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A Fine Line: Scratchboard Illustrations by Scott McKowen

by Scott McKowen

There has long existed a relationship between commercial and fine art, notes Christopher Newton, artistic director of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, in the introduction to this book of over 200 graphic images by illustrator Scott McKowen, of Stratford, Ontario. Best known for posters that capture the essence of plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, and Molière, McKowen has also produced music posters, book covers, and other illustrations. His medium is scratchboard, a distinctive technique in which an effect similar to fine engraving is achieved by scratching delicate lines into black ink on a white chalkboard.

Though scratchboard may seem oddly labour-intensive in today’s Photoshopped world, it is an art that allows McKowen’s whimsy and affinity for classic subject matter to shine. The chiaroscuro effect harks back to 19th-century fairy tale illustrations and Dürer etchings. Each entry in the book pairs a full-page colour illustration with McKowen’s loose description of how the idea evolved – often from a line of dialogue or an event in a play – into the final visual statement. A poster for Macbeth at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in 2000, for example, was inspired by the haunting line “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” It presents a tortured man covering his eyes, unknowingly casting a shadow in the shape of a king’s crown onto the wall.

Another powerful image is for a production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in which a staunch, full-figure portrait shows Hedda haunted and defiant, holding a pistol while engulfed in flames. The book also devotes a number of pages to McKowen’s illustrations for Marvel Comics’ Neil Gaiman-penned graphic novel 1602, which features 17th-century versions of Marvel superheroes, and to his delightful book cover illustrations for children’s classics such as The Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In the final chapter, McKowen shares his observations about working in scratchboard, including how he has managed to adapt the technique to today’s digital technology. Still, McKowen points out that it’s a dying medium, which is disappointing to learn after having been seduced by his mastery of the technique. Though clearly disheartened by its uncertain future, McKowen’s passion is unmistakable and contagious.