When I first heard about the Desert Museum exhibit hosted by the International Society of Scratchboard Artists, I thought immediately of the artboards I used to play with when I was a kid: Use a sharp point to scratch the ink off of a black board and reveal a rainbow of color underneath.
"I think I remember doing scratchboard when I was a kid," I tell Paul Hopman, a Tucson artist who is exhibiting work at the event.
"We all did," he says. "The lucky ones, anyway. It's literally the oldest art in the world. You know what a petroglyph is?"
Turns out, they work the same way scratchboards do—or at least professional scratchboards. Unlike the ones most of us played with when we were kids, scratching off the black ink just reveals a white background. Some artists leave the work colorless, while others fill in the white sections with whatever they want, be it pastel or magic marker.
The ninth annual ISSA Exhibition, which features 67 pieces by 47 different artists, is ending in early February, and is typically an opportunity for ISSA members from all over the world to meet face-to-face, while also sharing more about the art of scratchboard with exhibit attendees.
"I think it's a beautiful form of art that's not really as well known as, say, painting or charcoal or pencil," said Anne Palmer, ISSA exhibit director for 2020. "This is a great opportunity to see the best people in the world—literally the best artists in the world in scratchboard—in one place."
The art pieces (many of which are for sale) are incredibly detailed: Portraits of humans, still lifes, outdoor scenes and many shots of animals. And they come in both color and black and white. Many are so realistic they look like photographs at first glance. Reproducing photos is Hopman's specialty, actually. He gets permission from photographers who capture iconic figures—say, the most-photographed mustang in the world—and then creates a scratchboard version of the image. The simplest pieces he's created take about three hours. The most complex? 250 hours. He's been doing scratchboard for 52 years, since he first took a course at the American Academy of Art in Chicago.
After decades of honing his own craft, he's turned his attention toward getting other people excited about scratchboard. He started Scratchboard University in 2017, a program that allows people to buy scratchboard equipment online and watch a series of videos to learn about the art. He's reduced the price of the kit during COVID-19, hoping to help cure the "stay-at-home blues" many are experiencing. If buyers have any questions, they can him up directly for help.
"The premise of Scratchboard University, and my goal with it, has always been educating youth," he says, mentioning the decline of art programs in public schools. "The people behind the blue curtain, like in the Wizard of Oz, are making decisions for my grandkids, and it's unacceptable."
While he hopes scratchboard can help kids have fun while learning skills like concentration and perseverance (practice makes perfect!) he also wants to introduce the art to people of all ages. When he offered a session on scratchboard at an art club in Green Valley, one woman, a grandmother, fell in love with the art and now offers her own classes.
"We've had so many people in Tucson who have become scratchboard artists just because they're exposed to it," Palmer says.
Her story isn't too far off: She spent years as a pen and ink artist, but learned about scratchboard at a through the Southern Arizona Arts Guild one day and shifted her focus.
"I love this. I put everything else aside, and this is what I've been doing for the last six years."
The International Exhibition of Scratchboard Art is on display at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum's Ironwood Gallery (2021 N. Kinney Road) through Sunday, Feb. 7. Due to COVID-19, please check the website or call ahead to confirm current museum hours. Desertmuseumarts.com and 883-3024.