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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Etch A Sketch Art

Famous Ohioans by George Vlosich. Each drawing takes about 70-80 hours.
When I was a kid my parents recognized my interest (if not my talent) in art. Every Christmas and sometimes on my birthday, I'd get some sort of art related gift. I don't remember precisely what year it was, but sometime in the early 1960s I got an Etch A Sketch. Actually, the whole family played with it. No one considered it an art medium, just a clever, fascinating, time-killing toy. I never got very good at drawing with it, though I did enjoy drawing freehand city skylines (quite easy with the simple, horizontal/vertical axis principle of the thing. Although somewhere around one-hundred million of these toys have been sold world-wide, for the benefit of those deprived of the frustration of trying to draw a neat diagonal line with two rotating knobs, I suppose I should stop here and explain what an Etch A Sketch is.

An Etch A Sketch autopsy. The knobs move the rods, The rods move the stylus.
First of all it's red. It looks a little like a fairly flat, black and white TV screen with two white knobs. One changes the channel the other turns up the volume (no, just kidding). One knob controls the vertical movement of an enclosed stylus, the other the horizontal movement (above) as it removes from the back of a plastic screen a thin line of extremely fine aluminum powder leaving a dark gray image with a light gray ground. It's a little like drawing with a soft pencil on light gray paper. As simple as that sounds, they're devilishly hard to master and probably one of the most unforgiving art media known to exist. If you make a mistake, you just turn the thing face down, shake it a few times, the image disappears. Then you're ready to make another "fatal" mistake. 

If Leonardo had owned an Etch a Sketch, he might have done something like this.
(Vitruvian Man, 1490)
The Etch A Sketch is made by a small toy company called Ohio Art in Bryan, Ohio (far northwestern corner of the state near the Michigan and Indiana borders). The company started out in 1908 stamping out metal photo frames, then moved on to cheap metal toys (windmills and the like) before graduating to faux wood grain metal sheets used to make faux wood grain metal picture frames. The original drawing device was invented by a French electrician named Andre Cassagnes in the late 1950s (the only electricity involved might be the static kind). He called it the Telecran. Ohio Art ended up with it through a complicated chain of events involving various Ohio Art investors. In any case, the first red plastic toy slid off their assembly line on July 12th, 1960. For all I know my mother may have bought the first one. I don't know what ever happened to it but I recall it lasted for years. As anyone who has ever tried to open up the back of an Etch A Sketch in an attempt to preserve their painstakingly drawn masterpiece will tell you, they're practically indestructible.
George and Greg Vlosich, ca. 1989.
I don't know who might have been the first to consider an Etch A Sketch as a valid, 20th-century drawing medium (I doubt Ohio Art even knows) but it was probably some ten-year-old kid from Cleveland like George Vlosich. Today, his Etch a Sketch original drawings bring up to $10,000. From his boyhood mastery of the device, George went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Art and today owns a thriving graphic design firm featuring all things Cleveland, and any thing Etch A Sketch. He describes the process as first choosing a perfectly functional model, then completing a detailed rough draft on paper. Work with the device itself begins with a carefully manipulated line drawing. This is especially important in producing a portrait. Then shaded areas are developed much like the fine lines drawn electronically on an old black and white TV screen. Vlosich works from light to dark, drawing the lines closer and closer together to make them darker. Sometimes crosshatching is involved. Once the image is complete, the back must carefully be pried off, and all the powder and stylus mechanism removed before once more sealing up the case. From that point on the image is safe, even withstanding shipping by mail.

St. Basil, J. Labowitch
Taj Mahal, Ron Morse
Of course Vlosich is relatively young and the Etch A Sketch is relatively old so there were probably dozens of skillful artists creating these mechanical images long before he was even born; but today, there's little doubt he is among the best. As a child, Vlosich was so consistent in winning Etch A Sketch competitions sponsored by Ohio Art that the company sent a representative knocking on their door to ascertain in person that it was actually a young boy, rather than an adult creating the images. Having proven himself in their presence, they sent his work on tour to various museums around the country. Perhaps the greatest beauty of the Etch A Sketch is the range of skill levels through which its use may be enjoyed. The device is recommended for ages four and up but I can see no reason why a child of two or younger couldn't have fun developing the all important eye-hand coordination so vital to skilled drawing ability (or playing video games). Recently someone about my age noted that as he was growing up, the Etch A Sketch was his "computer." It had only one app--drawing.
President Obama, George Vlosich
Gone With the Wind, George Vlosich


Here's how it's done:


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