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Martiena Richter’s vision: Prey seen in the eyes of the predators, a leopard, left, and a snow leopard.
Courtesy photos
Martiena Richter's vision: Prey seen in the eyes of the predators, a leopard, left, and a snow leopard.

Eyes for detail at Southern Wildlife Festival
Illinois artist brings rare medium to show
Scratchboard not common in art world

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

Martiena Richter has an eye for detail, and that's why you'll see so much detail in her eyes.

Not the eyes she uses, but the eyes of her art subjects.

And you'd better lean in close when examining one of her compositions of a leopard or other big cat or you'll miss the finer points of her rare art form.

What you first thought was a reflection of light turns out to be the image of an animal's next meal in its black pupils.

Richter's attention to intricate detail does more than make her art unique. As you examine work of nearly 30 artists participating at this weekend's Southern Wildlife Festival, you'll notice she's the only one displaying colored engravings, also called scratch art.

"There are not many of us," Richter said. "You're not going to see it at every art show. I can think of maybe half a dozen nationally known artists that do scratchboard."

Never heard of scratchboard?

Well, you probably did something like it in third grade. You rubbed colored pencils on a blank page, then rubbed black crayon over the entire surface. Then you scratched out part of the crayon, leaving colorful images that contrasted with the black.

Richter's work is quite a few grades past elementary school. She has a bright white china surface behind black ink. Aided by a magnifying glass, the 60-year-old scrapes out images with an Exacto knife, then comes back and paints in details with transparent watercolors.

Asked if she describes herself as a sculptor, she said even though she uses a knife, her work technically is a drawing.

"It's actually just the reverse of a drawing," Richter said. "Instead of drawing in the dark shades, I'm scratching in the light."

An Illinois woman who emigrated from the Netherlands at age 6, Richter said she likes that her chosen art form makes her stand out at shows, but she chose the medium because it satisfies her need to show fine detail.

“With the point of the knife you can get such great detail that you can’t with a brush,” she said. “A lot of people who pass by my booth think they’re seeing photographs because the detail is so good.”

Love for details

It was a love for details that drew her to accounting in her early professional days. She deciphered phone records for dividing bills among long-distance and local telephone service providers.

Highly detailed work, she said, but she didn’t like working in an office. Now she works in her home studio, generally scratching and painting for four to five hours a day for a piece that might take three weeks to finish.

“This is a plan-ahead medium,” she said. “I sketch it all out on paper first to get it the way I want it. Then I transfer it. You can always add more things, but you can’t take it away once it’s on the board. That scratch is always there.”

Richter said she still occasionally does pen and ink drawings, but her subject is always wildlife. Her gallery shows a broad interest from yellow irises commanding the attention of a ladybug to an oriole guarding his nest. Mostly, however, she focuses on big cats: lions, tigers and leopards.

She said she’s drawn to their independent nature, their sleek design and powerful way they move and hunt.

“Of course I love their beauty and their beautiful eyes,” Richter said, noting all her subjects come from photographs she made herself. “When I do a piece, I always do their eyes first. That’s the most important part. That’s what brings the animal to life. If those eyes look round and wet, then I know the rest of the painting will be smooth sailing.”

It’s an unforgiving medium because unlike brush strokes, the scratches are permanent. The artist has to either incorporate the mistake into the artwork or start over. After more than 30 years of scratch art, Richter, a self-taught scratch artist, said she rarely makes mistakes.

The rare art medium creates a lot of questions from admirers, and she said art show attendees often request her to demonstrate the techniques.

Though she can show samples of unfinished works in various stages, she said he doesn’t perform at shows because a crowd would break her concentration.

“When you’re paying so much attention to detail,” Richter said, “you can’t be distracted.”

26th annual Southern Wildlife Festival

What: Art show and sale featuring more than 25 artists from across America; duck decoy competition; wildlife cooking seminars; birds of prey and retriever dog demonstrations.

When: Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Calhoun Community College.

Cost: $3 for adults, $2 for students and senior citizens; free for children 6 and younger.

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