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Creating Art, On An Etch A Sketch

Jul 5, 2013
Originally published on July 6, 2013 3:19 am

The Etch A Sketch, a popular children’s toy since the 1960s, isn’t just for botched circles and horizontal lines. There are actual Etch A Sketch artists out there.

Most are hobbyists, including Andrea Tilden, who teaches neurobiology at Colby College. She spends her time outside of work on her easel with a special magnifying glasses, creating Etch A Sketch nudes.

Tilden tells us about where her hobby came from and how she manages to make such original pieces on what seems like an unwieldy toy.


  • Andrea Tilden, Etch-A-Sketch artist and professor of neurobiology at Colby College.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing)...with Etch A Sketch. A line appears magically. Shake it upside down, it's fun you'll see. Ohio Art, Etch a Sketch.


The beloved Etch A Sketch turns 53 this month. It's not just for kids. Political consultants have, to their dismay, referenced it. And adults are creating original works of art and replicas of famous ones using it. Andrea Tilden is a professor of neurobiology at Colby College, but she started as an art major. And she now moonlights as an Etch A Sketch artist creating realistic sketches of nudes.

Andrea, I'm looking one right now. It looks like a man, maybe it's a woman's back, though, and there are shadows. But the nuance look like pencil shading.

ANDREA TILDEN: Yeah, the Etch A Sketch does work a lot like a pencil, except that you can primarily do horizontal and vertical lines well, with other lines being a little less precise.

YOUNG: How else do you do it? As we all know, there's the two knobs on the Etch A Sketch and you sort of have to get into a rhythm, turning them to get the little sand line to go where you want it. But is there something else that you do to make these drawings?

TILDEN: It involves drawing an outline that takes quite a bit of time to do because the lines may be circular or certainly not horizontal or vertical. And then a lot of it is very meticulous filling in with shading with back-and-forth lines. I often have to go over small areas multiple times to get a dark-enough image. So it takes a long time. It takes, you know, up to 70 hours to complete one work.

YOUNG: Wow, 70 hours for one work. How do you - what have - you don't want to drop it or tilt it or lose it.

TILDEN: Right. I've made every mistake that is possible to make in doing these. I've got quite an accumulation of finished works, but I've got also things that I've broken, things that I've dropped.

YOUNG: Well, anyone who's tried to do anything half of what you do knows how frustrating it is when you just have gotten something right and (makes sound effect) the thing goes flying off and it's wrecked.

TILDEN: Yeah, that happens to me all the time. I think in every drawing I make a mess of things. And that's my challenge, is to try to make it work. You know, it's all one continuous line. Every single drawing is one continuous line. And there's lots of room for error. I have to wear very strong reading glasses just to keep track of where the stylus is. But I lose the stylus. I've made all sorts of mistakes. But some of them I can come back from. So most drawing mistakes, I can work around and just rework the drawings so that my mistakes get incorporated.

YOUNG: There are a couple - I'm looking at a beautiful tight picture of an eye, a beautiful eye. There's the eyelashes, eyebrow. It almost looks Andy Warhol-esque. But then the nudes, again, are very realistic. They look very much like art student sketches. Why the nudes?

TILDEN: I started this when I was on sabbatical a couple of years ago. That's why I had time to do 70-hour images. But my last sabbatical was when my daughter was about 6 years old, and I did a long series of naked Barbie dolls. That was my project at drawings. So it's a longstanding theme in my work.

YOUNG: It's funny. I can just see a sketching class, and you know, the camera pans and everyone is at their pads with their pencils and then it rests on you, you know, with your Etch A Sketch...


YOUNG: ...doing a model.


YOUNG: I understand, though, you do disable something on the Etch A Sketch so that you don't lose things?

TILDEN: Yes. So when I'm finished with a drawing, I have to take apart the Etch A Sketch. Then I take the glass top off, and that's the part where the drawing is, clean out the inside, which involves vacuuming out the aluminum dust. And the aluminum dust is the thing that makes the whitish coating.


TILDEN: And then I have to disable the knobs. So I have to cut the wires that connect the stylus to the knobs. And then I reassemble the whole thing. And then it can be shaken and the knobs can be turned. And it's pretty permanent after that. I've shipped them across the country and they're fine.

YOUNG: Andrea Tilden, neurobiology professor at Colby College by day, Etch A Sketch artist by night. You can see more of her Etch A Sketch nudes at They really are quite beautiful. Andrea, thanks so much.

TILDEN: Thank you very much.


And, Robin, I am looking at this Etch A Sketch art on And wow, this "Mona Lisa" is just amazing.

YOUNG: It's amazing.

HOBSON: I feel like I had a hard time making a perfect square on one of these things.

YOUNG: I couldn't write my name...


YOUNG: ...when I was a kid. But now it may be something to pickup over the weekend. It's just beautiful. Go look at This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: And I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.