Coyote Winters, scratchboard art by Judy Fairley

Wildlife Woman – The Scratchboard Art of Judy Fairley

Great Blue Heron, scratchboard art by Judy Fairley

Great Blue Heron by Judy Fairley

There’s something mesmerizing about scratch art.

Many of us remember, as children, coloring a sheet of paper with wax crayons, then, once we filled the entire piece with hues, finishing it off with a black crayon over the entire top. Using a stick or sharp implement, we created magical pictures by scratching a design into the blackness, revealing the color underneath.

Such an experience is not limited to childhood.

Coyote Winters, scratchboard art by Judy Fairley

Coyote Winters, scratchboard by Judy Fairley

“I love this medium because of the fine detail it affords me,” says Judy Fairley, a Clarkston artist who has taught scratchboard for nearly four decades at the Clarkston campus of Walla Walla Community College. Portable, economical, but labor intensive, scratchboard for adults involves a thin layer of clay on a Masonite or fiberboard backing, which is then coated with an application of black India ink. The final image emerges as the artist scratches through the ink to the white clay below using an arrow point tool, X-Acto knife, or scalpel.

Often, Fairley applies watercolor or colored inks to tint the exposed clay before covering it with black, resulting in a full colored scratchboard painting. A signature member of Women Artists of the West, a professional organization that focuses on the promotion and development of female artists, Fairley specializes in wildlife art, creating intricately detailed portraits of wolves, coyotes, bears, deer, moose, and more. Her reference photos she takes herself, many from zoos and wildlife rescue operations.

“There was a woman near Hamilton, Montana, who had a wildlife rescue, and I would go there to get photos,” Fairley remembers. “She was the closest to a mountain woman that I could imagine, with skin as brown as a leather saddle and twice as worn, but she had the formulas to bring any wild creature back from the brink of starvation.”

Brown Pelican, scratchboard art by Judy Fairley

Brown Pelican by Judy Fairley

One time, when Fairley was having promotional photos taken for a brochure, the rescue professional suggested posing with a grizzly cub, comfortable with humans because he was part of an educational presentation for children.

“So I went, thinking, ‘what could possibly go wrong with this scenario?’”

When Fairley entered the cub’s pen, “he took one look at me and came running at full speed. When he got to me, he proceeded to climb me like a Ponderosa pine tree.”

The photos, capturing “this complete panicked and frantic look” on Fairley’s face, were unusable, but everyone but Fairley enjoyed the show. “He’s never done this before,” the rescue professional told Fairley. “He must really like you.”

Most of the time, creating artwork is not so dramatic, although even the most mundane of actions results in surprises.

“I had an incident when the person watching me do a bobcat, sneezed on the piece,” Fairley says. “It lifted the ink on all the areas of black that the phlegm landed on, creating a speckled pattern.

Wrangler, scratchboard by Judy Fairley

Wrangler, scratchboard by Judy Fairley

“So I put the bobcat in a snow storm . . . actually I liked it better.

“But, I make sure to tell people to please don’t sneeze on my work: everything can’t be in a snow storm!”

Fairley works out of two studios, one in her home, and one at the Dahmen Artisan Barn in Uniontown, 16 miles away, where visitors are free to watch – but not sneeze upon – the artists at work. In addition to the teaching Fairley does at WWCC, which also includes pastel drawing, the artist recently offered a scratchboard workshop on a Princess cruise ship from Seattle to Alaska, and is presently looking to organize another cruise workshop to the Mexican Riviera.

Thanks to the portability and inexpensive nature of the medium, Fairley packed supplies for 20 students, along with a personalized tote bag for each, in a roller suitcase.

“I tell people when I am doing demos, that the only cheaper method to do in art is drawing with a pencil and a piece of paper.” Cheaper, she adds, does not translate into faster: some works take months to do, and the concentration required is demanding.

With work in collections from England to Australia, Fairley participates in numerous shows, from those sponsored by the Women Artists of the West, which span the country, and the International Society of Scratchboard Artists (February’s show is in Australia), to events closer to home, including the Snake River Showcase in Clarkston and the Oldfield Western Art Show in Puyallup.

It is the perfect blend of travel, teaching, learning, networking, interacting and creating. Just so long as nobody sneezes, or mistakes her for a tree.

Wenaha GalleryJudy Fairley is the featured Pacific Northwest Art Event artists from Monday, August 29 through Saturday, September 24.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at

Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists.   Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.

This article was written by Carolyn Henderson.