that seemed intentional in those cases.
6: Scratchboard Rat
My first attempt at scratchboard was this picture of a rat. It’s a little rougher than the other drawings, but not bad for a first attempt.
I hardly even bothered to give this drawing a name … I just called it Scratchboard Rat.
In this drawing, I created some textures that aren’t present in the others. That’s because I tried out a variety of different scratching tools to see what I liked best. Some scraped away relatively large areas at a time.You would be surprised at how time-consuming carving out the white spaces was.
Others did deep, fine lines. Still others were meant for rubbing away the black India ink just slightly, as you’ll see around the rat shape.
After this exercise, I learned that I prefer the small, sharp, intentional-looking lines. I use the sharp, fine-pointed scraping tool the way I would use a fine-tipped pen on paper.
I’ve seen other artists add color to the white spaces they carve away, using pens, paint, airbrushes, or colored pencils.
It’s impressive the amount of realism that artists can coax from a medium like this—it’s a great surface for detailed illustrations and still-life drawings. I don’t typically make that type of drawing, though I tend to stick with drawings of the many surreal ideas that pop into my head.
If you haven’t ever used scratchboard, give it a try. And if you want help coming up with ideas for what to draw, try out the drawing idea generator.
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