Scratchboard has been used for scientific illustrations since the late 19th century. A handful of artists have mastered this exacting technique, which involves scratching through a black ink surface to reveal a white China clay layer beneath, but few have come at it with as deep a knowledge of the subjects being depicted as Jim Lish.
Lish is a renowned expert on golden eagles and one of the finest scratchboard artists working today. His illustrations have appeared in numerous ornithological journals and popular nature magazines, as well as in golden eagle monographs, both in print and in preparation. His work has also been featured in exhibitions across the country.
In 2021, the artist gave his lifetime’s production of black and white images of eagles and other wildlife to the Academy. Some of these are scheduled for exhibition in 2023 as part of the museum’s Biodiversity Year observation. They are now housed in the Academy’s archives, where they have joined an extraordinary collection of ornithological illustrations by some of the best wildlife painters of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Among the strong black and white illustrations that were already in the Academy’s art collection are pen and ink drawings of birds and mammals by Alexander Wilson, Ernest Thompson Seaton, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, George M. Sutton, Earl Poole, Charles Tunnicliffe, Terence M. Shortt, Robert Verity Clem and Robert Mengel. Until the arrival of the Lish collection, the only other important scratchboard artist associated with the Academy was Francis Lee Jaques, an American naturalist-artist renowned for his work in this medium. Jaques also painted in color and was commissioned to create the background for one of the African dioramas in the Academy museum.
The Lish scratchboards of golden eagles are particularly appealing to students of biodiversity because they so accurately capture not only the anatomy of one of the world’s most stunning avian predators, but also its behavior, the prey on which it depends, and the many varied habitats in which it lives. Several of his illustrations provide wordless narratives of rarely witnessed events in an eagle’s life.
The keeper of three live golden eagles (at different times) over the past 40 years, Lish has spent most of his professional career associated with Oklahoma State University, from which he received his undergraduate degree in 1973, his Master of Science degree in 1975, and his PhD in Wildlife Ecology in 1982. He has been an award-winning member of the university’s faculty for more than 40 years.
When not teaching, his raptor research has taken him into some of the most inaccessible places on earth, rappelling down cliffs in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and points beyond to study the birds’ nesting biology. In 1998, he traveled to Mongolia to observe and draw a variety of different birds of prey, including golden eagles.
In his classic book “Rendering in Pen and Ink,” Arthur Guptill states that this medium is the most restrictive in the field of art and one of the most difficult to master. Scratchboard, where the black-on-white process is somewhat reversed, is even more challenging.
With scratchboard, lines are removed from the background, not added to it. By combining both techniques, Lish is able to achieve strong graphic images enhanced by remarkable patterns of texture, form, movement, distance, depth, light and shadow.
“It has been my goal to produce illustrations that communicate something interesting or rarely observed about the golden eagle’s life,” he says “and [to do so] in a medium not in common use today. Portraiture and detailed studies of golden eagles are challenging and rewarding, but I derive the most enjoyment from drawings where the eagles accentuate a landscape and thus depict a bird that is inseparable from the desolate places it inhabits.”
The images he has created provide both an important record of avian life and a visual delight for anyone who sees them. We are fortunate that this extraordinary collection is now housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
By Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow