Joan Miró. Self-portrait. 1937

Scratchboard – an unusual technique for scribbling a drawing

Joan Miró. Self-portrait. 1937
Joan Miró. Self-portrait. 1937

Scratchboard is a graphic technique in which an artist scribbles a drawing with a sharp chisel on a paper or cardboard sheet filled with ink. Scratchboard is also called waxography, since the paper is pre-coated with a thin layer of wax before pouring ink. Unlike engraving in this technique, the master creates not a form for printing prints, but an image ready for demonstration to the viewer.

Scratching is one of the simplest and most accessible drawing techniques. Therefore, it is often used in kindergartens and primary schools to develop creative skills in kids.

Children's drawing using scratchboard technique
Children’s drawing using scratchboard technique

Types and features of grating

Scratchboard is an interesting and varied graphic technique that provides the artist with many opportunities for self-expression. Finished works may differ among themselves in the following parameters:

  • The type of substrate (paper or cardboard).
  • Base color (black, white, multi-colored).
  • The type of drawing (linear or textured, using hatching).
  • The type of tool used in the work (cutter).
  • Topcoat type (ink, oil paints or gouache).
  • The type of primer (wax, chalk, clay, egg yolk).
Cristina Penescu
Cristina Penescu

The professional artist uses a variety of cutters to create crisp, detailed images: diamond, chisel, or knife cutters. In children’s art, drawings can be scratched out with all sorts of improvised means: toothpicks, pointed sticks, paper clips, carnations.

Grattage history

The history of grattage dates back to ancient times. In Ancient Greece and Rome, the technique of decorating the walls of buildings by scratching out the top thin layer of plaster – “sgraffito”, was widespread. The peak of its popularity falls on the era of the early Renaissance; you can still find houses decorated using the sgraffito technique in different cities of Europe.

The beginning of the twentieth century was marked in the visual arts by the emergence of numerous avant-garde movements. Artists were actively looking for alternative forms and means for creativity, new opportunities for the realization of their ideas.

Giovanni Guida. God dematerializes the coronavirus. 2020
Giovanni Guida. God dematerializes the coronavirus. 2020

Modern art owes the invention of the graphic technique of gratting to the genius German avant-garde artist Max Ernst. He was the first in 1925, while accidentally examining an old parquet, the idea came to mind to create works by scratching out a paper or cardboard base. A year later, his collection of scribble drawings “Natural History” was published in Paris, and a little later the first personal exhibition of works made in the new technique took place.

In subsequent years, many outstanding figures of avant-garde art turned to scratchboard in their work. They gradually perfected this technique while creating their bold, groundbreaking work.

Scratchboard is widely used in the children’s education system these days. But only a small fraction of professional artists apply this original technique on an ongoing basis in their daily work.

Scratchboard, Hans Hartung. T1967-H16. 1967
Hans Hartung. T1967-H16. 1967

Famous gratting artists

Scratchboard, Richard Rappaport. Joseph is the defendant. 1971
Richard Rappaport. Joseph is the defendant. 1971

Connoisseurs of contemporary art are familiar with the names of well-known scratch artists. The greatest contributions to the development of this technique were made by the following masters:

  1. Max Ernst. The famous German artist did not remain an ardent adherent of grattage for long. Subsequently, he switched to other techniques and throughout his life did not tire of experimenting. But it was Ernst who was the author of the invention of the grattage.
  2. Joan Miró. The Spanish avant-garde artist has also left a bright mark on the history of gratting. Throughout his life, he tried to get away from traditional methods of painting and find new forms of self-expression.
  3. Hans Hartung. A French artist of German descent modified paint brushes and rollers to create convenient scratching tools. With their help, he painted his paintings with broad and decisive lines.
  4. Giovanni Guida. The young Italian artist rightfully belongs to the best masters of the 21st century grattage. He is active in this technique and achieved widespread fame at the age of only 25.
Scratchboard, Sgraffito on a private house in Austria. End of the 19th century
Sgraffito on a private house in Austria. End of the 19th century