Among the items I re-discovered during my recent archeological dig into my creative past were two large (50 x 75 cm) untouched pieces of black Canson scratchboard. Scratchboard is a stiff paper or cardboard that’s coated with white clay. It’s available in white and black; the black type is just white scratchboard that has a black top coat. To draw on white scratchboard, you draw a rough image in ink and then use a special tool (logically enough called a scratch knife) to refine the lines by scraping away any ink that remains in the areas that you want white. With black scratchboard, drawing is entirely a process of subtraction: you start with a completely black ground and add the light areas by removing the black coating. I worked mostly with black scratchboard, because I found that drawing with India ink as I was taught to do created a coating of various thicknesses that was difficult to cut through with any precision. And drawing on scratchboard is all about precision; it’s capable of rendering images in as much detail as you’re capable of creating.
A further scratchboard option, which I didn’t pursue at the time, is to add color to your drawing, as Martin Côté does in his beautiful work.
Thirty years ago, when I was using scratchboard fairly frequently, Canson made the best: it had the thickest clay coating, and its matte black top coat cut smoothly, without chipping.
The substrate was stiffer than that used for the cheaper grades of scratchboard, which were more flexible, with a slick, glossy top coat that resisted the knife and only a thin layer of clay under the black, which made it much too easy to cut right through the clay and gouge the substrate. This is hard to repair, and it makes the image messy. Notice the grubby-looking white areas in the piece below. Because it was made on thin scratchboard, I was unable to remove all of the black from these areas cleanly -- the clay layer scraped off without taking all of the ink with it!
When I began to re-assemble my tools and materials this year, to my dismay I was unable to find Canson scratchboard anywhere, and subsequent internet searches have confirmed that it is no longer made. All I’ve been able to find in the local art supply stores is the cheap stuff. So I was thrilled to discover my long-buried Canson treasure!
The Wet Canvas online forum, on which I discovered the sad news of Canson’s demise, gave me some excellent ideas, though. Apparently Ampersand clayboard – a product developed in the years since I last worked with scratchboard -- is a reasonable substitute for top-quality scratchboard, perhaps even better because the substrate is entirely rigid. The local stores carry this product, so I’ll be trying it soon. Also, one contirbutor recommended drawing with felt-tip markers rather than India ink, which opens up much greater possibilities. I’m really looking forward to working with these materials.