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Scratchboard Techniques: Black vs White

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

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My scratchboard artwork is all black and white (with many variations of grey), but the approach I take for creating a mostly 'white' animal and a mostly 'black' animal can be very different.

When I'm out showing my work, I often get asked how I draw black animals on a board that is already completely black. The answer to that question is LIGHT...and form, but mostly light, light, light. That question also assumes that creating a white animal is easier, when, at least for me, it is not.

The processes of scratching a board of a dark or light animal are the same - the main difference in creating these pieces is how I'm able to manipulate and use LIGHT.

For black animals, like this black panther, I use a combination of light, shape, form, and mass to create dimension. Light reflects off of different areas of the face, so some areas of the piece will be much brighter, even when the whole still 'reads' as black, which creates form and mass. Each scratch is placed to represent that direction in which the hair grows on the animal and this helps create shape.

[For a full breakdown of how I create black fur, head to this blog post.]

I am able to use a wider range of values - the full scale of black to white - in these darker pieces to achieve photo-realism and the overall feel that I'm attempting to create. In pieces with 'white' or much lighter animals, the range of values can be smaller, but is also hugely dependent on how dramatic the light is - subjects that are backlit or have deep shadows on them versus fully or evenly lit subjects.

In these scratchboards with lighter subjects, I'm still using light and shadow to create the three dimensional form. I still scratch everything with the same tools and use a combination of textures to make the piece. My processes pretty much stay the same, but white animals - like this arctic wolf, polar bears, all white birds, etc - are more difficult for me because there is a much finer line that I must dance with in creating dimension without the overall piece 'reading' as grey or darker than I want it to be.

I use a fiberglass brush for the first round of scratching on every piece - I prefer the soft under layer and the versatility of this tool. I pair it with an x-acto knife or other tool to create the dramatic textures, highlights, and individual scratches.

When I use the fiberglass brush, or any tool really, there is a risk of over scratching and completely blowing out an area that I want to be white - when this happens I can no longer add scratches on top of it to refine the textures. The black ink layer of scratchboards comes off in a fine powder and as this powder is wiped or blown across the board, it can darken the scratches that are already in place. The darkening is very subtly, but on the white areas it makes a difference because I have to re-scratch that area to return it to the bright, vibrant white, which again heightens the risk of over-scratching and eliminating the crucially important details.

My work LIVES in those details and the creatures really come alive when I can utilize contrast and dramatic textures. I am able to achieve photo-realism in a wide range of species, but all white or very light colored animals always present me with a bigger challenge because it is more difficult to render the individual details. I love scratching all black or very dark animals and creatures with dramatic patterns (zebras, spotted cats, birds with intricate feather patterns) because I'm able to utilize the full range of contrast, highlight with reflected light, create form and mass, and include intricate details.

These are all examples of species with both - bright white and dark black fur - to show you how light and shadow are used.

Find Your Joy!

- Melissa

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