About Scratchboard

As an artist it’s not uncommon for people to ask questions about your work, in fact it’s something most artists enjoy.  I doubt, however, that artists using more common mediums, like watercolour or oils, ever hear the question scratchboard artists are asked all the time: “Just what is it, exactly?”  I think I spend more time explaining the scratchboard process in general to viewers than I do answering questions about my own work. Lucky for me I’ve always loved talking! 

I thought I’d write this page as a general introduction to scratchboard art, the materials and technique. Also, as this page evolves, I hope it will turn into something of a resource for the newbie scratchboard artist.

What is Scratchboard, Exactly?:

Scratchboard, or scraperboard as it is called in Europe, consists of three layers: a paper or hardboard support covered with a layer of white clay or chalk, which is topped with a fine coat of India ink. The artist uses a sharp tool to scratch through the black top layer to reveal the white layer below. An accumulation of meticulously placed scratches will form an image. The boards can be left in their original striking black and white, or coloured with watercolour, ink, or acrylic paint.

Cross-section of scratchboard. Copyright 2005, Tania Nault.

Scratchboard was invented in the late 1850s as a tool for commercial illustrators and quickly became the favourite of many. Previous to scratchboard, illustrators employed traditional intaglio printing processes, like copperplate etching: an original drawing is transferred in reverse onto a plate of copper, the copper is etched to create ridges in the surface, the lines are covered with ink, and then paper is applied and pressed to make a print. Scratchboard became popular because it was less expensive to produce than metal plates, could be printed simultaneously with text, and the artists could draw their work directly onto the board. Scratchboard remained popular  into the 1950s, when photographic illustrations became the industry standard.

Scratchboard was “re-discovered” by artists in the 1980s, who began to use scratchboard as a direct engraving medium. They engraved images onto the boards, but instead of using the board to make a paper print, they displayed the boards as the final artwork. Because scratchboard engravings are very well-suited to capturing fine detail, such as in fur, feathers, and eyes, it has become increasingly popular among wildlife and other animal artists.

Is this like the ScratchArt® I see for sale in the hobby shop?

No, and yes. ScratchArt® kits are to scratchboard art what paint-by-numbers kits are to original paintings. While the basic technique of scratching may be similar, my artwork is original, based on my own drawings and the ScratchArt® kits in hobby stores are pre-printed kits usually intended for children.

ScratchbordTM – (formerly known as Claybord Black) from Ampersand Art Supply is my favourite scratchboard surface. The backing (see cross-section above) is hardboard, which doesn’t bend and has a thick clay layer that doesn’t crack. The topcoat is a very dark matte black ink, forming completely smooth surface. Another excellent selling point is: art created on ScratchbordTM can be sealed with varnish and framed without glass.


More information to follow at a later date:

Engraving Tools:




WetCanvas! – cyber living for artists. WC! is the largest virtual community of artists on the Internet. It contains information by and for artists on a variety of subjects and mediums, not the least of which is scratchboard art. Come by and visit me at the Scratchboard Art forum on WC!