Mr. Etch A Sketch

American Artisans, American Icons, Featured Article
on February 8, 2014
Todd Yarrington The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., created on an Etch a Sketch

Twirling the white knobs on an Etch A Sketch, Tim George, 63, creates a near-perfect circle, demonstrating the mechanical drawing toy for a small group of spectators at Blendon Woods Metropolitan Park in Columbus, Ohio.

“If you make a mistake, there’s no selective erasing,” George says. “It’s a matter of patience.”

During the last 25 years, George—known as Mr. Etch A Sketch—has learned to be patient, precise and persistent while mastering the popular baby boomer toy.

As a child, George played with one of the first Etch A Sketches manufactured in 1960 by the Ohio Art Co. in Bryan, Ohio. However, the Clintonville, Ohio, resident didn’t begin Etch A Sketching in earnest until 1988 when his daughter, Ellie, was recovering from heart surgery. He looked around the hospital for something to entertain the 4-year-old. In the playroom, he found an Etch A Sketch and began doodling for his daughter, drawing Charlie Brown and other cartoon characters.

“She was fascinated,” he says. “Soon I had a group of kids coming around each night to watch me draw.”

Since then, Etch-A-Sketch art has become George’s passion. He’s created more than 400 pieces of art with the toy, including detailed renditions of every U.S. president, the White House, Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, nature scenes and wildlife.

“The challenge for me is to make the drawings as realistic as possible,” he says, noting that each drawing takes at least three hours to complete, sometimes much longer. “I don’t pay attention to time anymore. It takes as long as it takes.”

Etch A Sketch contains a fine powder of aluminum and polystyrene beads, encased in an iconic red square frame with a glass screen. Two white knobs on the bottom corners of the toy control an internal pointed stylus. One knob moves the stylus vertically, the other horizontally.

Each work of art is based, essentially, on a single unbroken line created by the powder-removing stylus. Powder that clings to the screen—because of an electrostatic charge—creates the image. To erase a drawing, the artist simply turns the toy upside down and shakes it to create a new canvas. To preserve a sketch, George opens the back of the Etch A Sketch, removes the stylus and excess powder, and closes it back up—leaving the drawing intact.

George’s Etch-A-Sketch art has been exhibited at galleries and museums, including the Delaware Children’s Museum and the Ohio Statehouse. In honor of the moment that gave him his start, he returns each year to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus to draw for patients and to distribute Etch A Sketches donated by the Ohio Art Co.

George has a particular passion for sketching nature and wildlife. He hikes in parks around Ohio, taking photos of squirrels, deer, turkeys and other wildlife, and returns to his studio to recreate the animals on Etch-A-Sketch screens.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Sharon Dunn, 43, of New Albany, Ohio, as she and her two children Emma, 13, and Andy, 10, examine George’s art at Blendon Woods Metropolitan Park’s nature center. “I never thought you could do so much with an Etch A Sketch.”

“I could only draw a line,” Emma says. “But he makes it look so easy.”

George has learned a lot about his subjects by drawing them. Creating art with a continuous line out of silvery powder requires him to focus on details that often go unnoticed.

“I’m always thinking about the next project,” he says. “It makes me wonder what I was doing before I started doing this.”