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What is Scratchboard Art? - Tools & Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever scratched your name onto a surface? Did you know you can make art this way? In this lesson, explore a creative process known as scratchboard art and learn about tools used to do it.

What Is Scratchboard Art?

You can use many methods to make artwork. You've probably painted a picture or drawn images on a white or light-colored surface. But have you ever worked on a dark background? A method of art called scratchboard does just this, beginning with an all-black surface.

Scratchboard art is a way to create an image using a special board with a black surface layer and white under layer. Using a sharp tool, you cut into the black to reveal the white layer below. The resulting image is a series of light lines against a dark background. Scratchboard art is considered a type of direct engraving, a process where an image is incised or cut into a surface. The image is created completely by making repeated small lines, marks and strokes.

Example of scratchboard art
Example of scratchboard art

Scratchboard isn't just about drawing an outline in the black surface. And it's not a process that creates a negative image with dark and light areas reversed. It's creating an image by removing the dark to reveal the white. Because of this, it can make a dramatic impression as a figure emerges from the black background.

Now let's look at how to make scratchboard art.

Scratchboard Art Tools

Let's start with tools and materials.

You can buy pre-made scratchboard panels from various arts and crafts suppliers. A basic scratchboard panel has three layers. The bottom layer or base is a hard paper or board, the thicker the better for stability and a good foundation. Covering the base is a layer of white clay. This is the layer you reveal when you create scratchboard art. On top is a thin layer of black ink, normally a carbon-based ink that's lightfast and resistant to fading. This is important because you want the dark areas to remain dark long after your artwork is finished.

The tools used for cutting into the board include small craft knives with precision blades. They come in various sizes and can be fitted with many types of angled blades. You can also use engraver's points, which are small metal tools used in printmaking. For removing large areas of black, some artists also use sandpaper or even steel wool. You'll also need some drawing paper, tracing paper and chalk. More on those in a moment.

Scratchboard Art Techniques

To make a work of scratchboard art, first decide what you'd like to draw. If necessary, you can do preliminary studies to work out the composition on the drawing paper. When you're ready, take your finished drawing and trace it onto a piece of tracing paper, then carefully cover the back of the tracing paper with white chalk. Then carefully lay it, chalk side down, on top of your scratchboard. Following the lines of the image on the tracing paper, gently trace your drawing, allowing the chalk outline to appear on the black ink surface. Then carefully take a knife or point and jab into the outline -- this way it's permanently on your board. Then brush the chalk off and you're ready to begin.

Example of scratchboard art. This work shows how effective this method can be.
Example of scratchboard art

You want to think about which areas of your drawing will be the lightest. Start making small marks to build the highlights first, then work toward the areas in shadow. Effective marks in making scratchboard art include cross-hatching, in which repeated small criss-crossed lines create depth and dimension. Varying the space between the lines and the size of the lines creates different grades of dark and light. You can also use a method called stippling, which is basically poking the surface repeatedly with small dots. It creates a very different effect from cross-hatching. The two methods can even be used together.

Detail of a scratchboard work. Notice how the fine lines create the drawing.
Detail of a scratchboard work

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