3.5 Once upon a time

The purpose of this exercise was to produce a series of black and white illustrations in response to a popular fairy story or folktale.

Key words from the brief:

  • Your illustrations need to bring the characters, locations and plot of the story to life
  • Make the most of the dramatic qualities of black and white
  • Think about where you’d physically place your images in relationship to the text
  • Reflect on how successfully your images connect to your chosen text


My starting point for this work was the need to work in black and white and to make the most of the dramatic possibilities that this offers. This, combined with my research for 3.2 The Metamorphosis, where I’d read the version of the story illustrated by Peter Kuper who used black scraperboard to create his images, made me want to try out this medium.

I was attracted to it because the scrapping process and end result are very similar to relief printing that I explored in some detail during Printmaking 1.

The folk tale needed to be short, simple and dark. I decided to look through the work of Hans Christian Andersen to see if there was something suitable. Amongst his many well known works I found an intriguing short story called ‘On the Last Day’.

It describes the journey of a pious man who is taken by the Angel of Death to heaven and on the way experiences a number of trials. A translation of the text can be read here: http://vanhise.lss.wisc.edu/~aschmidt2/danish/hca/texts/onthelastday.hca.html

The subject was visually interesting and I felt I could easily create key scenes using black scraperboard.


The story has five parts:

  1. The Angel of Death visits the pious man and takes his soul
  2. The strange masquerade
  3. The man surrounded and taunted by large black birds
  4. The ground covered by sharp flint stones that cut the man’s feet
  5. Questions at the Gate of Heaven

Part of the brief was to consider where to place the images in relation to the text.

The relatively short word count and the scraperboard format were the two main constraints that made me choose the text/image relationship. The number of key frames within the story also worked well with this 16-page format.

Book spread wireframes


I found starting the design work for this exercise was really difficult because it required a real mind shift in approach. For the past 12-months I’d mostly been working in sketchbooks making work base on direct observation and in this exercise I was being asked to make an interpretation of an existing narrative.

I felt like I needed to really push the image design alot to explore different compositions and points of view in order to arrive at the most effective image. I realised that the visual narrative would rely on bringing the characters to life using posture and pose to communicate meaning.

I did a lot of thumbnailing before deciding on the final designs.

A5 Moleskine sketch


Before scratching the final artwork I made a couple of test strips to experiment with different tools and textures.

Scraperboard test strip

The material didn’t behave as expected and it took a little while to work the best tools and how to use them. I assumed it’d be a bit like etching or engraving which is either a scratching or gouging type action, but the etching tools didn’t work that well. In the end I found the best tool to be a pointed scalpel blade.

Scraperboard test

The first image I created was the strange masquerade. This took around nine hours to create because I had to work out some areas of the image as I was going.

Illustration 1 – The strange masquerade

I worked directly onto the scraperboard using a blown-up thumbnail sketch printed at actual size as reference for sizing of characters and composition.


Ink pen thumbnail blown up to actual size for reference

The strange masquerade – final artwork

A strange masquerade – Black scraperboard, 230mm x 150mm

Illustration 2 – Taunted by large black birds

For this illustration I combined several thumbnail sketches together and used a printed version of this to trace out the outlines of the image using white tracedown.

This approach gave me a more flexible and creative approach to try out different compositions very quickly.


Black birds thumbnail composite
Ink pen thumbnails composited together and blown up to actual size for reference

Taunted by large black birds – final artwork

Taunted by large black birds – Black scraperboard, 230mm x 150mm

Page mock-ups

I mocked up two 2-page spreads to demonstrate the relationship between image and text.

The first with image on the right.

Layout spread 01 copy

The second with the image on the left.

Layout spread 02


What went well

  • Black scraperboard is a great medium for me to work with. It feels very much like working with a combination of etching and woodcut print techniques with the printing, so building very much on my experience from Printmaking 1. I need to experiment with white scraperboard too.
  • I was very happy with the figure drawing and gestures. I discovered an App called Skelly that is used as reference for drawing anatomy. It’s great to create reference for different poses and points of view.
  • Spending more time on thumbnailing and image design really paid off.

What I’d do differently/better

  • The scraperboard images took a day each to create. It would have been great to illustrate the whole story but I ran out of time.


Andersen, Hans Christian (1852) On the last day At: http://vanhise.lss.wisc.edu/~aschmidt2/danish/hca/texts/onthelastday.hca.html (Accessed on: 17.11.19)


%d bloggers like this: