This article on John Agnew and his scratchboard art, written by Meredith E. Lewis, first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
From an early age, John Agnew displayed an enthusiasm for dinosaurs, reptiles and the animal kingdom at large, but his parents were artists, and family life bred exposure to the art world. “Early on, I thought I’d become a zoologist,” says Agnew, “but I realized that I could combine my passions for art and animals by being a scientific, museum or zoo illustrator and exhibit designer. I eventually came to understand that just doing art satisfies my desires, but I still love museums and zoos and occasionally do contract work such as murals and illustration.” Today Agnew enjoys an international reputation for his realistic acrylic paintings and murals of reptiles and amphibians.
Scratchboard Precision and Detail
John Agnew has also made a name for himself as a scratchboard artist. “I enjoy acrylic for painting because it lets me work quickly,” he says. “I enjoy scratchboard for its ability to produce very precise detail and an etching-like line quality.” He cautions that the work is both tedious and time-consuming, however, requiring patience and staying power. “Sticking with it is the hardest part,” he says. “I set small goals (measured in square inches) and constantly remind myself of how great it will look when I’m done, and how this tedium will pay off in the end.”
John Agnew’s Abstract Aesthetic
Influenced by his mother’s career—Emily K. Agnew was an expressionist painter—the John Agnew often finds himself looking for bold design statements within the visual field. “Sometimes that draws me in close to an animal, as in the drawing New Guinea Crocodile (above),” he says. “There, I used the lines and patterns in the face of the croc to make what’s essentially an abstract image that underlies the portrait and produces a balanced tension. I include enough of the animal to say ‘crocodile’ with emphasis, while retaining an abstract aesthetic.”
Subjects for Scratchboard
Appreciating the high contrast and complex line work of scratchboard, John Agnew finds the detail-oriented medium particularly well-suited for rendering the texture he likes in his animal portraits. “The beauty of scratchboard is the vibrant contrast between line and space, light and shadow,” he says. “Portraying harsh light on a textured surface is something that works really well in scratchboard, so I tend toward images like that. Smooth, blended tones aren’t so easy to execute.”
For subjects Agnew turns towards those that excited him in his youth. “I guess I just never grew out of the dinosaur phase,” he explains. “Modern reptiles resemble dinosaurs, so early on I started keeping snakes and lizards as pets, and my fascination just grew. Few artists pay attention to these amazing and colorful creatures, so I almost feel it’s my duty to show everyone how most are really beautiful creatures, not fearsome ones.”
Clearly Agnew is depicting individuals in nearly all of his scratchboard images of animals. “Many of my close-up views are intended to be portraits,” he says. “We usually view small creatures as representing an entire species, so we miss the details of their individuality.” Accuracy in depiction is very important to Agnew, and he takes great care to replicate a subject’s own minute patterns of scales or teeth.
Capturing Nature in Scratchboard
For John Agnew, composition begins with a camera. “Because my images are so detailed, I need photographic references to maintain accuracy,” he explains. “Since I come from a background in scientific illustration, I have a need to depict my subjects as absolutely true to life.”
Because Agnew relies heavily on photographic references, he takes all of his own photos, which provide the authenticity he strives for in his scratchboard, although he’ll typically combine several different images into a composite composition. “I try to be aware of what’s around me and open to whatever exciting imagery I can find,” he says. “If I’m in a place such as the Everglades, which is full of potential subjects, I’ll look for certain lighting situations or angles that work well with scratchboard.”
Since image quality is important for the fine-detail work for which he’s known, Agnew makes use of a DSLR camera—a Nikon D7000—with a 70-300 mm macro zoom. Later, back in the studio, he converts his pictures into black-and-white on his computer, processing the images for “maximum dynamic range and sharpness.”
John Agnew’s Considered Approach
Composition and craftsmanship go hand in hand for John Agnew, and the placement of the figure is an intrinsic part of the overall success of the piece. “When I place a figure in an environment, there are two basic considerations,” he says. “Is it an accurate portrayal of the animal in the correct environment? And how does it fit into the overall composition?”
Before he can begin, Agnew knows he must be familiar with—even an expert on— his chosen subject. “Putting an animal in an unnatural pose, an unnatural situation or an incorrect environment is going to ruin the image,” he explains. Consequently the artist travels frequently and maintains a lifestyle and study habits conducive to lifelong learning.
When his compositions please the eye and have something to say about a subject, John Agnew knows he’s done his job. Annoyed with the overwhelming number of pictures of more “marketable” animals, such as pandas and tigers, Agnew has dedicated his life to the “lesser-loved” species. “Not enough people appreciate these animals in the way that I do,” he says. “I think that crocodiles are just as important as pandas but, because they’re not cute and fuzzy, they may get short shrift in terms of conservation efforts. I want to pass along a bit of my appreciation for them.”
Sharing his joy in nature and appreciation for science—without overt moralizing about or politicizing his subjects—gives Agnew a sense of purpose. “Nature is more fantastic than my imagination will ever be,” he says. “Showing how incredibly amazing an animal is can be enough to get people to care about it.”
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