Scratcboard art experiences a revival among artists

Barbara Hootman

Local artist Gayle Curtis discovered scratchboard art a few years ago. Now it has become her passion.

“I’ve always doodled and created whimsical art for my children and grandchildren,” she said. “When I retired I had time to take art classes. Five years ago I discovered scratchboard art, and I really enjoy it to the point that I spend hundreds of hours on one picture. I have spent up to 1,000 hours on some.”

Scratchboard is a unique artform that has been around for centuries. It was rediscovered by artists in the 1980s.

“Like all art, the material used has changed greatly,” Curtis said. “I use a thin Masonite board which has a layer of white china clay coated with layers of black India ink. I prefer to use an X-Acto knife blade with a fine point. It is great for detailed work. There are other tools that artists use, depending on what they want to achieve.

“When using this technique the artist is doing a reverse of painting by determining how much ink should be scratched off to get the best results with lighting and shadows. I don’t use the scratch strokes but rather the tip of the knife blade to create tiny dots. I hold the blade in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other.”

Curtis made her first strokes in scratchboard after enrolling in an art class taught by Bob Travers, an internationally recognized wildlife artist, at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts. Once she saw Travers’ scratchboard work “Native American Girl” on display at the art center, she asked him to teach her the art.

“I asked him if he thought I could learn to do scratchboard art, and his answer was ‘Why not?’” Curtis said. “He never discourages a student from trying something new. I thought after seeing his “Native American Girl” scratchboard picture ‘If I can do a picture even half as good as his, I will be satisfied.’”

Travers said Curtis learned the art of scratchboard quickly.

“Gayle came to me with a passion for art, but she wasn’t sure what options she had to take her work in,” Travers said. “There are so many mediums, styles and subjects to choose from, and she seemed fascinated by all of them. Her eyes lit up when I showed her my scratchboard work of a Native American child. She took to the medium so quickly, enjoying the amount of fine detail she could create with just the board and a sharp tool. Over the years Gayle has grown into such an accomplished artist that she has begun selling her works. She continues to experiment with other mediums, but I would say she has a special fondness for scratchboard.”

Curtis’ first scratchboard picture was of her late pet, a handsome German Shepherd. She spent 300-400 hours on the work. The picture hangs in her current display of scratchboard work at the Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain along with a dozen more pictures including the First Baptist Church in Black Mountain in a heavy snow. She used a photo that the late June Glenn, a photographer for The Asheville Citizen Times shot as a model.

“Replicating the First Baptist Church in snow took 1,000 hours of work,” Curtis said. “The snow in the scratchboard picture took hours and hours. It isn’t anything unusual for me to work 30-40 hours a week on one picture.

“I get a lot of pleasure out of creating unique works of art. With the guidance of Bob Travers, I have learned to appreciate all aspects of art. I love various mediums including pencil, pen and ink, pastels, oil, acrylic and scratchboard. I also enjoy a variety of subject matter, including landscapes, architecture, portraits, automobiles and whimsical art. My husband loves sports cars, and I like to draw them and do scratchboard pictures of them.”

Currently Curtis is working on a scratchboard picture of the Montreat Gate which she expects will require more than 1,000 hours of work. She doesn’t mind the time that the art form requires, and although the work is tedious, she finds it relaxing. The finished product is reward enough.

“My heart lies in the scratchboard art technique,” she said. “It is the most time-consuming and detailed of the art mediums. But for me, it is the most rewarding.”