Mr. Etch A Sketch

Good enough to frame: Tim George is able to make detailed drawings of buildings and monuments -- and a certain frisky mascot.
Good enough to frame: Tim George is able to make detailed drawings of buildings and monuments -- and a certain frisky mascot. (Photos By Mary Annette Pember For The Washington Post)
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Some artists paint on canvas. Others make sculptures using clay. Tim George uses an Etch A Sketch.

He started 19 years ago when his daughter was in the hospital. To amuse her and pass the time, George got an Etch A Sketch.

As anyone who has ever tried to create a masterpiece on the popular toy knows, getting the squiggly lines exactly where you want them is quite a trick.

At first, George worked on simple shapes: squares, triangles and, later, circles. Then he began copying cartoon characters such as Charlie Brown and Garfield. Learning how to create shading and texture came last.

Once he had all that down, he began drawing animals. He started with a zebra. "I thought, black and white, that ought to be pretty neat," he said.

Eventually he worked his way up to drawing elephants, his daughter's favorite animal.

George, 56, faces a challenge that most other artists don't. If he messes up, he can't just paint over his mistake. He either has to work it into his drawing or shake the Etch A Sketch screen and start over.

"It depends on how big the error is," he said. "There is no selective erasing."

How It Works

Inside an Etch A Sketch are plastic beads and an aluminum powder that clings to the screen because of static electricity. A point, called a stylus, moves on two rods. When you turn the dials on the front of the Etch A Sketch, one rod moves up and down, the other one goes right and left. The moving stylus scrapes off the powder, creating what seem to be black lines. What you're actually seeing is the darkness inside the case.

When you shake an Etch A Sketch, the aluminum powder starts clinging to the screen again.

For a long time George didn't have a way to make his drawings last. Sometimes when he was taking his etchings to show at schools, he'd hit a bump in the road and lose part of his hard work.

He decided that the only way to protect his work would be to remove the aluminum powder that wasn't sticking to the screen. First he tried drilling a hole in the plastic case. But he wasn't able to remove all the extra powder.

Ohio Art, the company that makes the toy, heard about his problem and sent him some Etch A Sketches with backs that could be removed easily, making it less difficult to clean the insides.

How He Does It

George researches his subjects at the library before he starts. If he plans to draw a building or monument, he might photograph it from different angles until he gets an image he can use as a guide while he draws.

Depending on the difficulty of the subject, he spends three to 15 hours on each drawing. His sketches have been featured in children's museums, art galleries, an Etch A Sketch calendar and a book.

George works full time as a security officer for a company in Columbus, Ohio. Sketching is his hobby, and he loves to talk about it on visits to schools, hospitals and senior centers.

"A lot of people know me as Mr. Etch A Sketch," he said proudly.

-- Amy Orndorff

© 2007 The Washington Post Company