July 29, 2017

milkweed scratch
Asclepias/Bloodflower (common name=tropical milkweed), UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, 1991 and 1992 (ink on scratchboard)

I took a photo of this bright, beautiful, orange and red flowering annual in August 1991. I don’t remember why I did this in scratchboard (a traditionally black and white medium), but I did. I think I was trying to render an “out of focus” background in front of the fine work of the flower itself. What makes this technique so interesting is the scratchboard itself. It’s a piece of stiff thin cardboard that is coated with a wet mixture of white chalk and clay. And when it hardens the surface is very smooth. Ink can be applied to the board with either a pen or a brush. But that’s not all. Because the surface has a layer of clay, you can take a fine-pointed blade/knife and carve out marks where the ink has dried, leaving tiny intricate white stippling (dots), dashes, cross-hatching and/or lines in the black ink. This creates a kind of detail that contributes to texture and shading of whatever you are rendering. The technique has been around a long time and was used by artists who were creating art for black and white publications like books and magazines.

I first learned about scratchboard when I joined the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (both a local chapter in San Francisco and the national group) in the late 80s. And the summer of 1990 I went to a 2-week workshop in Philadelphia that was put on by the national GNSI group. I met people from all over the country and during our daily classes we learned about a variety of scientific/medical illustration techniques including: ink wash, how to render fur, egg tempera, silver point, carbon dust/pastel dust, scratchboard, airbrush and pen and ink. Trudy Nicholson, an amazing scratchboard artist, taught our scratchboard class. (I just Googled her and saw, once again, examples of her beautiful and very detailed scratchboard work.) Many of our instructors were scientific illustrators who worked for the Smithsonian. Karen Ackoff, an illustrator from the Smithsonian, taught us the special techniques of ink wash, silver point and how to render fur. Besides learning about many scientific illustration techniques during class I also had a bit of time to traipse around Philadelphia, marveling at the late 18th century historic buildings. I saw real fireflies for the first time. (I had previously only seen fake ones on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.) And I visited the Brandywine River Museum, just outside Philadelphia, where I saw the artwork of N. C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Those two weeks were life altering for me. It’s funny, but this is the only scratchboard I have done to date. But, I used lots of what I learned about rendering detail when illustrating plants and animals with pen, ink and the fine point of a knife blade on Bristol Board paper and acetate, while working as a scientific illustrator at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. There I worked for two botanists, creating pen and ink illustrations of plants found in Chiapas, Mexico. I also worked for an entomologist and spent a summer illustrating wasp genitalia (the wasps were from Papua New Guinea). No kidding! When I told my dad about that one, he thought that pretty funny and wrote me a limerick. I need to find the card it’s written on. I don’t know where it is right now…

Note about why the date I completed this piece is not very specific: I finished this scratchboard the first time sometime in late 1991. So, I put it in a nice black frame and hung it on the wall next to my bed. Many mornings I woke up and looked at it. One day I decided it needed more detail. So I took it out of the frame, worked on it a bit more, put it back in the frame and hung it in the same place. Have you guessed that I took it down again and added more detail? Yes, I did! After I added more stippling and cross-hatching (using a hand lens so I could see the detail up close) I hung it back on the wall. I don’t remember now how long it stayed there until I decided I wanted to use the frame for something else, and I put this scratchboard in a drawer. And every time I dig through my art and come across this I vow to frame it again. But if I did that I would have to hang it at the back of my closet because I don’t think I have it in me to take it out of a frame again and add anything else.

* Today I bought a new car. It’s the first time I have done that without my dad helping out. I miss you dad!

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