Why Scratchboard is My Favorite Type of Art

I talked briefly about scratchboard in my last post. But I held back my full enthusiasm for the medium when I realized I had more than enough to talk about for a full post. So if you have no idea what scratchboard is, perfect! This post is for you. But if you already have a good understanding of scratchboard, even better. I’m here to indoctrinate you.

What is Scratchboard?

First scratchboard piece
“Reach Out,” my first scratchboard piece

Scratchboard, other than one of my favorite media, is simply a board (or paper) coated with black ink. Using a blade or other sufficiently sharp tool, you create an image by scraping away the black surface to reveal the white underneath. It’s drawing in reverse, penciling in lights instead of darks.

I started working with scratchboard in high school, thanks to a super brief unit in one drawing class. Since then, I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me to continue working in this uncommon medium, sneaking me new tools and gifting me a real scratchboard (as opposed to the cheaper paper we used in class).

My first scratchboard piece was overdone, meaning I’d scratched too hard into the surface and cut up the layer underneath. It’s not too obvious unless you know what you’re looking for; the white areas are greyer and more textured than they should be. I also took to the piece as I would a pen illustration, using bold white outlines that don’t make full use of scratchboard’s potential. But even after all this time, I do still appreciate the waves and flames in this piece.

After my first experience with the medium, I began finding ways to incorporate scratchboard into my art assignments and even when I couldn’t, continued to experiment at home. In the process, I spent lots of time practicing values, carefully considering light sources, and discovering how much detail this medium could really capture. Hint: far more than any of the pieces in this post.

But not everyone likes scratchboard and it does have a learning curve. Here’s the best and the worst of scratchboard:

Scratchboard Pros

Scratchboard allows for SO. MUCH. DETAIL. I’ve already linked to Heather Lara‘s art – now twice – because it’s amazing. This artist is pretty swell too, producing realistic work in the same vein, but mostly sticking to black and white. If you want as much detail as possible, this might be the medium for you.

Scratchboard also seems to be particularly conducive to drawing fur, although this is just my opinion. I’ve found that human skin requires smoother and more skillful line work in order to keep a face from looking like a checkerboard. You tell me which looks easier:

Maybe I’m just more confident with fur.

Working in scratchboard requires you to really focus on light, shadow and precision. I find it to be a fun and exciting challenge, something to break up the monotony of only paint or pencil. But describing scratchboard as a “break” from drawing and painting might be deceptive because it certainly isn’t easy.

Scratchboard Cons

Scratchboard is unforgiving and this was the biggest challenge I had to overcome. Any mistake you make is engraved on the page in bright white. Everyone can see it. No erasing. No turning back.

Not being able to erase also makes planning your composition more difficult.You can’t just sketch out your idea and erase the stray lines later. For someone like me, whose drawing style is extremely sketchy (haha?), scratchboard felt completely unnatural at first.

But this doesn’t mean you have to completely wing it. Many artists sketch on a separate piece of paper, place it over their scratchboard, then draw over their sketch again with pen. Doing so creates a slight mark in the scratchboard – enough to give you a very precise guide, though one that’s hard to see. You can also sketch directly onto your scratchboard with pencil, as long as you keep it very light. Unfortunately, if you need to erase those pencil lines later, just know that your eraser can leave faint marks on the black surface.

However if you’ve made a mistake, not all is lost! It is possible to cover up your mistake with black ink (although it won’t look completely untarnished).

scratchboard Cinnamon Window portrait

So not being able to erase or sketch directly onto the surface is a pretty big con. But one more point I’ll mention is that scratchboard is time-consuming, perhaps even more so since mistakes are so costly. Almost all of my scratchboard pieces are very small, with the moon and raven pieces being the largest at 14″ x 11″. But I pick up my X-Acto knife anyway and find that the satisfaction of completing a piece is well worth the effort.

How to Get Started

Despite the challenges that come with scratchboard, I took an immediate liking to it. Maybe this was because of my perfectionist, hyper detail-oriented personality. But no matter your personality, I’d absolutely encourage you to try it once. If you’re interested, here’s what you’ll need:

Sketching Materials

You can use any pencil to very lightly sketch your idea on the scratchboard before sketching – just be careful. You can also use tracing paper, place it over your scratchboard and use a pen of your choice to draw over your lines and leave a light imprint on your scratchboard.

