Illustration by Scott McKeown of  Punch & Judy .

Illustration by Scott McKeown of Punch & Judy.

Everyone has at one time had to struggle with an unfamiliar or difficult pen. Maybe it was too wide or it was too dry, but what you had intended as a quick jot became a ponderous exercise in grade-school block printing. Such situations prove the adage that the tool determines the mark.

The BC painter Jack Wise is shown in David Rimmer's Jack Wise: Language of the Brush (NFB) doing calligraphy with a brush he had crafted out of cedar bark. The thing is big, floppy, and a little unruly, but in Wise's hand the effect was expressive and marvellous. On the opposite pole, the masterful hand of 16th century Dutch engraver Hendrik Goltzius is the epitome of control. In his Farnese Hercules. The cross-hatched lines that he engraved with his burin swell and curve so precisely that it's difficult to believe that they were the work of a human. These two artists are chalk and cheese for many reasons — Wise came to his art through abstract expressionism (and Buddhism), and Goltzius was an accomplished academic mannerist, rooted in the naturalism of his age — but a huge difference between Jack's calligraphy and Goltzius' Hercules is the tools. Both pieces are rendered in black and white only, but Wise's bark brush, in spite of its twisting and dancing, is thick and crude. Wise had to make his marks quickly and fluidly. Goltzius had to dig each line out of a copper plate. This is a very slow process, and he had to plan every mark carefully because the medium of engraving is so unforgiving (this is one of the reasons our paper money is still engraved). The tool makes the mark.

Scott McKowen's work sparkles like pavé diamonds. Scott is a virtuoso draughtsman, a fact attested to by both our current intern, the illustrator Jack Dylan, has seen Scott in action, and of course, the results of his labours. But Scott also has a solid command of a particular medium: scratchboard. A scratchboard is a piece of illustration board (high-quality cardboard) which is covered first with a layer of white clay and then with black ink. To make a line Scott scratches the ink away with a knife to reveal the clay.  Because he works with knives Scott's line is sharp and precise, but it also means that scratchboard is a labour-intensive medium. As for Goltzius, any grand gestures need to be planned. But unlike engraving, Goltzius' medium, Scott is actually engaged in a form of drawing, not printmaking. This means that Scott's work can have a level of spontaneity that is hard to achieve in wood, copper, or steel: look closely at the lines that Scott has made to indicate the crops on the cover and you'll see a line every bit as active as Wise's.

Another obvious difference between Scott's work and engraving is Scott's use of colour. He is aided by this by Photoshop: after finishing his scratchboard work Scott scans it and begins the almost equally laborious job of gently colouring the lines and the background. Because he chooses his colour combinations with care, the individual areas in his pieces owe their colours to optical mixing (think Monet). As a result there's a real richness to his finished pieces, almost an extra dimension.

Scott took up this medium in the 1980s to add weight and impact to his drawings. As he says, "I found that I was frustrated that the weight of [my] pen lines — even with crosshatching to build up the density — [they were] too delicate to achieve the graphic strength I wanted." Because in scratchboard you start with darkness (weight), and slowly, line by line, create the light, this proved to be the ideal medium for Scott.

September, 2011