Last updated: June 25, 2011

The origin of this tutorial

This scratchboard tutorial was born out of my desire to give more access to this beautiful medium. When I started out doing scratchboard, somewhere around 1992, there was very little information available on it. Scratchboard and its associated tools were available at most art stores, but there were no instructions. Asking the store employees didn't help. Nobody seemed to know anything about it.

These days, a Google search reveals much more information than was available to me back then. Searches for images show the wide variety of scratchboard styles - some very impressionistic and others almost photo-realistic. Video clips on YouTube demonstrate techniques. The internet has made scratchboard knowledge more accessible, but there still aren't many straight-forward tutorials. There are a few books but the best ones, in my opinion, are out of print.

My goal for this tutorial is to keep the tradition alive and save you some of the trouble I have gone through in my quest to explore the medium of scratchboard. I have been working in scratchboard for close to 20 years now. I have a degree in illustration and scratchboard is my medium of choice. Much of this information initially came from a paper I wrote in my last year of school, along with additional information that has come with my experience as a freelance illustrator.

I don't claim to know everything and I wouldn't say that my methods are the best for everyone. For example, some artists like to start with white scratchboard and add ink to specific areas. I prefer to start with black, pre-inked scratchboard. I give you my method and you are free to modify it to suit your own needs. Have fun!

Scratchboard: How does it work?

The scratchboard surface starts out solid black. When you scratch it you get a white mark. If you're lucky these white marks eventually end up creating a picture.

A common mistake

The first mistake people usually make is drawing everything with a white outline, like they would on a chalkboard. They don't get the result they intended.

they do this... when what they really want is this...

In the second example you can see how black lines are made by scratching on either side of them. It's a lot more work but the result is much better. I usually start by pulling out the bright areas first. In the cartoon above I might start first with the whites of the eyes, then the upper and lower eyelids, then the shape of the head, and finally, the background. When I reveal the shapes first, the lines take care of themselves.

When I sketch with pencil or ink I start building up the shadows first. When I work with scratchboard I start with the highlights first and make my way toward the shadows.

It's not a negative

People often say "So, it's like a negative. You have to train your mind to think in reverse". Not exactly. Technically I am working in reverse because I am using white marks instead of black. BUT the result will not be a negative image.

As you can see above in the positive image, the highlights and shadows look pretty normal, as if the picture been drawn with ink. The negative is on the right. I guess there could be uses for it, but it's that positive image I'm after. I don't know how to think in reverse!

Get good scratchboard

In theory scratchboard is a pretty simple product. A piece of paper or board is coated with a layer of chalky, white material and then sprayed with a thin layer of black ink. The diagram below shows a cross section of scratchboard that has been magnified and separated to show the layers.

Despite the simplicity, good quality scratchboard isn't always easy to find. Don't be tempted by the thin, flexible stuff that has a shiny, black surface and is about as thick as a postcard. This cheap scratchboard is not worth buying in my opinion, not for students, not for anybody. The ink layer is too thick and too hard, making it difficult to make crisp, clean scratches. Unless your scratch tool is perfectly sharp it will often skip on the hard surface. Mostly importantly, the white layer is very thin. This means that, as you're scratching nice and hard to get through the black, the blade may go right through the white layer into the paper underneath. This makes a fuzzy gray spot on your picture that's pretty much impossible to repair. Game over.

I have strong opinions about student-grade art products. I don't buy them anymore. Over the years I've tried to "save" money by buying inferior paints, brushes, paper, scratchboard, etc. The savings aren't worth the frustration.

Essdee Scraperboard

Many years ago I read an article in Step-by-Step Graphics which showcased the work of Mark Summers (Jan/Feb 1992), well-known scratchboard demi-god. Among other things he talked about Essdee Scraperboard as being easy to work with. He was right.

I located some and used Essdee exclusively for years. Local art stores don't generally carry it, but it can be ordered online: Jerry's Artarama and Dick Blick both carry it.

This scratchboard is well worth the price. It is about the thickness of matboard, very light, and easy to cut to custom sizes with a ruler and a sharp blade. The matte black ink is thin enough for easy scratching. The white clay layer is thick enough to allow multiple corrections. It also comes in white but I prefer to have it already inked. It comes in two grades: commercial and professional. Commercial is all I have ever used because I wasn't aware of the professional. One drawback is its tendency to warp with humidity. Its flexibility also tempts people to bend it, which can crack the inked surface if they aren't careful. In spite of these negatives, it's a great product.

Ampersand Scratchbord (Claybord Black)

Scratchbord by Ampersand is another excellent alternative for the scratchboard user. I think it's safe to say that most scratchboard artists are working on Ampersand Scratchbord these days. It wasn't available when I started. In recent years it has become easy to find in art stores. It is stiffer, thicker, and heavier than Essdee scraperboard. The board itself is very durable and flat. This durability makes it harder to cut to custom sizes, but it comes in a wide variety of pre-cut sizes, from very small to very large. The black surface is more delicate than that of the Essdee scratchboard so handle it with care.

