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The Importance of Reference Images in Realistic Scratchboard Artwork

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

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My scratchboard artwork is photo-realistic and hyper detailed, which means that the images I use as references for my work are incredibly important. This is especially true for the custom pet portraits that I am frequently commissioned to do.

Scratchboard Wildlife

In my wildlife work, references are crucial for creating accurate photo-realism. Wild animals have wild features and getting those intimate details correct is difficult without some guidance. When I'm scratching, I live in the details. I love creating the intricate strokes that bring a creature to life, so it is important to me to get it right.

Fur growth patterns, feather patterns, eye shape, and details in other areas of an animal's face are the most important for true photo-realism in a piece.

Great references, like this one taken of a Milky Eagle Owl by Nick Bossenbroek Photography (aka my husband), shows me exactly how the small feathers around the birds eyes, beak, and face grow. They change directions and stick out in ways that you wouldn't guess.

One of the lessons that has stuck with me from my high school art teacher is to draw what you SEE and not what you KNOW. You really have to internalize that when you try to work realistically because most things aren't as intuitive as you'd think or want them to be.

A great example to illustrate what I mean is this work-in-progress shot of my most recent lion scratchboard.

Cats, of all kinds, have very unintuitive fur patterns on their face - especially along the bridge of their noses and around the eyes. Without a reference image there would be no way for me to guess that the fur grows the way it does. I've scratched over 100 big cat pieces by now, though, so this is becoming more natural to me, but I still prefer to have the reference their to double check my work.

In detailed work like mine, the direction in which the hair grows, especially on an animal's face, is crucial to creating a successful piece. If the patterns are off, you may not be able to point to an area of the fur and say "right there, that part is wrong", but there will be something about it that is unsettling and, therefore, unsuccessful.

Custom Pet Portraits

The use of reference images is even more important when I'm creating a piece of someone else's pet. Obviously, they will want the artwork they are paying for to look like the creature that they know so intimately. I very rarely 'know' the animals whose portraits I create, so I need to have photographs of the animal to make the scratchboard. Even if I do know the dog or cat, I still need the photograph - they won't pose for long.

True likeness requires attention to fine detail. I have scratched a lot of pet portraits (mostly cats and dogs) in my career, so there is a certain amount of a piece that I can 'guess at' or 'make up' if the reference image is lacking, but I prefer not to do that.

Quality reference images, with a ton of detail in the face, are much easier to work with. The overall quality of the finished piece is always higher and more true to the individual animal when I have a great reference image.

So what makes a great reference image for a pet portrait then?

High quality reference images are taken in plenty of light - preferably outside because there is always more and better light outside, no matter how bright your house seems. Great reference images showcase your animal's EYES. If you want the piece to really speak to you, I need to have as much detail in your pet's eyes as possible. I've gotten pretty good at creating life where there isn't any in lower quality images, but again, that's me scratching what I think should be there and not necessarily what is there in life. Reference images that retain the detail of your animal's face when zoomed in on a computer are also especially helpful.

Tips and tricks for getting a great photo of your pet...

- Take them outside or face them toward a bright window avoiding deep shadows on their face (the light source needs to be on their face to get the right amount of detail in the eyes).

- Bring a treat or favorite toy with you to get their attention - this will also put a little more life in their eyes.

- Take as many photos as you can before you lose their attention. They don't have to be looking directly at the camera to create an awesome portrait. I can work with several photos - with one as the main reference for the composition/positioning of your pet - to create the scratchboard.

- Be patient...especially with those cats who don't always like to sit still or look at you. Sometimes, if you're trying too hard, the task can feel impossible. Just be ready to snap when they sit still for a short time.

The life of my work is all in the details. Details, details, details. And man do I love the details. Reference images help me use the unique qualities of scratchboard, along with my keen attention to fine details, to create dynamic, black and white, photo-realistic wildlife portraits.

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Unknown member
Jun 06, 2021

Hi Melissa-- I am working on improving my scratchboard art. I have only created a few pieces over the course of several years so, for me, seriously increasing the amount of practice and time I put into this endeavor is the thing that will help me most. Your blog/tips are very much appreciated. I'm curious-- do you use some sort of grid system with the reference image as you work? Or do you simply sketch general outlines (physical features, areas of dark and light, etc) onto the scratchboard and then just "eyeball" fur patterns from there? Appreciate the info and again, amazed by your work! Cheers, Laurie

Unknown member
Jun 06, 2021
Replying to

Appreciate the tip. Thanks!

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