Scratchboard was developed in nineteenth century England and France, where printers were looking for new ways to reproduce illustrations. Wood, metal and linoleum engraving all had their faults, and scratchboard seemed to be the perfect solution.

Scratchboard illustrators use knives and other tools to etch delicate lines into white China clay. The etching is then coated with black India ink to reveal intricate images with sophisticated shading, texture and, occasionally, many colours. The ability of the images to be accurately reproduced in everything from newspapers to educational books meant the scratchboard technique soon became the preferred method of printing medical, scientific and technical illustrations.

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Because of this prestigious association with the great designs of the past, the scratchboard technique is having a comeback in publications like graphic novels, magazines and ads.

Most scratchboard artists use pencil sketches to begin the design process, drawing rough outlines of the finished product. The first pencil sketch will have shading and textured elements to give the artist a good idea of what the illustration will look like when finished. Then, they often create a simplified sketch that they transfer to the scratchboard. They prefer to keep the sketch as simple as possible, since the graphite of the pencil is hard to erase from the scratchboard tablet. Once the simplified sketch has been transferred, the artist will use various carving knives and other tools to scratch lines into the clay, using deeper scratches for areas that are more highlighted and less shaded and eventually revealing the complete scratchboard design.

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There are a couple of ways the scratchboard design can then be used for printing. Most printers will likely take a high-resolution photograph of the image, as most printing is done electronically now via desktop publishing. The photograph will then be inserted into the digital design of the page, then a plate will be made of that page. Finally, the plate will be inserted into the printer, and the page will be printed. Before desktop publishing became the industry standard, however, the scratchboard design would often be inserted directly onto the metal plates that already contained the text of the page. The scratchboard itself would then be coated with ink along with the moveable type.

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Scratchboard is also becoming popular as an artistic medium in its own right. Because it uses fine lines to create intricate designs, the scratchboard technique is superb for accurate depictions of eyes and fur. This makes it an ideal medium for wildlife artists and artists who make very detailed drawings. Scratchboard artists will often sell the scratchboard tablet as its own work of art. Though the contrast of the black ink and the white clay is striking enough to generate interest from buyers, some artists will also add colour to the illustrations using ink, watercolour or acrylic paint.

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About Amie

Amie is a freelance graphic designer and has been designing and writing for 2 years and has a huge passion for abstract art and vintage photography styles.

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