Wildlife Artist - Rikki Fisher - Reveals The Secrets of Scratchboard

by Rikki Fisher (Australia)

The natural world gives me immense pleasure. I have my mother to thank for teaching me to appreciate nature as a child. I have enjoyable memories of clambering over rocks with her on sunny days, catching skinks for her aquarium or playing with the many different dogs she bred. Coupled with an adventurous spirit, I exchanged dolls for climbing trees, collecting bird’s eggs, caterpillars or frogs. All these experiences fashioned me into the person I am today – a Wildlife Artist.

When not exploring my surroundings I immersed myself in drawing. Growing older I found work, and later family life crowded out the time to pursue my art. From time to time I caught a glimpse of where I wanted to be when I enrolled in short art workshops. However it wasn’t until I took early retirement 11 years ago and moved from Melbourne to Nimbin (northern NSW) that I fully turned my  attention to discovering where my way of expressing art would lead.

In 2011, I went on a three month backpacking holiday to East Africa. My journey took me to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. Whilst in Africa I went on some safaris where I had the pleasure of seeing and photographing an abundance of wild animals. From drawing and painting mainly Australian birds, the subject of my artwork now shifted to a whole other world (or continent) of wildlife. My inspiration came from a long fascination from afar.

At around the same time I came across an art magazine that showcased (for me) a new technique called scratchboard. The artist whose work I was admiring was Patrick Hedges from SA, a founding member of the International Society of Scratchboard Artists (ISSA) based in USA. I got online and found a whole new world of scratchboard artwork.

Scratchboard is a board with a thin clay coating covered with black ink. A scratch tool is used to scratch through the layer of black ink revealing the white clay underneath. You can buy board that is pre inked, called scratchboard or un- inked called clayboard.

Scratchboard originated in the 19 th century in Britain and France. It became a popular medium for reproduction in single colour book and newspaper printing. In recent years there has been a revival in this technique but with a more sophisticated result.

What struck me about scratchboard was the level of detail and contrasts you could achieve with just black and white. It was so simple, yet amazingly striking. At the time I discovered this medium, I had been using charcoal to achieve dramatic contrasts but I couldn’t get the detail I wanted. Scratchboard seemed to be the answer.

Scratchboard suits artists who are very patient and with a penchant for detail. The artwork is made up of copious tiny strokes that take hours of patient work, building up each layer until you have created a 3 dimensional effect. Often scratchboard artists work on small pieces (5”x7”) because of the length of  time it takes to produce a finished piece. I prefer larger sizes and it is not uncommon for me to take 1 to 3 months to finish one piece.

My preferred tool is a fiberglass brush, which is broader than the fine blades of an Exacto knife that are commonly used. The fiberglass brush is perfect for the fur textures I do, giving a soft effect like a blunt graphite pencil. When you vary the pressure on the brush you can control how much ink you scrape off the board.

You can use a variety of tools on scratchboard, basically anything that scratches. Nibs, steel wool, fiberglass brushes, emery boards or tattoo needles all have their uses.

The way to approach a scratchboard is to scratch over the whole image on the board then re-ink sections by brushing on diluted ink with a watercolor brush on the areas that need to be darker. Then you re-scratch them when they are dry. I prefer to use an airbrush instead of a watercolor brush as I have found it gives me a softer, smoother gradation quicker. ‘Quick’ is the motivating word for me as scratching is such a slow painstaking process. This process of scratching back and layering ink is repeated as many times as you need until you get the depth or 3 dimensional look you want.

In Australia scratchboard isn’t well known, even among artists. Partly this is because scratchboard materials and tools haven’t been readily available here. It is more common in the USA as I soon found out when it came to buying artist quality scratch materials.

When I first heard about scratchboard I went to my local art store and bought what I thought were the right materials; I was given some scratch ‘cardboard’ and a stylus with a point, only to find I couldn’t get the fine lines I had admired in the Artists magazine. Discouraged, I assumed I couldn’t handle the medium and searched on-line in the hope of finding some lessons. My research was unsuccessful and I put the scratchboard materials in a drawer and that was the end of the matter.

A year later a wildlife artist called Sandra Temple offered a workshop in Queensland. I enrolled to find that what I thought was my inability to scratch correctly, was actually my use of inferior art materials. Now with the correct materials, I was off and running.

A good brand of scratchboard is called Ampersand, which is made in the USA. Since last year the Ampersand scratchboard is readily available in Australia through Art stores that stock Canson products.

In 2012, I entered my first International exhibition, it was the International Society of Scratchboard Artist’s (ISSA) Annual Exhibition, which was to be held in Vancouver, Canada. My attitude was ‘let’s have a go’, not believing that I would win anything. To my astonishment and delight, I won the top award in my category - Gold, Best in Show, in the Open Category for my piece called ‘Nip’. This was only my fourth ever scratchboard artwork.

In 2013, I was approached by a gallery owner who wanted to represent me. Later that year I held my first Solo Scratchboard exhibition called ‘Stripes, a touch of the Wild’ at The Channon Gallery, located inland from Byron Bay NSW. My work was well received and many of my artworks sold.

In 2014 I applied to become accredited with ISSA as a Master Scratchboard Artist (MSA). A wide-ranging and high standard of criteria had to be met before I was accepted by ISSA as an MSA. There are only 4 scratchboard artists in Australia with a Master accreditation. I was amazed to be accepted as I had only been doing scratchboard for a little over 2 years. Later in the year I flew to North Carolina, USA to attend their 3 rd Annual ISSA Exhibition. I entered the ‘Master Category’ and came away with Bronze for my work called ‘Out of the Darkness’. I also had the opportunity to be one of 3 jurors judging the Open Category and to demonstrate my techniques at their weekend workshop. Since then I have entered each year and won an award in the ISSA annual exhibition.

Here in Australia I have won a number of awards for my scratchboard artwork and have had the opportunity to travel North, East and South coasts of Australia holding one or two day workshops. I am passionate about this medium and would like to see more art exhibitions recognize scratchboard as a category in it’s own right, as it’s often hard to fit scratchboard into traditional categories. I believe this can now happen as the medium is now more accessible. More of Rikki’s work can be seen on her website www.rikkifisher.com or Facebook @rikkifisherscratchboard.