It’s also not a bad idea to get some black construction paper and white colored pencils to practice and flesh out ideas. You likely won’t get the same intensity of white with these practice materials, so in addition to helping you plan, it’ll be all more the exciting to see the difference when you transfer your colored pencil sketch to scratchboard.

Of course, you can always dive in and wing it.


There are a number of options for scratch tools made specifically for scratchboard. These have a handle and generally a few different options for the tip, providing different textures and shapes.

You can get a school grade scratch art set here (this is actually the same tool I used in high school!). I have a fancier handle now with newer tips, which you’d be able to purchase at any art supplies store.

However my tool of choice now is a simple X-Acto Knife. It’s easy to find, stays sharp longer, and allows me to produce the finest amount of detail I’ll ever need.

You don’t have to limit yourself. I’ve tried paper clips, coins, pins and thumbtacks on scratchboard. A mini scratchboard set I found at Barnes & Noble came with a little wooden stake. Anything that can make a mark is fair game. Once you’ve gotten a feel for how scratchboard works, you can begin to guess what might work as a tool. This part is fun, but of course, you might not get the same control you had with an X-acto knife or scratch tools. Experiment!

Surfaces: Boards and Paper

If you’re just starting out, scratchboard paper is essential. Even if you want to go straight to an actual board, paper is nice to have for practice. Colored pencils on construction paper might be fine for sketching out your idea, but it’ll never give you a feel for the different textures and strokes you’ll be making on scratchboard. This is my go-to paper; it’s a decent quality and isn’t too costly. Most of the time I cut the sheets down to a smaller size, so the pack lasts longer.

As for boards, I use Ampersand, mostly because it’s widely available in the US. There are a good variety of sizes to choose from too. I favor the smaller sizes that come in packs of three. I’ve actually never used any other board, but Dick Blick has a long list of options.

scratchboard Smokey dog portrait

I hope this post has sparked some interest in scratchboard. Contrary to what I’ve shown here, scratchboard isn’t limited to hyper-realism, and I’ve experimented with more abstract compositions as well. So while I doubt I’ll ever stop etching scratchboard miniatures of my dogs, I’m excited to discover where to take my scratchboard next.

scratchboard edge gender
Edge exhibit

5 Ways to Attack Art Block

Maybe I’ve already written a lot about art block. But just because I’ve defeated it once doesn’t mean it I won’t struggle with it again. And again. And again. In general though, there are some tricks that have and still do help me get through a slump.

When I’m feeling unmotivated and talentless – because confidence and skill self-esteem are definitely tied to my artistic dry spells – the first thing I try to do is…

1. Draw what’s in front of you.

Yes, this might sound boring. I’ve done more sketches of coffee mugs and pencils than I’d like to admit. But when I’m not feeling creative, I remind myself that drawing from real life is still art. It’s something I can start almost mindlessly, even if internally I’m grumbling about how the subject matter is boring, that there’s nothing interesting in my room or my house or my city. Sometimes though, I’m lucky enough to get caught up in process of creating something. That look of annoyance on my dog’s face. The little Pokemon figurine that brings me nostalgia. The way light and shadow fall on a blanket – how do I best capture that, without worrying that I can’t?

Drawing what’s around me also has the benefit of forcing me to focus on skill. Since there’s nothing compelling about a coffee mug in front of me, I focus on just making it look good. Maybe I try to make it as realistic as possible. Maybe I’m just noticing where the shadows fall today, in this lighting. Maybe I like to imagine that in doing this repetitive exercise, I’m not in a creative block, but just conducting an exploration of light and colors, like Monet and his haystacks.

But if drawing what’s in front of you still seems boring you could…

2. Use new media.

When I’m testing out a new medium, it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is, I’m just trying to get the feel of for the medium. It can be a good way for me to get lost in art instead of worrying about the quality of what I’m producing. Here’s a quick list of ideas; I’ll go into some of them in more detail.


  • Digital
  • Real pen and ink
  • Scratchboard
  • Paint (watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempura, coffee)
  • Colored pencil
  • Pastels
  • Charcoal
  • Collage


For me, the apex of trying something new would be going digital. I’m way out of my element with digital painting, but it’s fun and easy to do at any time. No special supplies needed. So one day while fiddling around on my phone, I started to paint – you guessed it – a coffee mug. It held my interest because there were so many brushes and a cool color-mixing tool to try out.

