the grass is greener elsewhere: scratching the surface

by Art Chantry ( )

this wonderful little book is one of those entirely serious volumes speculating about what life on other planets may be like. written by kenneth heuer in 1951 (P&C books), the flying saucer fad was still in it’s initial infancy and world wide popularity. this book attempts to (seriously!) describe what climate and environmental conditions on other planets, planetoids, galaxies, asteroids and comets would be like based on the full extent of our scientific knowledge of the era (which was considered vast back then. scientist were going to rule the kozmos!) then the author tried to describe what living intelligent beings on that planet would be like based on those speculated living conditions.

the conclusion? people that live on comets will look like ‘cousin itt’, with hair streaming away from their heads and touching the ground in a straight swish – just like a comet’s tail! and residents of jupiter? blobby structureless slops that sorta squish on the ground like many tentacled amoebas (because the gravity of jupiter squashes them!) inhabitants of pluto are all curled up asleep! makes completely logical unadulterated sense, right? it’s all SCIENCE!!!

as great and entertaining as this serious-as-cancer excursion into wrongheaded silliness is, i actually want you to look at that cover illustration. marvelous, isn’t it? this is an art/drawing medium called “scratchboard”. all you little computer kids out there likely have no idea what that is. so, i’m going to explain it to you (old masters can skip the next paragraph):

imagine a heavy piece of cardboard coated with a think white chalky surface – so chalky and coated that you can scuff it with your fingernail. brush/paint that surface with black ink (the kind of ink you used to buy in a bottle with names like “pelikan” and ‘”higgins” on the label – drawing inks.) use a brush to cover the area you want to draw in. once it’s totally dry, you can then take a sharp instrument and simply scratch away the black ink that you don’t want and leave a white streak. it’s essentially drawing in reverse – instead of adding what dark areas you want, you remove the dark areas you don’t want. the sharp instruments can be pins and needles or exacto knives or even pieces of wire you personally sharpen to the level of nastiness you desire. you can also scrape and shave and re-paint areas with ink as well. it’s extremely versatile and fun to work. the finished result is simply copied like a piece of line artwork (an inked cartoon image.)

this dust jacket cover image is extremely delicate sophisticated work all done throughout the book by a fella named R.T. Crane. he was apparently a scientific illustrator (for text books and science manuals) who “worked closely with the author” to get the correct imagery and level of sophistication needed to reflect the author’s scientific thinking. thus, cousin itt! don’t get me wrong, the guy was a real master – this stuff is exquisite! but, conceptually he was still in “silly animal” comic book levels (and he was NO carl barks, i’ll tell you). but, i have to admit, his planet charts and depictions of the gravitational pull of multiple planets on each other are very good and precise and explanatory. his alien species are NOT.

crane’s style is all about precision. this drawing is all done in tiny, thin little line work and is positively anal in it’s dedication and execution. i’ve met a few people who can draw like this during my career – but ONLY a few. it isn’t common and takes a real nutjob/goofball to do it as well as this. in fact, the very best detailed line work people i’ve met over the decades have been a handful of potheads. marijuana seems to react in a few rare individuals in such a way that they narrow in and extremely FOCUS on what they are doing. they can then draw in excrutiating detail the most incredibly insane images, all the while every so often toking on their doobie in the ashtray.

the first guy i met who did this sort of technique was a swell amiable clever guy named jim. the first drawing i ever saw him do was about a foot long drawing of a sea bass – drawn 100% percent to ‘scale’. what i meant by that joke was that he drew it with an “0006″ rapidogapah pen (virtually a hairline) to the full size of the actual fish – down to the exact shape and size of each scale. he carefully outlined the exact shape of each scale of the fish. it was hyper-realistic when it was finished. however, he wasn’t done, yet. he then took sheets and sheets of that old ‘letraset” self-adhesive color sticky film and very carefully cut out the flag of every nation big enough to exactly fit into each scale on the fish – one flag per fish scale. every flag of every nation on earth. it took him 9 months to do it. he was stoned the whole time. it was amazing. it was also a little crazy.

the other end of the scratchboard spectrum is a sort of direct emotional performance art. one illustrator i’ve worked with for years (carl smool) adopted scratchboard as his medium simply because he got so tired of doing the style he worked in before – building images out of little chunks of border tape and dot screens. it was amazing to look at but it took much too long to create for his restless spirit. so, he took a scraping blade originally used on zinc and copper etching techniques (seems to me i gave him my old tri-blade steel plate scraper, which he loved.) he would then get himself into a state by fretting, procrastinating and seething until he ran out of time on his deadline (a technique most of us do anyway) and then he would literally attack his pre-prepared sheets of scratchboard and literally hack the image out of the blackness in just a few minutes.

the resulting illustrations were so powerful and intense that often my clients would freak out when they saw them. one client called the image carl drew for us as “a refugee from a cambodian concentration camp.” and this was for an arts festival poster (

ershoot). it took the supreme effort of another designer who happened to be on the board of festival directors to intervene and save our design FOR us (thank you tommer peterson). carl’s work was that poowerful. and it was all scratchboard.

another guy i knew and worked with in the past (he’s gone now) was an artist named gary jacobsen. he did scratchboard very methodically and carefully that resulted in work very similar to this R.T. Crane’s work – delicate and controlled and absolutely beautiful. gary would make his scratchboard drawing very very tiny – for instance a poster of a finish size of 2×3 feet would be presented to me as a scratched-out little delicate drawing of no more that 2×3 INCHES! i would have to enlarge the drawing about 3000% to get it to fit and the nature of the line work went from prissy and delicate to bold and fantastical. the sad part of the story is that soon afterwards, gary was riding a bike and hit by a car. the tire ran over his drawing hand and he lost 80% of his mobility in that hand. after that he only drew large pastel images.

maybe the industry switch to computer generated design isn’t so bad after all. you really don’t need HANDS to do scratchboard any more, right? that’s why we all have an “invert” button, isn’t it???

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