Saturday, October 08, 2005

October 8, 2005
In April of 1995 I attended End of Trail in Corona, California (just south of San Berdoo). At that time I had three Old West books out, my Billy the Kid book (1992), Wyatt Earp (1993) and Doc Holliday (1994). Tri Star, my publisher, had rented a booth space and I was there at the big Western festival to hawk my books and artwork.

On the last day of the show, a gentleman came up to the booth and said, “I’ll bet you get accused of doing scratchboard, don’t you?” He was right. Although I had heard of the technique I had never tried it, or even knew where to find the materials to do it, or how to even go about it. No artist I knew ever used the medium, but would often get comments from artists types assuming I was utilizing scratchboard. The guy told me he was an art teacher at Long Beach State and that if I wanted to try it I should buy only Essdee Scratchboard from England and Pelican Ink #14. I wrote this down in my daytimer and made a mental note to see if I could find such exotic art supplies in the desert.

When I got back to the Valley I called around and after numerous dead-ends finally located the English import at Arizona Art Supply deep down in the Beast. I bought about six boards (at $22 a sheet!) and a set of tools, basically knives of various widths, to scratch with and came home to try it out. Of course I was pretty bad, but I did have a knack for crosshatching (which is why so many thought I was doing scratchboard) and that helped some. The main thing is you have to think in reverse. You take away the mid tones and what you leave is the black lines. Just the opposite of pen and ink renderings. It’s quite a mind game and takes some getting used to. Needless to say, I ruined more than several boards trying to get the hang of it, but as I kept scratching I eventually stumbled onto some decent effects.

That was ten years ago. At my art show opening last week I must have had a half dozen people (most of them artists themselves) ask me what scratchboard is and how do I do it. I have about 35 scratchboards in the show and there are over 150 in the book, Blaze Away!

Yesterday, I had Abby Pearson come into my office and document the genesis and stages of an image I want to do in my forthcoming story on Mickey Free. One of the main characters is Al Sieber, the chief of scouts under General Crook and others. There is a great photo of him with a scowl on his face, hat in hand and covered in buckskin.

Having that reference material at hand, I started with the fine point scratcher and blocked in the face. Someone told me that the scratchboard process is quite ancient and involves clay coated board with the ink on top of it, which facilitates cleaner scratching.

I have tried other cheaper boards and they flake off erratically. Only Essdee has the clean lines I like. Tomorrow I’ll show you the end results of all my chicken scratching.

“Art is a paradox: if you want to master it, you must become its slave.”
—Old Vaquero Saying

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