Kaolin is another name for china clay. It is widely used in the paper industry as a a filler or as a surface coating to improve whiteness, texture and print adherence. It is also used as a filler in some white paints, to extend the titanium dioxide pigment and to modify gloss.
As a coating for art board, kaolin has been used in the production of scraperboard (UK name) or scratchboard (US name) for some time. These boards are card-based and are typically sold with a black ink coating that is selectively removed to reveal the white ground. The effect can be similar to linocut and has been a popular technique in illustration.
In 1994, an American artist, Charles Ewing, came up with an improved version of this surface that “would readily accept very wet applications of watermedia […] and which could simply be varnished and framed without glass like an oil painting”. He developed this in partnership with the US company Ampersand, to produce Claybord, which consists of a high-quality hardboard coated with a mixture of kaolin and acrylic resin and sanded smooth. Ampersand remain the only commercial source of the surface and it is their boards that I use, but I prefer to refer to them generically, just as I would refer to a canvas.
Why I use kaolin-coated boards
Over the last few years I have been moving more towards drawing than painting. My previous primary practice was based on palette knifes and oil paint – broad sweeps of colour on stretched canvas, but these techniques were not suitable for rendering the intricate shapes and form that I had become increasingly interested in. I picked up my pens again, after relegating them to the sketchbook for so long, and began to work out how I could use them to create the larger and enduring work that I envisaged.
One of the problems was presentation. Ink is usually used on paper, and paper is usually framed under glass, with a mount to hold the glazing away from the worked surface of the paper. This framing convention protects the paper but can be expensive and heavy for large drawings. I had already started to make the frames for my work on canvas, and I appreciated the simplicity of glass-free framing. Was there a more robust surface that could be drawn upon, using steel-tipped pens and “permanent” liquid inks, and that could be displayed without glass?
Having a few squares of plywood to hand, I gessoed it and explored that as a surface for ink. The gesso, while less absorbent that the paper I was used to took the ink well enough, but the pens were prone to snagging or skipping on the texture of the grain.
It was around then that my research uncovered Claybord. The idea of the white line as an expressive and unexpected addition to a drawing was something that I had been exploring using white ink with a dip pen, but the ability to scrape back in a highly selective manner to the white ground sounded far more effective.
At the moment, this surface delivers exactly what I want from it. It allows me to combine precision and fluidity, and to frame it in a simple and direct manner.