Scratch tools can be basic

Some people swear by the specialized scratchboard points that art stores sell. There is nothing wrong with them, but I haven't used them much. For the work I do, I prefer the #16 Xacto blade (below). It is cheaper than specialized scratchboard tools and it works great.

I can vary the angle of the #16 blade to make thinner or fatter lines, as needed. A lot of people also use the standard Xacto blade (#11). This works well for detailed work. Even finer lines can be achieved with a #11 scalpel blade. The tool you use really depends on the level of detail you need, and what feels most comfortable. I have hundreds of old blades and instead of buying more I have begun using 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper to put the edge back on. It really works well.

In addition to blades I have a sharpened steel point. I don't use it very often but I sometimes need it with a ruler for making nice straight uniform lines. When I do freehand lettering (my name) I will often start it with my steel point for better control.

Mistakes can be fixed!!!

I have read too many times that scratchboard is an unforgiving medium and making a single mistake forces you start all over. Thank goodness it isn't true. Unless you scratch completely through to the white layer, mistakes are easy to fix .

Working with scratchboard is just a matter of scratching off part of the ink. If you make a mistake just put that layer of black ink back on. Presto! All fixed. How do you put the ink back on? The section on pens will give you an idea of what tools to use.

Once a correction is made, the ink tends to shine more than the matte finish of the scratchboard. I gently pat the ink line with my finger to take the shine off and let it blend in. I do this while the ink is still a bit wet. After doing this it is very difficult to tell that a correction was made on Essdee scraperboard. Ampersand Scratchbord has a smoother surface so repairs are harder to hide.

My hands are not very moist or oily. If yours are, I would use a gloved finger to blot the ink. If you have moist or oily hands you should be using white cotton photo finishers gloves to avoid making a mess of the scrachboard surface.

Pens

An airbrush would be a great tool for fixing mistakes on scratchboard, but pens work just fine for me. There is an art to doing this that just comes with practice.

I started out using technical pens (rapidograph) but when I would correct an area several times the layers of ink got pretty thick and flaky. The ink also doesn't blend well with the color of the scratchboard and the mistakes are more visible.

Pigment pens (below) are much better. Pigment ink lays down very black. It's also very thin so it doesn't build up layers.

I use the Staedtler Marsgraphic Pigment Liner (bottom) and the Sakura Micron Pigma (middle). The Sakura also comes in a brush tip (top). My favorites are the Staedtler pens. They have the best ink in my opinion. They also have a wide calligraphy tip that I'm a big fan of.

I usually buy size .005 or .01. These work for most small repairs and for crosshatching. I like to hatch ink lines (black) across scratched lines (white) to create textures.

Pigment pens tend to clog temporarily with scratch dust so it's good to have at least three. If one clogs I will write on a piece of paper to get the ink flow going, and then cap it for a while until it's ready to go again. The pens with calligraphy or brush tips don't clog and are great for making larger corrections.

Most art stores carry these pens. Avoid any kind of pen that would stain the white layer of the scratchboard. This would include anything like a felt tip marker or Sharpie. These inks stain too deeply. It is difficult to scratch back through to white if the white has been stained black by a magic marker.

Sandpaper

Sandpaper can be a real time saver. I like to use it to get all the extra black off the borders of my illustrations. This can be time consuming with a blade. I use a small piece of fine drywall sanding screen (below left) and then finish the surface with 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper (below right).

Sandpaper can also help with some corrections. Sometimes when a scratchboard surface is re-inked the grooves left by the previous scratches give a bumpy look to any new scratches. When this happens I use a tiny piece of fine sandpaper to smooth the surface before re-inking. I am careful not to sand too much.

Transferring the drawing

So, you have this great drawing that you want to do in scratchboard. How do you get the drawing onto that black scratchboard? There are several methods for doing this. Some work better than others depending on your preference.

Direct Drawing

This isn't really a transfer method, but it's the easiest way to get an image onto the scratchboard. The ink has enough shine to make it visible even after it dries. It's good for simple drawings.

Ballpoint Pen

In the Mark Summers article he explains a method of transfer I have used with good results. Place or tape your drawing on the scratchboard with the image face-up. Trace over the lines of the drawing with a fine ball-point pen. This leaves indented lines on the scratchboard that can't get brushed away. When applying pressure be careful the drawing doesn't shift. It works well on Essdee Scraperboard but may not work with Ampersand Scratchbord with its harder surface.

Transfer Paper

Early on in my working with scratchboard I tried using a yellow colored transfer paper. It was a disaster. The fragile lines got brushed away with the scratch dust and started to disappear halfway through the illustration process. It bothered me so much, I avoided the use of transfer paper for years after that. In more recent years I read about how other people were having much better results with it. So, I tried it again with much better results.