Never mind that the sample paintings in the app were like the one on the left, while mine was the one on the right:

Dip (or Nib) Pen and Ink

Nowadays people use cartridge-filled pens; they’re easier, offer more control, and don’t require constantly having to dip a pen into an ink pot. Dip pens can be fickle, sometimes leave blotches, and don’t always create the line you want. But here’s a secret: in the world of fine art, dip pens are seen as more legitimate. I’m not going to argue for or against that point, but there’s something fun about using an old-fashioned dip pen. So why not try it and feel more legit too?

Well, you may or may not feel more legit on your first attempt, but you still might feel instant gratification from trying something cool and new.


Most people aren’t familiar with scratchboard, or they think of that cutesy craft they did as a kid where you scratch away the surface of coated paper to reveal a rainbow or some silliness underneath. Yeah yeah. I guess that’s scratchboard. But there are some seriously amazing professional artists using scratchboard too. Heather Lara, for example, whose detailed work contains an incredible level of realism.Or Keely Dolan, who creates riveting fantasy and mythology-inspired illustrations.

Scratchboard does take a long time, and it’s tricky since you have to think about lighting in reverse, but it’s so much fun. At the very least, it’s a great way to focus on detail and value.

It might be a little harder to find scratchboard or scratchboard paper, but you can also make your own by coating some stiff paper with ink. There are scratch tools intended for scratchboard – they look like dip pens and have a variety of different nibs – but you can also use an exacto knife or experiment with other objects, like paper clips or spare change.


There are so many kinds of paint: watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempera. Even if you’re an artist by trade, I’m willing to bet there’s some type of paint out there that you haven’t mastered. Why not try a new one?

Watercolor is the most accessible, with cheap sets available almost everywhere. The materials are as basic as you can get – just add water. However it’s often been called the most difficult type of paint to master, leaving you plenty of room for improvement.

And what about non-traditional paints?

Coffee seems to be gaining popularity, and for years I’ve been following an artist who creates art O Ka Fee (with coffee).

3. Be messy.

This is where my own biases come into play. My art tends to be very detailed and tightly-controlled. Loose, abstract art is the bane of my existence. Okay not really. I just really struggle creating it. So for me, it helps to try letting loose because it’s so opposite to what I’m usually doing.

Maybe you’re already a loose kind of artist, and in that case, I don’t know if being strict and detailed would be helpful or frustrating…but when you’re stuck, anything’s worth a try.

Another component to being messy though, is to not worry about how your art turns out. Create simply for the purpose of creating (or if you must, practicing). Give yourself space to do art that is private, free from the expectations and judgments of others.

4. Try different times of day.

By accident, I discovered that I really like doing art in the morning. It’s a nice way to start the day before I become sucked into the world of screens and blue light and headaches. But other days, I’ve really gotten sucked into an art piece at night, working for hours without realizing how much time has gone by.

What about you? Maybe you’ve been trying to work in the afternoon, but you find that actually your art brain is really awake in the morning. Or maybe it depends on the day. I’m still experimenting to find that sweet spot.

5. Find other artists.

Human beings are social creatures, and artists, despite popular belief, are the same. Finding other artists around you has a whole host of benefits, from forcing you to feel accountable to providing mutual encouragement and inspiration.

If I were given this tip though, I can easily imagine myself groaning and grumbling. You mean I have to go out and find people? How am I supposed to just find an art community? But the great thing about living in 2016 is that finding a community as simple as logging onto Tumblr. If you engage and put yourself out there, others will respond.

I still think real life interaction is important, but being in touch with other artists from the comfort of your couch is pretty swell too. And at the very least, well, you can browse through plenty of pretty art and get inspired.

Bonus: Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Some of these tips might not work as well for you. I get the feeling that over time what works for me will change and evolve as well. But dry spells will inevitably be part of any creative’s life.

Creating art is an amazing work, but it also involves an amazing amount of hard work. It’s not only about skill. I only heard this idea put into words recently, in a quote from Joan Erikson, quoted in Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson:

“You have to have a certain basic trust that you can do this – you are going to do this. You have to have will, you have to have imagination enough and fancy enough to do it your way, to make it unique. You have to have confidence, identity, and so on.”

Artist, your work takes more than anyone other than you can know. But what I do know is that the world needs your creativity.