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Heidi Robichaud

Heidi Robichaud

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Widely accepted as one of the most important truly American folk arts, a variety of modern artists have transformed scrimshaw from an art with a primarily nautical focus to a widely diverse artistic expression...

People have been using ivory for thousands of years to produce durable, practicaland decorative items such as jewelry, needles, bowls, clasps, harpoon tips, net sinkers, bowdrills and other tools. The art of scrimshaw, however, is relatively recent.Image credit: Wikipedia commons... "History of Whaling" - click to see the source

Developed by sailers over 200 years ago during the New England whaling days, the first scrimshaw was created on Sperm whale teeth. Life on a whaling vessel was often quite monotonous.

During times of no whales, captains kept their crew busy keeping the ship clean and in good repair. However, days at sea were long and there was plenty of idle time.

Scrimshawed sperm whale tooth- Image credit to Wikipedia commons... Click for larger image and sourceScratching on ivory became a popular pastime that eventually developed into a finely honed craft and art. Using simple tools like sailing needles or knives to scratch the teeth and lampblack or ink, sailors created images of whales, ships, women and whatever their imaginations conjured up.

In addition to art, sailors produced a variety of useful carved or scrimshawed items from whales teeth and bone, including needle holders, clothes pins, combs, games and pie crimpers. These items could be sold back at port to supplement the whalers often meager incomes.

Ivory was plentiful in many areas of the world and became widely regarded as a symbol of wealth. Massive quantities of intricately carved and engraved objects were produced in the Far East.

Ivory was also used in Europe to produce piano keys, cane handles, billiard balls, toilet sets and other accessories. Many pieces used in religious ceremonies are still preserved in monasteries.

Some of these luxury objects were combined with precious stones and other materials and are highly prized by collectors and museums around the world today.

Scrimshaw is a fairly simple process. It can be done with a variety of sharp pointed tools and colors and almost any smooth, relatively hard material can be used. Many internet sites offer descriptions of techniques and instructions on how to scrimshaw.

Here, Heidi describes her technique: "I work on ancient ivories and never use fresh or recently taken ivory. The walrus ivory I use is at least pre-1972, which is when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. Although some of this ivory is still white, most of it is several hundred to several thousand years old and has been stained by contact with a variety of minerals in the soil and sea floor.When designing a piece, I work with the patterns, grains and colors offered by the ivory.

Scrimshawed ivory bottle... For example, a crack or dark streak might become part of a horizon or mountain and a light spot might be incorporated into a highlight or snow patch. Using a pencil (grease, china or #2 lead) I draw my design onto the polished surface. I use calipers to help me maintain proportion if I am working from a photograph and am careful to make sure important details are right before I get started with the etching.

I always begin with the most difficult parts, like eyes and faces, so that if I make a mistake, I only have to sand off a little bit. The only way to correct a mistake once you've have begun etching is to either go over it darker, which might require changing your design or sand it off and start over.

I begin etching lightly at first to rough in my design and give the whole thing a rubbing of my base color of oil paint. The paint is simply rubbed on and wiped off with a cotton cloth. If I am happy with what's happening, I will go ahead and etch, beginning with the darkest areas first, stopping frequently to apply and wipe off color. When I have finished etching all the areas I want to be dark, I will begin etching areas that will be a lighter color, working my way up, etching and staining areas from darkest to lightest. My palette is usually quite simple, browns, deep blues, ambers, earth tones. I rarely use black. My base colors are indigos and dark browns.

I most often use the unstained polished ivory where highlights are desired. To me, this is one of the beauties of the art of scrimshaw. I use bright colors sparingly, even when depicting flowers, birds or clothing. My technique is stippling, which involves making a lot of little holes in the ivory. This allows for subtle shading and soft edges. It's also easier to cover up a minor error with stippling than with lines.

Enough dots close together makes a line. I use a range of pressure to create to make dots of different depths and widths that result in textural variations. I use the same sharpened point in a comfortable handpiece for everything. To sharpen the point, a simple high carbon steel point, I remove it and replace it into a foredom to turn it while I sharpen it on a fine stone. It is important to keep your tool sharp to maintain sharp colors and details. Ivories differ in hardness and I sharpen the tip whenever I need to."

BUYER BEWARE: (Identifying Quality)
In many states, cheap "scrimshaw" can be found in abundance. It is possible that very cheap pieces might be laser etched and mass produced. These pieces can be identified as machine made because they are identicle and the etched lines are of the same diameter.

Handmade scrimshaw reflects the human touch that can produce an infinite variety of depths of cuts and thicknesses of lines. Although handmade scrimshaw pieces that are produced in quantity can be quite similar, each one is still unique.

The international trade in wildlife and plants is regulated by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (C.I.T.E.S.) [a multinational protege of the United Nations]. Formed in 1973, the aim is to establish worldwide controls over plants & wildlife that require protecting due to declining populations.

Click here to see the summary of the international and U.S. Fish & Wildlife laws which regulate the commerce of ivory.

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