Saral transfer paper is a popular brand that most art stores carry these days. I tried it and the lines are very white and surprisingly durable. Another product, Super Chacopaper, gives an even better result in my opinion. The transfer lines don't lay down quite as thick, a good thing, and they wipe away easily with a damp paintbrush tip.

I take my drawing (or a copy of it) and attach it face-up to the board with a tape hinge. This allows me to pull the drawing away or put it back as I please without losing proper alignment. The white transfer paper is used between the drawing and the scratchboard. If I lose some of the lines I can put the transfer paper back, hinge my drawing back down, and trace them back in.

Xylene

When I have a complicated drawing I like to avoid retracing at all if possible. I have figured out a solution for transferring complex drawings. It's my preferred method but it does take some practice to get it right.

When xylene comes in contact with the toner (anything black on a photocopy) the toner gets soft and sticky. The sticky toner will transfer to anything that touches it. In this way a photo-copied drawing can be transferred to another piece of paper. When the xylene evaporates the toner hardens back up. This works great for transferring to scratchboard.

For this you need a photo-copiedor laser-printedimage of your drawing. Prints from ink-jet printers will not work. It actually works best if the image is a mirror image of the original; if not, the image will be backwards when you make the transfer. I used to draw on mylar, which is pretty transparent, so I could flip it over and make a mirror image on the copy machine. These days I just scan a drawing into the computer, flip it, and print it out on the laser printer.

Get some xylene from a hardware or paint store. Position the photocopy of your drawing face-down on the scratchboard. Tape one edge of the photocopy, like a hinge, to the scratchboard--this will keep the paper from shifting. Pull the photocopy back to expose the black scratchboard surface. Put some xylene on a paper towel. If the whole paper towel is wet you're using too much. Wipe it around on the surface of the scratchboard. The surface should be evenly coated and glossy wet, with no evaporation--don't wait too long or it will evaporate. Quickly lay the drawing back down on the scratchboard and rub lightly to make sure the photocopy toner makes contact with the xylene. When you think it's been evenly rubbed down--don't wait too long--then pull the drawing back and the drawing should have transferred. If it doesn't work just use xylene to wipe it off, then try again with a new photocopy.

Once the transfer is made the scratchboard is ready for work. It doesn't take long at all for the toner to harden. In good light the transferred drawing stands out nicely on the black surface of the scratchboard. It is durable and won't brush off.

Xylene is pretty potent smelling so you're going to need good ventilation. I go outside or use my garage if it's cold or windy. If you are going to use xylene, please read the labels and be aware of the dangers. My exposure to the fumes isn't frequent or for long durations, but I am concerned enough that I don't use it inside my home. I either work outside or in a well-ventilated shed. I've heard of so many people having problems with solvents of all kinds. This isn't going to stop me from using them, but I don't want to breathe the fumes any more than I have to. When I'm doing a xylene transfer I keep a clean, empty metal paint can nearby. Right after making the transfer I put the paper towel and the photocopy into the paint can and place the lid on top. If I'm indoors this keeps the fumes under control until I can take it outside to air out. If I'm outdoors it keeps the solvent-soaked papers from blowing away. When I'm finished I take the lid off and let all the fumes evaporate. Then I throw the paper towels away or reuse them. I try not to get xylene on my hands. This stuff will dissolve plastics so be very careful.

The finish

Once you have a drawing transferred, it is up to you to decide how to do the rendering. It is all a matter of style. Some artists use thick strokes, while others make tiny scratches. Some keep it very linear, while others like to crosshatch. Coming up with unique textures can make your work more interesting. Take a look at the work of other artists to see how they have solved the same problems you are facing.

Color

I have previously avoided adding color to the surface of my scratchboard work. As an illustrator I didn't want the risk of doing a nice black and white finish, only to ruin the color. My work was for print so it was easy enough to add the color afterwards using Photoshop. However, there are many artists who incorporate color right on their boards. Diana Lee does amazing work with color, especially on animals. She has an excellent tutorial, and I believe she has been the inspiration for many of the artists doing color work today.

Ampersand makes a set of colors for scratchboard work, but they can be a little hard to find:

Books

A Google search for scratchboard images will turn up some really nice work. To really get a true appreciation for the details, it's even better to look at originals, or at something printed. The best book I have found on the subject is Scratchboard for Illustration, by Ruth Lozner (Watson Guptill Publications 1990). It is out of print, but still obtainable if you keep an eye out for it on eBay. Along with information about the medium Ruth has compiled an excellent collection of work from the best scratchboard illustrators. I highly recommend getting this book for all the examples of different scratchboard styles. No, I'm not in it.

Meet other artists

The best art forum I know of is www.wetcanvas.com. They have a section for scratchboard art that gets a lot of traffic. There are some incredible artists there. Everyone is very friendly so go check it out!.