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Sally Maxwell: Starting from Scratch

Harnessing her passion for art and nature, Sally Maxwell of La Grange elevated scratchboard, a 19th century black-and-white graphic design medium to fine art.

“It became my life’s goal to add color to scratchboard and raise it to an art form accepted and displayed by galleries and museums,” said Maxwell, who has been working in the medium for 52 years and is one of seven original Master Scratchboard artists worldwide as designated by the International Society of Scratchboard Artists.

Her goal crystallized in the early 1970s when a Midwest amateur art competition judge called Maxwell out during the awards ceremony. She had entered several graphite pencil drawings enhanced with color.

“From the microphone in front of everyone, he told me that I didn’t need to be with amateurs because my work was far better than amateur,” Maxwell said.

After the ceremony, the judge sought out Maxwell, who was the co-founder, creative director and graphic artist at a design firm in McHenry, Ill.  Her formal art education consisted of high school art classes coupled with several college-level art history courses at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill.

The judge, who was the director of the Marshall Field’s Art Gallery Division, offered to buy every piece of Maxwell’s graphite art if she could add more color. Maxwell took his challenge—and raised him one.

“At the time, scratchboard, which is also known as scraperboard, was relegated to commercial art,” said Maxwell, who taught herself scratchboard illustration using the book, How To Cut Drawings on Scratchboard. “I worked with it every day and sensed it could be so much more, especially if I could add color.”

Scratching the Surface

Scratchboard is a form of direct engraving where the artist uses a variety of tools ranging from knives, pins and dental tools to scalpels, emery paper and sanding sponges to “scratch off” black India ink revealing a smooth white layer of Kaolin clay. The clay can be colored by “painting in” specially formulated India inks.

In her office, she created black-and-white advertising illustrations for clients. At home, she rendered animals, birds, plants, fruits, vegetables and other natural subjects—and experimented with adding color. She tried everything from food color and traditional watercolors before finally settling on India ink.

“I kept pressing the medium and found I had to cut it in a totally different manner to prepare it to receive color,” Maxwell said. “More had to be removed in order to keep the color brilliant instead of muddying it.”

Today her portfolio includes primarily African and North American wildlife enhance with a full palette of vibrant color. Her work is represented by Copper Shade Tree in Round Top, Monitou Galleries in Santa Fe, N.M. and Mountain Trails Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“My dad took me on long walks in the woods where he taught me the names of everything—I’ve just always been an outdoors girl,” said Maxwell, a self-described introvert who gravitates to rural living and moved to La Grange in 1982. “Early in my career, I preferred animals to people, but as I began to represent my own work I learned to be interested in people and their stories. We develop a kinship based on the stories of my work and the stories of their lives.”

Maxwell was pregnant with the first of her three children when she began repositioning scratchboard as fine art.

“Besides its artistic possibilities, scratchboard was the perfect medium for a working mom,” Maxwell said. “It is light, portable and unlike watercolor you can stop at any moment without ruining the piece. I never had to choose between rescuing a crying child and wrecking a piece in progress.”

In the beginning Maxwell worked on her kitchen table and, in a holdover from those formative days, still works on a flat surface.

“Flat surfaces work best for me,” said Maxwell, noting that a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis at age 22 makes her vigilant about protecting her body from repetitive motion injuries. “I work on several pieces at a time and spend no more than about 20 minutes using one particular technique, tool or motion before I rotate to something different.”

Her La Grange studio, which she designed so it could be easily converted into a small house when the time is right for downsizing, also includes work stations that allow her to sit or stand.

“Whether it’s art or life, it’s a matter of finding balance in all things,” Maxwell said.

Creating multi-dimensional, colored scratchboard art takes time—a lot of time.

“When people ask me how long it takes to finish a piece, I tell them, ‘As long as it would take you to count every line in it,’” said Maxwell laughing. “And that doesn’t include all of the time I spend answering every email, marketing, shipping, visiting galleries, attending shows, developing techniques and on and on….”

The process begins with a photograph taken by Maxwell during her frequent travels.

“I sell art to fund my travel habit,” said Maxwell, who has traveled throughout the world including journeying to Africa three times. “Travel feeds me with new landscapes, new people, new experiences—it keeps my perspective fresh.”

The photograph inspires a drawing, which Maxwell backs with chalk. She outlines the image, which transfers guidelines onto the scratchboard. Using a line tool, she scratches off the basic guidelines. Once the basic guidelines are established, she continues to add more lines thereby removing more black ink until the piece reaches a “gray” stage. She, then, strategically cuts in highlights.

As a young girl, she wanted to be a chemist, but a bad grade in calculus derailed that ambition without dampening her love of science. She attributes her success, in part, to her obsession for anatomy and physiology.

“If I’m going to be a realist, it better damn well be real,” she said. “I think many contemporary artists portray animals in abstraction because they can’t render animals accurately.”

Once all of the texture and tonal ranges are cut, the image is painted with colored India inks using a technique similar to watercolor. Unlike watercolor paintings, scratchboard provides the artist black guidelines.

“Some artists use watercolor instead of ink, but I’ve found that watercolor stains the clay beneath and you can never scratch it back to pure white,” Maxwell said.

Once the color has dried, the piece can be cut again to add final highlights.

“Some painters complain that it’s difficult to stop working on a piece, so they run the risk of overworking it,” Maxwell said. “I had the opposite problem. I tended to stop too soon.”

She credits Robert Bateman, one of the world’s leading wildlife artists, for inspiring her to “throw away the photograph” and use her eyes to identify what areas needed extra attention to create the depth and dimension she was seeking.

“With oils and watercolors, it is easier to push elements farther into the background or pull them into the foreground than it is with scratchboard, so I had to figure out how to do it,” Maxwell said. “Now I’m striving for weight and flow within my art.”

It works.

In one of her signature pieces, the male leopard, appears to physically displace space as he’s draped languidly over a limb.

Even after working as a professional artist for more than a half century, Maxwell continues to explore and push the boundaries. Currently, she is experimenting with aqueous solutions to remove the black ink. She’s begun studying sculpture, recently completing her first piece, a 3-D version of “Wild Thing,” an earlier scratchboard work featuring a spirited palomino with a free-flowing mane.

After discovering only 5 percent of the art in American museum permanent collections was created by women, Maxwell became involved in the American Women Artists’ movement dubbed “25 in 25.” The initiative pushes for 25 museum shows featuring the work of women in the next 25 years. And she’s contemplating a masterwork featuring a life-size, multi-dimensional elephant she estimates will take five years to complete.

Maxwell embraces challenges including those that can come with success.

“I’ve never asked why I do it [art], I just do it,” Maxwell said.

When she is working on a piece, Maxwell stays close until it is almost done. Then she steps away and considers it from a distance. In that moment, she contemplates where her art springs from and where it’s going.

“Sometimes, when something new works beyond my imagination, I ask myself, ‘How in the hell did I do that?’” said Maxwell laughing.

“But I’m never afraid that I’ve gotten as good as I can get because I’ve surpassed ‘as good as I can get’ time after time. I’ve worked hard to keep from becoming a caricature of myself by pushing for fresh, new and different. Frankly, I hate repeating myself, so I don’t—and I won’t.”

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by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Bernard Mendoza, Mendoza Photography


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