Cover Artist Gallery: Scott McKowen

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s October 2011 cover
October 2011

MediumScratchboard (Illustration)
SubjectThe Farms Are Not All Right” by Chris Turner
Artist ’s portfolioScott McKowen at Marlena Agency

At one time, nearly everyone has struggled with an unfamiliar or difficult pen. Maybe it was too wide, maybe it was too dry, but what was intended as a quick jot instead became a ponderous exercise in grade-school block printing. Such situations prove the adage that the tool determines the mark.

Untitled (1985) by Jack WiseDetail of Farnese Hercules (ca. 1592) by Hendrick; Wikimedia CommonsTop: Untitled (1985) by Jack Wise; Bottom: Detail of Hendrick Goltzius’s Farnese Hercules (ca. 1592)

Jack Wise: Language of the Brush, David Rimmer’s 1998 documentary for the NFB, shows the BC painter doing calligraphy with a brush he has crafted out of cedar bark. The thing is big, floppy, and a little unruly, but in Wise’s hand the effect is expressive and marvellous. On the opposite pole, 16th-century Dutch engraver Hendrick Goltzius was the epitome of control. The cross-hatched lines of his Farnese Hercules (ca. 1592), which Goltzius engraved with a burin, swell and curve so precisely that it’s difficult to believe they’re the result of a human hand. These two artists are chalk and cheese for many reasons: Wise came to his art through abstract expressionism (and Buddhism); Goltzius was an accomplished academic mannerist, rooted in the naturalism of his age. Wise’s calligraphy and Goltzius’s Hercules are both rendered in black and white only. The former’s bark brush, in spite of its twisting and dancing, was thick and crude; Wise had no choice but to wield it quickly and fluidly. Goltzius, however, had to dig each of Hercules’s lines out of a firm copper plate, planning every mark carefully because the medium is so unforgiving. Again, the tool makes the mark.

All of which brings us to Scott McKowen, whose work sparkles like pavé diamonds. The Ontario illustrator is a virtuoso draughtsman who also has a solid command of a particular, labour-intensive medium: scratchboard. A scratchboard is a piece of illustration board (i.e., high-quality cardboard) which is covered first with white clay, then with an overlay of black ink. To make a line, artists like Scott use a knife to literally scratch the ink away and reveal the clay below.

Because he works with blades, Scott’s line is sharp and precise. As with Goltzius, any grand gestures need to be planned. But unlike an engraver, Scott is engaged in a form of drawing, not printmaking. His work has a level of spontaneity that is hard to achieve in wood, copper, or steel. On our cover illustration, look closely at the squiggles he has made to indicate crops and you’ll see a line every bit as active as Wise’s.

Another obvious difference between Scott and traditional engravers is his use of colour. He is aided in this by Photoshop: after finishing his scratchboard work, Scott scans the results, then gently colours the lines and background. Because he chooses his palettes 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 scratchboard 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 — were too delicate to achieve the graphic strength I wanted.” In scratchboard you start with darkness (weight), and slowly, line by line, create light. It’s proven to be the ideal medium for Scott. And now for us as well.

Brian Morgan: After we discussed this commission, what were your initial thoughts about the story?

Scott McKowen: I’m very interested in the subject. Ninety percent of my work is theatre posters and book illustration, but most of the other 10 percent is related to food. I live in Stratford, Ontario, a city of 30,000 which has a well-known chefs’ school, several legendary restaurants, and a fabulous slow food market every week.

Antony John and Tina VandenHuevel are pioneers of organic farming in southwestern Ontario; we have been friends for twenty years. The layout of the farm buildings in my interior illustration is based on Soiled Reputation, their farm just north of Stratford. I’m quite sure that I would be fairly useless on a farm, but I have learned from Antony and Tina an awareness of the types of problem solving that farmers have to be adept at.

Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this cover? And what is your typical process for generating ideas?

Scott McKowen: I always try to let the text suggest directions for a concept. The story contrasts large farming operations with small ones, and I had to find a way to reflect this dynamic. The interior illustration with gigantic crops looming over a family farm represents the “go bigger” agri-business model. The cover illustration — a tiny farm tucked inside a cloverleaf of an urban expressway — is about scale as well, but also makes a comment about how little we as consumers know about where our food comes from.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how did you create this artwork?

Scott McKowen: I presented three or four different concepts as rough sketches. Once you picked the one you and the editors wanted to go with, I started working out the details of the architecture and landscape. My drawings are very realistic, and I need good reference material to work from. I looked at aerial photographs of farms and highways, but ended up building scale models of all the farm buildings and lighting them to get the low angle of the sun very early in the morning. I found scale models of John Deere farm vehicles in the toy aisle of the TSC farm hardware store in Stratford, which allowed me to draw them accurately from the overhead angle I needed. The final pencil sketch had all the details worked out; I transferred this structure onto scratchboard, where I created the actual engraving lines and textures. Once the drawing was finished, I scanned it and added the color digitally.

Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for this final image?

Scott McKowen: Grant Wood, the American Regionalist painter from the 1930s and ’40s, is the artist I immediately think of as the archetype for small family farms and rural agricultural traditions. Wood made a number of bird’s-eye views of rolling Midwestern farmlands, and I’m sure that’s where the idea for this aerial perspective came from.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?

Scott McKowen: I have looked at a lot of wood engravers and steel engravers.

Brian Morgan: Your work is exceptionally labour intensive. What brought you to this discipline, and how do you keep your images feeling free and flowing?

Scott McKowen: The discipline is not a problem. My studio is at home and I can block out the distractions. I enjoy taking the time to work out and execute a drawing properly. I do try to keep them spontaneous and alive. Working within the structure of a pencil sketch, the actual engraving lines are improvised completely — impromptu. I do life drawing once a week, which helps keeps my skills sharp. All that said, when there’s a deadline looming, I sometimes wish I had picked a medium that goes faster!

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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