Sunday, June 1, 2014

Aqua Vida ~ Life Water

Hi Everyone! Judy Coates Perez here, hoping to inspire you with our precious life resource:


Originating in the primordial soup at the genesis of our planet, all life began from single cell protozoa and evolved into the complex creatures that now populate the earth. Water is life, without it there would be none, even we begin life in the waters of our mother’s womb.

Thinking about this theme, I remembered a scratchboard I made several years ago of an ocean scene and thought it would be fun to revisit that technique and the challenge of working in a method that is so contrary to how we usually create.

Scratchboard is a thin masonite board covered with china clay and a layer of back ink. Most often when drawing or painting we start with a white page or canvas and add deeper color or value to it for shading, to create depth and form. With scratchboard your darkest values are already there, to create an image you remove color, black in this instance, to create tints and highlights. 

Working on scratchboard definitely challenges you to think about value and work in the negative. You have to consciously avoid removing too much of the dark areas and build up scratches to create lighter areas and highlights. It is the exact opposite of how we are used to working.

I had a teacher in art school who once made us cover a huge piece of paper with charcoal and use a kneaded eraser to remove black in order to draw the still life in front of us. It was a powerful exercise in seeing.

To create my new water inspired image, I bought a package of 5” square scratchboards from the art store and gave one to my daughter Indigo and took one for myself and looked around the studio to see what kind of tools I had on hand to work with. 

You can buy tools made specifically for scratchboard, the simplest tool being one that looks like a dowel with a needle sticking out of it. Indigo happened to have one, but I didn’t, so I used a bent pointed tip dental tool I use for sewing. A straight tool would work better than a bent one, but that’s what I had, I also used the tip of an exacto knife. Wire bristle brush tools or steel wool work great too, for scratching away large areas of background.

I decided to draw brown bull kelp seaweed, commonly found on the beaches of northern California. I found an image on the internet as reference to get the basic shape and proportion of the kelp, as well as show me where light and shadow give the form dimension. I altered the image of the kelp in my sketch to give it more movement and fill the space differently. 

A note for people who are frightened by potential copyright infringement issues; when it comes to using photos that aren’t yours for reference. It is ok to study photos to see how things look, what color an object might be in nature, or the texture it has. It is not okay to copy an image directly from a photo, and reproduce it in a painting or artwork. Instead, redraw things with differences, combine imagery from different sources in new ways, do not trace an image, change the arrangement, alter it and make it uniquely yours.

Sometimes it can be helpful to create a black and white image to help see the gray values and where you need to put highlights and shadow.

I made this one by putting the photo in photoshop and removing the saturation (color).

To transfer my design to the scratchboard I used a product by Mistyfuse called Transdoodle. This a chalk based pressure sensitive transfer paper available in blue, white and yellow, that you place between your drawing and the surface you want to put the image on. 

I began scratching the design into each area with a few light scratches in the direction of how I wanted my lines to go, being conscious of drawing curved lines on a round object to reinforce the contour of the shape. Also remember not to put too many scratches in the areas that need to remain dark. 

As I worked the design, I wiped away the residual chalk lines. A paint brush or soft cloth works well for that.

Build up the highlights on the image slowly, once you scratch away the black to white you can't go back and make an area darker. 
Try not to over work areas and lose the range of values from light to dark.  It’s easy to go too far when your mind is so used to making things darker instead of lighter.

After putting in all the light and dark values of the kelps ribbon like blades, I added the ripply surface texture by angling the blade of an exacto knife to make little scratches.

I love the strong graphic contrast of that black background. You can also add color to finished scratchboard images with clear inks. Dr. Ph.Martins India inks work really nicely, or in a pinch you can use felt tip markers.

My daughter Indigo created this beautiful swordfish with her scratchboard.

As much of our country struggles with drought, I want to encourage you to think about beautiful bodies of water like ponds, lakes or oceans, as rain that falls from the sky, as a home for a multitude of creatures and plants and make some art to honor it.

Come on, jump in, the water's fine! :-)

The last day of each month we have a slide show of the Sketchbook Challenge Flickr group's work for that month's theme. To have your work in the slideshow at the end of this month, be sure to tag it on flickr with jun638.


  1. Wonderful work. I cant find in my country something like this. Maybe in the future:)
    Best regards.

    1. The process and result of scratchboard work can be simulated by starting with any black substrate and making marks on it in white.

      A simple option would be black paper plus a fine-line white pen. Granted, this differs from scratchboard work in that this is technically an additive process, and this method flips the depth effect in that this adds white on top of the substrate surface rather than revealing it below the surface. However, there is a similarity to scratchboard work, in that this method does require the reverse thinking that July so aptly describes.

      Another option, if scratchboard is unavailable, would be to use acrylics to simulate the scratchboard's depth and layering. On a rigid substrate you can apply a layer of light molding paste; once that's complete dry you can sand it smooth and then brush a layer of black paint over the entire surface. Once the whole thing has fully cured, the same tools (very sharp) you'd use on scratchboard (also the tools used for cutting rubber stamps) can be used here. And the cool thing is that you can vary the depth of the light molding paste to allow for more 3-D effects than can be achieved with regular scratchboard; this created more shadows, which adds middle values... if that's what one wants.

    2. Another technique I learned mega years ago uses cardboard and crayons. I was taught to put a heavy layer of black crayon on the cardboard and scratch through that to create the design. Then, make several layers with colors, black on top and scratch through the layers to create a colorful picture.

    3. I have used this technique with a piece of acetate painted with black acrylic

  2. Judy, thank you so much for this detailed project description in concert with the theme of water!

  3. Great tutorial, as usual, and Indigo is also an amazing artist! Both pieces are terrific!

  4. You and your daughter are crazy talented!! AMAZING WORK!

  5. I totally love your and your daughter's work! Brilliant! Thanks for the theme!

  6. A great new theme. I look forward to getting my hands wet. Is there a tag for this month's picture on Flickr?

    1. I just updated the blog post with it Frieda. The tag for June 2014 is jun638

    2. Thanks, Sue! I just had a wonderful time looking at all the yellows and I anticipate the water ones will be just as much of a treat!

  7. Beautiful work, next time I need an artistic "jump-start" I am going to try scratchboard. Thank you for introducing me to new media!

  8. I love this look (especially your first marine scene), but I've never known how it is created. Thanks for all the steps! Your work and your daughter's work are gorgeous.

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