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On Creating Etch A Sketch® Art

  • October 26, 2017

My first attempt at drawing with an Etch A Sketch®* was in December 2010. Having bought the toy for my son, I picked it up, curious to see if I could produce anything drawing-like. My first few tries were unimpressive, but I found the slow, difficult-to-control process oddly satisfying. At first, I did mostly simple line drawings. However, I soon began working with form and shading, mostly in images of the human form. When the ephemeral “shake-when-done” quality of the Etch A Sketch® lost its appeal, I devised a method for preserving the finished artworks.

An Etch A Sketch® basically consists of a glass plate that is electrostatically coated with aluminum dust. The ultra-fine dust is sticky, with a paint-like quality that allows it to permanently adhere to the glass. Within the casework are tiny polystyrene beads that deposit the dust on the glass when the device is shaken upside down. Also included is a stylus on a pulley system attached to the knobs. The stylus scrapes the aluminum off the glass to produce dark lines that create the image. The lines are erased when more dust is shaken onto the glass to re-coat it.

All of my works are done with one single line from start to finish. The format also forces me to work primarily within the constraints of simple horizontal and vertical lines. The inability to lift and move the stylus requires that I be both highly controlled and tolerant of chaos. Every line is permanent; there is no erasing or reconfiguration. The works are therefore full of imperfections that can be seen on close inspection. I work millimeter-by-millimeter, achieving different levels of shading by varying the distance between lines and by retracing multiple times over small regions. Each work takes up to 70 hours to complete. In the darker regions, you can see the plastic casing in the background, which gives the image an interesting three-dimensional quality. I particularly like the reflective, luminous quality of the aluminum against the dark background of the plastic casing.

When I finish a drawing, I disassemble the Etch A Sketch®, remove the inner drawing mechanisms and aluminum dust and reassemble the finished work to make it permanent. The Etch A Sketch® can then be shaken or the knobs turned without damaging the image.

*The Etch A Sketch® product name and configuration of the Etch A Sketch product are registered trademarks owned by the Spin Master Company.

Genomics expert Andrea R. Tilden, Ph.D., of Waterville, Maine, is the J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology at Colby College and a visiting professor of bioinformatics at the MDI Biological Laboratory. She is originally from Ellsworth, Maine, where she had the “great fortune” of being mentored from an early age by Scarlet Kinney and other local artists. Though she has worked in diverse media — oils, graphite, photography, and sculpture — the human form has always been her primary focus. Tilden has been coming to the MDI Biological Laboratory for 20 years as a visiting scientist and as a participant in Maine INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) short courses. She is currently working with MDI Biological Laboratory scientist James A. Coffman, Ph.D., on studies of endocrinology, stress responses, aging and circadian processes.